Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have once again done a public service.
Like “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” before it, the new series “Masters of the Air” is a profound act of devotion to the memory of the men who won World War II, this time focused on the air war in Europe.
Telling the story of a nation’s history will always depend on popularizers more than academic historians (especially when the latter don’t like their country’s history very much), and Spielberg and Hanks are better popularizers than anyone has cause to expect.
“Masters” tells the story of the 100th Bomber Group of the 8th Air Force, known as the “Bloody 100th,” not for the destruction it wrought, but the punishment it took in some of the most hazardous duty of the war.
No one has ever reproduced the story, the machines, the conditions and the missions of this aspect of the war as accurately and carefully before, and we can assume, no one ever will again.
Ten years in the making with a $250 million budget, this is a production at the very highest level of technical proficiency. The B-17s — the long-range bombers known as Flying Fortresses, or “Forts” for short — steal the show. They are lovingly reproduced and often look like something out of a painting.
Which doesn’t obscure their deadly purpose or the deadly business of flying one over hostile territory.
If nothing else, “Masters” brings home the experience of flying in a tin can breathing through primitive air masks in below-zero temperatures, while getting shot at by German anti-aircraft guns and trying to fend off ferocious assaults from much faster German fighters. It is as terrifying as it sounds.
Relying on Air Force records, the show’s makers have obsessively reproduced the exact position of each plane and its precise fate during missions. As the screenwriter John Orloff has explained, they felt a factual rendering was mandatory; this wasn’t “Star Wars” — a made-up conflict involving fictional people — but real battles in which Americans gave their last full measure of devotion.
Orloff notes that about three months after its arrival in England, 34 of the 100th’s 36 crews had been shot down. The tour of duty was 25 missions, but the aviators made it through just 11 on average.
In contrast to the British who bombed at night, the U.S. engaged in daylight bombing that was supposed to be precision in nature.
Without protection from fighter planes, which wasn’t available at the beginning, this made the B-17s sitting ducks. Sometimes the missions involved hitting industrial sites, sometimes they targeted cities themselves and German morale, sometimes they were designed to bait the Luftwaffe into combat so it could be degraded.
With the introduction of the long-range P-51 fighters that could properly defend the B-17s, the balance of the air war shifted decisively in 1944.
There’s been a long-running debate about the morality and efficacy of the Allied bombing campaign. There’s no doubt that there was a real moral cost to the campaign and its wanton destruction.
Unfortunately, though, there was no easy way to take down a totalitarian power that had come to dominate the European continent, and for a long time, strategic bombing was our only serious means to attack the Nazis directly.
As for the efficacy, if nothing else, the campaign diverted massive Nazi resources to air defense.
But it achieved more than that.
“By 1945,” military historian Cathal Nolan writes, “the bombers would destroy Germany’s transportation systems and demolish most vital war industries, especially oil supply and refining, and effectively end fighter production.” He continues, “Neither Germany nor Japan could by the end of their respective wars move military supplies, complete production or deploy weapons and divisions as they wanted, even inside their homelands.”
Young American men gave their all in harrowing conditions to make this contribution to victory. “Masters” is their story as it deserves to be told.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.