Masters of the Air Finally Lands at Apple TV

Masters of the Air Finally Lands at Apple TV

Masters of the Air Finally Lands at Apple TV

Finally, nearly ten years after Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg floated the idea of a third World War II series — this one focusing on the air war — Masters of the Air dropped on Apple TV+ on Friday. The first two episodes are now available at the streaming service, with the remaining seven arriving weekly.

Two WWII miniseries from Hanks and Spielberg preceded Masters: Band of Brothers (2001), which was based upon historian Steven Ambrose’s book about “Easy Company” of the 101st Airborne Division. The series The Pacific followed in 2010 as a sort of companion piece to Band of Brothers, telling the stories of Marines in the Pacific theater.

But while those series were both critical successes, Spielberg’s father Arnold wanted more about the air war. A veteran of the Army Air Forces in WWII, the elder Spielberg told his son:

Well, that’s a great series. But where’s the Air Force?

So Spielberg and Tom Hanks turned to a 2006 nonfiction book by historian Donald L. Miller, Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany.

In 2016, Hanks, Spielberg, and screenwriter John Orloff pitched the first three episodes to HBO. HBO balked at the cost; however, Apple stepped in and saved the series. While the network did not disclose the final cost, Variety reported that the first three episodes cost Apple $300 million.

The series contains nine episodes in total.

Sadly, Arnold Spielberg did not live to see his son Steven’s paean to the bomber boys of World War II. He died in 2020 at the age of 103.


Why Masters of the Air Matters

Focusing on both fictional and real members of the Eighth Army Air Force in 1943, Masters of the Air tells the story of the “Bloody Hundredth” bomb group. Flying in B-17 “Flying Fortresses,” these men launched daytime raids from bases in England — first to attack German U-boats in the Atlantic and later to help cripple the Luftwaffe in the run-up to D-Day in 1944. After D-Day the Bloody Hundredth helped to destroy the German war economy by bombing oil refineries, canals, and railroads.

As author Miller said:

That’s something that a lot of people don’t realize—the role that the air force played in helping to shorten the war. 

Bomber crews in the early days of the air war experienced enormous casualty rates, with an estimated 77% of the Eighth AAF injured, captured, or killed. The total number of fatalities was over 26,000 — higher than that of the entire U.S. Marine Corps during World War II.

Plus, the flying conditions were horrific. The unheated planes flew 25,000 feet above ground, plunging their ten-man crews into thin air and subzero temperatures. As Miller told Time:

There were no medics on the plane. Oxygen masks froze. Guys carried morphine, but did not use it very well. All you could do is put a wounded comrade on the freezing floor of the plane and hope you got back.

What made the 25 missions flown by the Bloody Hundredth crews so deadly was the fact that the Army Air Force didn’t use fighter escorts at that time. While the “Forts” bristled with 50-caliber guns all around, they lumbered in comparison to the Luftwaffe fighter planes that attacked them from all angles.

But first the crews had to survive the flak from anti-aircraft guns they encountered at their targets. If they got past that danger, then they would encounter the fighter pilots without the protection of escorts.


My Father’s Air War

Like Arnold Spielberg, my father was also a veteran of the air war in World War II. Sadly, he didn’t live to see Masters of the Air either, having passed away in 2019 at the age of 95.

The circumstances of Dad’s air war were different than those depicted in Masters. For example, he was part of the 15th Army Air Force stationed in Italy in 1944. Plus, the B-17s of his squadron were protected by fighter escorts — the famous Tuskegee Airmen “Red Tails.” As a result they were able to complete 50 missions rather than 25.

Masters of the Air; Dad in WWII

Personal photo.

But the conditions aboard the B-17s hadn’t changed. Dad still needed to be on oxygen at altitude, and wore a heated flight suit and boots at his battle station in the plane’s top turret. And while the Red Tails in their speedy P-51s provided some defense against the fighters, there was scant protection against the anti-aircraft guns. In fact, Dad said that flak was the most dangerous part of the missions they faced. Their plane sustained flak damage after every mission.

He saw other Flying Fortresses go down in flames. The crew also experienced near misses with other bombers while flying in their tight formations. And the stories of dead ball turret gunners being washed out with hoses back at the base were true.

As Callum Turner, one of the two lead actors in Masters of the Air told the New York Times:

It’s atrocious what they had to face, the most violent space a human could have ever put themselves in. 

If the mission scenes depicted in the first two episodes of Masters are close to reality, they should give us eternal appreciation for what these men endured for the nation some 80 years ago.

My father rarely spoke of the war to me, although he would share his stories with my husband. He was old school like that — women should be protected from hearing about such things. But he told me that the Army Air Force tried to get him to re-enlist.

He flatly refused. “I’m no hero,” he told them.

No, Dad, you were. You really were.


Featured image: composite of personal photos.

Written by

Kim is a pint-sized patriot who packs some big contradictions. She is a Baby Boomer who never became a hippie, an active Republican who first registered as a Democrat (okay, it was to help a sorority sister's father in his run for sheriff), and a devout Lutheran who practices yoga. Growing up in small-town Indiana, now living in the Kansas City metro, Kim is a conservative Midwestern gal whose heart is also in the Seattle area, where her eldest daughter, son-in-law, and grandson live. Kim is a working speech pathologist who left school system employment behind to subcontract to an agency, and has never looked back. She describes her conservatism as falling in the mold of Russell Kirk's Ten Conservative Principles. Don't know what they are? Google them!

  • American Human says:

    I read about this in the UK Daily Mail. The article complained that the series didn’t depict the RAF’s contributions in the air war. Maybe not, but having seen many movies and series about WWII, the series produced by the British hardly show the contributions of the Americans either. They will show them as vaguely unintelligent braggarts who only want to steal their women.

  • Liz says:

    I’m looking forward to watching this (we’re big Band of Brothers fans, I’ve seen it at least 20 times, my husband and our youngest son are taking the organized BoB tour of Europe this summer).
    My dad was also in the big war (he was a fighter pilot, Pacific theater though).
    He never liked war movies, any time I’ve sat through one with him he’d say it was bull*t (he was in three wars, WWII, Korea, and 3 tours in Vietnam). I don’t know if he would like this series, but I suspect our family will.

  • Liz says:

    Wonder if Jimmy Stewart would’ve liked it.
    He’s worth a mention. 🙂

  • NTSOG says:

    “What made the 25 missions flown by the Bloody Hundredth crews so deadly was the fact that the Army Air Force didn’t use fighter escorts at that time.”

    From the start of the war there were no long-range fighters to accompany bombers. The RAF had learned the hard way in 1939 that daylight bombing was extremely costly of men and machines. When the USAAF arrived in the UK their leaders held the opinion that B-17s with their better armament and heavier calibre machine guns [‘Flying Fortresses] would be able to protect themselves better than the RAF whose bombers were armed with .303 calibre weapons. The RAF had switched to night bombing for increased safety. The US bombers flew in daylight and paid a severe price for their attempts to penetrate enemy airspace without fighter cover. It wasn’t until the P38, P47 and especially the P51 were developed that the range of fighters was increased allowing fighters to travel further with the bombers.

  • Doug Purdie says:

    Have you read “Catch 22”? Don’t know if it resembles your father’s experience but, it’s told from the perspective of WWII air-men based in Italy.

    • Liz says:

      I was thinking that too…Joseph Heller (the author) based the novel on his own experience as a bomber pilot stationed in Italy. Kind of curious if the writer’s father knew him.
      (our son was born in Sacile hospital, Sacile is mentioned in the book)

  • draigh says:

    My father was Naval Air. PBY Patrol Bombers as a Pilot. He rarely talked about his experiences in the Pacific. I only heard of two instances. The first was when he was out on patrol in early 1945. The PBY in the next sector radioed they were under attack by six zeroes. Dad’s plane radioed they were on their way to help. A few minutes later they received the following: “Never mind. They ran.” Zeroes did not have self sealing fuel tanks.
    So many of these guys out in the pacific became alcoholics or died from lung cancer later in life. You spent nearly 20 hours in the plane running on adrenaline. Then to come back and get a couple of days off so you drank, smoked, and watched the same movie over again for the 27th time. Then it was back into the air with sheer terror as your companion for another 18 hours or so.

  • Cameron says:

    Sounds like Hollywood is starting to realize that making movies is more important than The Message!™

  • Linn says:

    My Dad was also a B-17 pilot in WWII, 22 years old, when he arrived at Molesworth Airfield, England in 1943. He was with the 303rd BG and had flown 33 missions when the war ended.

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