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August 31, 2023

"Masters of the Air" is Finally Here!

By Joel R Kolander

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If you’re into the firearms or military history communities, chances are you have viewed and thoroughly enjoyed the HBO hit series “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.” Both of the multi-episode miniseries were superbly done, from the acting and storyline to the excitement and period correct elements, and each earned significant acclaim even outside military and firearms communities. With the behind-the-scenes involvement of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, who also paired in 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, each series began life with a Hollywood pedigree few can match.

This flight jacket belonged to Lt. Willam Thomas "Tommy" Burruss who served the 8th Air Force, 100th Bomber Group as a navigator on the B-17G "Faithful Forever" piloted by Leo Ross.

Unfortunately, those were released some time ago. Band of Brothers aired in 2001 and The Pacific followed in 2010, and while there have been some great war movies released since then (Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, Hacksaw Ridge, and 1917 immediately come to mind), audiences have not had the pleasure of another miniseries, which inherently brings the ability to tell a story several times longer than a single 2-3 hour feature film.

"Masters of the Air" looks to break that hiatus. Heralded as a “companion piece” to "Band of Brothers" and "The Pacific" (with some sources calling it an outright sequel), the upcoming miniseries is finally scheduled to premiere Sept 20, 2023 on Apple TV. This is a relief to those anticipating the series, which has suffered a seemingly endless supply of setbacks and delays dating back to 2013.

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It pulls its inspiration from Donald L. Miller’s book “Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany,” which tells the story of the American 8th Air Force as they fly their daylight bombing missions against a determined Nazi foe in the freezing battlefield miles above the earth.

Miller's book of the same name provides the inspiration for the series.

Miller’s book is non-fiction with its events “drawn from recent interviews, oral histories, and American British, German, and other archives.” Not a surprise given his chops as a historian, and it comes heralded by numerous fellow historians and authors. Will the series live up to the acclaim of the book? Will it live up to the almost legendary status of Band of Brothers and The Pacific? Unfortunately, with exclusive initial distribution on AppleTV, it looks like many of us will have to wait to find out.

The $250 million, nine-episode miniseries debut isn’t until September 20th, but let’s take a look at what we know so far.

Rock Island Auction regularly offers important pieces of military aviation history like this M1911 pistol, A2 flight jacket, and personal effects of "Ploesti Raid" pilot Lt. Homer S Gentry Jr.

Masters of the Air Returns All-Star Staff

Anything setting itself up as a companion piece/sequel/next installment to two of the most beloved military “movies” of all time is an environment potentially ripe for disappointment. Thankfully “Masters of the Air” has started off on the right foot, and one that should have fans of the previous two series breathing a sigh of relief if not hyperventilating with excitement. In addition to both Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks returning to the project, so will the instrumental but lesser-known Gary Goetzman.

It should also be pleasing to fans that “Masters of the Air” is being written by John Orloff, who also penned Band of Brothers (the show, not the book on which it is based, which was written by Stephen Ambrose). Blake Neely is returning to his score writing duties after “The Pacific,” but no word on his co-composers Geoff Zanelli and soundtrack superstar Hans Zimmer.

Neely confirms his involvement in Masters of the Air at the 29:00 mark of this video.

MotA is Going to Be INTENSE

As mentioned earlier, the project originally began in 2013, but it was under the working title “The Mighty Eighth” and was earmarked for HBO. In the decade that fans have been waiting, there has only been ONE trailer released for the series, and that was NINE years ago. Not even publicity stills. Less than a month from the scheduled release date, and fans are still stymied at the lack of publicity for this project (though Apple TV did include it among a dozen other shows in a promotion for the streaming service as a whole).

Incredulity aside, the one trailer that does exist, shows that this is not going to be some relaxing period drama. The clip, at just over 3 minutes long, becomes a simultaneous exercise for holding one’s breath and gaining an immediate clarity regarding the high attrition rates of World War 2 airmen.

This kind of realism serves as a grim reminder for what period servicemen endured, and should not be a disappointment to fans of the previous series, who rightfully treat those sacrifices with reverence.

What is Masters of the Air about?

Much how AppleTV is tight-lipped regarding any sort of promotional images, they also have yet to unveil any sort of plot synopsis. That said, since the series will be based on the book which is about real events in World War 2, audiences should be able to make a few safe assumptions.

As the title of the book indicates, this series will revolve around the incomprehensibly brave airmen of the U.S. Army’s 8th Air Force, specifically the 100th Bomber Group of B-17 Flying Fortress planes, and an airman named Major Gale “Bucky” Winston Cleven. Cleven’s service is well documented. As the 100th BG was stationed in Thorpe Abbotts, Norfolk, it’s safe to assume that a good portion of the series will be set in England. This is also confirmed by numerous reports of a $5 million dollar set being built to replicate a World War 2 era U.S. airbase in Buckinghamshire. Before-and-after photos shown in the Daily Mail are impressive to say the least, and reveal plenty of Nissen huts, period vehicles, and no shortage of filming studio buildings.

SPOILER ALERT: No one has any idea of what parts of Cleven’s life are going to be covered in this miniseries. What follows next are some guesses based on some of the documented death-defying missions from Cleven’s military career in combination with some behind-the-scenes photos. If you want to be 100% surprised when you watch the series, skip ahead to the next section.

In the midst of this pastoral farmland of east England, was the roar of engines as the bomber group departed on their many missions. If the show follows Major Cleven’s personal history, it will likely include his first mission to Bremen on June 25, 1943, actions for which he earned the Distinguished Service Cross. One could also safely assume the series will include the raid on Regensburg of August 17 the same year, when the 100th Bomber Group lost nine B-17 planes in a single day.

This "That's All Brother" A2 flight jacket also belonged to a member of the 100th Bomber Group, Lt. Thomas D. Williams."

A return raid to Bremen on October 8th and 10th saw another 7 planes lost, and was dubbed “Black Week” by the group. Sometime between the ill-fated Regensburg raid and Black Week, the group took up the nickname, “The Bloody 100th.”

Cleven is also known to have spent some time in Germany as a POW, and with behind-the-scenes photos showing a set of the Stalag Luft Sagan III prison camp, it’s a safe assumption that part of his life is going to be part of the series. There are also several fantastic anecdotes about who Bucky was as a man. After reading several, written in the wonderfully understated language of a bygone era, one can only think that the series would be doing his memory a disservice with their omission. This site has a lot of behind-the-scenes photos as shared by cast and crew members.

No detail was overlooked in the set depicting Stalag Luft Sagan 3.

What Guns Are in Masters of the Air?

There are a few guns visible in the VERY few images that AppleTV has released. Let’s take a look.

The B-17 Flying Fortress bomber was known as the Flying Fortress for a reason. Each version more heavily armed than the last, in 1943 Bucky Clevens would have likely found himself aboard some version of the B-17F. The most produced version, the B17-G didn’t find itself in production until that August. The trailer shown above shows us at least two of the well-known armaments aboard the “Flying Hedgehog.”

M2 - The Ma Deuce

Specifically, this would be the AN/M2, which is the version of the M2 that John Moses Browning designed to feed from either side. The AN/M2 was adopted for “Army/Navy” use with 23 fewer pounds than its M2HB counterpart and a higher rate of fire, both desirable traits for use in planes. The design served for the entirety of World War 2. It is a classic World War 2 armament and a necessary component of any story involving the B-17.

AN-M57 General Purpose Bomb, 250lb

Please note that this article is written by more of a small arms guy than a “bombs of World War 2” kind of guy. If you know what the bomb shown is likely to be, please leave it in the comments. That said, the bomb bay in the screen capture appears to be just over two strides long, approximately 8-10 feet, and the bomb appears to be just less than half that length. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum cites the length of the M30 100lb bomb as 3 feet, 4 ½ inches long, perhaps a bit too short for what’s shown here. The M57, 250lb bomb is 4-foot, 4-inches in length, and seems to be a better guess. Either would have the distinct metal box fins shown, but the M57 was part of a new series of bombs introduced in 1943, appropriate for the series’ timeline.

M8 Flare Gun

It’s not as sexy as the Ma Deuce or 250-lb bombs, but when we’re working with limited images and footage, we’ll take what we can get. The AN-M8 was the standard issue flare gun during World War 2, so it absolutely makes sense to see it in this period series. The steel barrel and aluminum frame ended in Bakelite grips, with the final top-break mechanism launching the 37mm flares.

The barrel of an AN-M8 included several lugs so it could be twisted and locked into a special port in the fuselage. This M1 aircraft mount would allow the flares to be safely fired outside the plane to communicate when radios were not an option. Fun fact: thousands of AN-M8 flare guns, including the example in the Smithsonian, were manufactured by Eureka Vacuum Cleaner Co.

B-17 Upper Turret

The upper turret on the B-17 was located on the top of the aircraft just aft (rearward) of the flight deck. Unlike the waist gunner, the upper turret brought into play two .50 cal M2 machine guns. Using an electro-hydraulic system, the operator could quickly control both the elevation and traverse of the guns. The firepower of tandem guns and their mobility was a great boon to B-17 crews against Luftwaffe pilots who had been trained to attack from the front in order to take advantage of the plane’s previously light armaments and critical components (engines, cockpit, etc).

M1911A1 Pistol

The scarce and valuable Singer M1911A1 pistol.

While an M1911A1 pistol is not seen in any of the limited promotional material, one can safely assume that the standard issue sidearm of WW2 is going to be making an appearance at some point. Fun Fact: The rare M1911A1 pistols made by Singer Sewing Machine were issued almost entirely to the Army Air Corps early in World War 2.  With only 500 ever made, combined with the high attrition rates of airmen, few of the pistols survive today. The superb example shown above sold for $195,500 in May 2021.

Masters of the Air Release Date!

It’s hard not to be excited for another series that threatens to touch the greatness of “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.” There’s so much promise! Spielberg and Hanks are back, a young talented cast of up-and-comers has been chosen, and the subject matter is exciting and itching to be told.

The series is supposed to premiere on September 20th and, after a decade of waiting and minimal marketing, fans are still holding out hope that this time the release date will remain firm. If it does, viewers are in for a heckuva ride and the harrowing history of a military unit that experienced massive casualties and loss during what was arguably the high water mark for Nazi Germany. In the tradition of its miniseries predecessors, Masters of the Air should aspire to shine a light on the history, convey its significance, and become a memorial of sorts for the men who lived and died during it.


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