Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany

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9780743235440: Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany

Masters of the Air is the deeply personal story of the American bomber boys in World War II who brought the war to Hitler's doorstep. With the narrative power of fiction, Donald Miller takes readers on a harrowing ride through the fire-filled skies over Berlin, Hanover, and Dresden and describes the terrible cost of bombing for the German people.

Fighting at 25,000 feet in thin, freezing air that no warriors had ever encountered before, bomber crews battled new kinds of assaults on body and mind. Air combat was deadly but intermittent: periods of inactivity and anxiety were followed by short bursts of fire and fear. Unlike infantrymen, bomber boys slept on clean sheets, drank beer in local pubs, and danced to the swing music of Glenn Miller's Air Force band, which toured U.S. air bases in England. But they had a much greater chance of dying than ground soldiers. In 1943, an American bomber crewman stood only a one-in-five chance of surviving his tour of duty, twenty-five missions. The Eighth Air Force lost more men in the war than the U.S. Marine Corps.

The bomber crews were an elite group of warriors who were a microcosm of America -- white America, anyway. (African-Americans could not serve in the Eighth Air Force except in a support capacity.) The actor Jimmy Stewart was a bomber boy, and so was the "King of Hollywood," Clark Gable. And the air war was filmed by Oscar-winning director William Wyler and covered by reporters like Andy Rooney and Walter Cronkite, all of whom flew combat missions with the men. The Anglo-American bombing campaign against Nazi Germany was the longest military campaign of World War II, a war within a war. Until Allied soldiers crossed into Germany in the final months of the war, it was the only battle fought inside the German homeland.

Strategic bombing did not win the war, but the war could not have been won without it. American airpower destroyed the rail facilities and oil refineries that supplied the German war machine. The bombing campaign was a shared enterprise: the British flew under the cover of night while American bombers attacked by day, a technique that British commanders thought was suicidal.

Masters of the Air is a story, as well, of life in wartime England and in the German prison camps, where tens of thousands of airmen spent part of the war. It ends with a vivid description of the grisly hunger marches captured airmen were forced to make near the end of the war through the country their bombs destroyed.

Drawn from recent interviews, oral histories, and American, British, German, and other archives, Masters of the Air is an authoritative, deeply moving account of the world's first and only bomber war.

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About the Author:

Donald L. Miller is the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History at Lafayette College and author of nine books, including City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, and Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America. He has hosted, coproduced, or served as historical consultant for more than thirty television documentaries and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications. Visit

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


The Bloody Hundredth

The Eighth Air Force was one of the great fighting forces in the history of warfare. It had the best equipment and the best men, all but a handful of whom were civilian Americans, educated and willing to fight for their country and a cause they understood was in danger -- freedom. It's what made World War II special.


London, October 9, 1943

Maj. John Egan's private war began at breakfast in a London hotel. Egan was on a two-day leave from Thorpe Abbotts, an American bomber base some ninety miles north of London and a short stroll from the Norfolk hamlet that gave it its name. Station #139, as it was officially designated, with its 3,500 fliers and support personnel, was built on a nobleman's estate lands, and the crews flew to war over furrowed fields worked by Sir Rupert Mann's tenant farmers, who lived nearby in crumbling stone cottages heated by open hearths.

Thorpe Abbotts is in East Anglia, a history-haunted region of ancient farms, curving rivers, and low flat marshland. It stretches northward from the spires of Cambridge, to the high-sitting cathedral town of Norwich, and eastward to Great Yarmouth, an industrial port on the black waters of the North Sea. With its drainage ditches, wooden windmills, and sweeping fens, this low-lying slice of England brings to mind nearby Holland, just across the water.

It is a haunch of land that sticks out into the sea, pointed, in the war years, like a raised hatchet at the enemy. And its drained fields made good airbases from which to strike deep into the German Reich. A century or so behind London in its pace and personality, it had been transformed by the war into one of the great battlefronts of the world, a war front unlike any other in history.

This was an air front. From recently built bases in East Anglia, a new kind of warfare was being waged -- high-altitude strategic bombing. It was a singular event in the history of warfare, unprecedented and never to be repeated. The technology needed to fight a prolonged, full-scale bomber war was not available until the early 1940s and, by the closing days of that first-ever bomber war, was already being rendered obsolete by jet engine aircraft, rocket-powered missiles, and atomic bombs. In the thin, freezing air over northwestern Europe, airmen bled and died in an environment that no warriors had ever experienced. It was air war fought not at 12,000 feet, as in World War I, but at altitudes two and three times that, up near the stratosphere where the elements were even more dangerous than the enemy. In this brilliantly blue battlefield, the cold killed, the air was unbreathable, and the sun exposed bombers to swift violence from German fighter planes and ground guns. This endless, unfamiliar killing space added a new dimension to the ordeal of combat, causing many emotional and physical problems that fighting men experienced for the first time ever.

For most airmen, flying was as strange as fighting. Before enlisting, thousands of American fliers had never set foot in an airplane or fired a shot at anything more threatening than a squirrel. A new type of warfare, it gave birth to a new type of medicine -- air medicine. Its pioneering psychiatrists and surgeons worked in hospitals and clinics not far from the bomber bases, places where men were sent when frostbite mauled their faces and fingers or when trauma and terror brought them down.

Bomber warfare was intermittent warfare. Bouts of inactivity and boredom were followed by short bursts of fury and fear; and men returned from sky fights to clean sheets, hot food, and adoring English girls. In this incredible war, a boy of nineteen or twenty could be fighting for his life over Berlin at eleven o'clock in the morning and be at a London hotel with the date of his dreams at nine that evening. Some infantrymen envied the airmen's comforts, but as a character in an American navigator's novel asks, "How many infantry guys do you think would be heading for the front lines if you gave them a plane with full gas tanks?" Sold to the American public as a quicker, more decisive way of winning than slogging it out on the ground, the air war became a slow, brutal battle of attrition.

John Egan was commander of a squadron of B-17 Flying Fortresses, one of the most fearsome killing machines in the world at that time. He was a bomber boy; destruction was his occupation. And like most other bomber crewmen, he went about his work without a quiver of conscience, convinced he was fighting for a noble cause. He also killed in order not to be killed.

Egan had been flying combat missions for five months in the most dangerous air theater of the war, the "Big Leagues," the men called it; and this was his first extended leave from the fight -- although it hardly felt like a reprieve. That night, the German air force, the Luftwaffe, plastered the city, setting off fires all around his hotel. It was his first time under the bombs and he found it impossible to sleep, with the screaming sirens and the thundering concussions.

Egan was attached to the Eighth Air Force, a bomber command formed at Savannah Army Air Base in Georgia in the month after Pearl Harbor to deliver America's first blow against the Nazi homeland. From its unpromising beginnings, it was fast becoming one of the greatest striking forces in history. Egan had arrived in England in the spring of 1943, a year after the first men and machines of the Eighth had begun occupying bases handed over to them by the RAF -- the Royal Air Force -- whose bombers had been hammering German cities since 1940. Each numbered Bombardment Group (BG) -- his was the 100th -- was made up of four squadrons of eight to twelve four-engine bombers, called "heavies," and occupied its own air station, either in East Anglia or the Midlands, directly north of London, around the town of Bedford.

For a time in 1943, the Eighth was assigned four Bomb Groups equipped with twin-engine B-26 Marauders, which were used primarily for low- and medium-level bombing, with mixed results. But in October of that year, these small Marauder units were transferred to another British-based American air command -- the Ninth Air Force, which was being built up to provide close air support for the cross-Channel invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. From this point until the end of the war, all Eighth Air Force bombers were either Fortresses or B-24 Liberators, the only American bombers designed for long-range, high-altitude strikes. But the Eighth did retain its own Fighter Command to provide escort aircraft for its bombers on shallow-penetration missions into Northern Europe. Its pilots flew single-engine P-47 Thunderbolts and twin-engine P-38 Lightnings, and operated from bases located in the vicinity of the bomber stations.

When the 100th Bomb Group flew into combat, it was usually accompanied by two other bomb groups from nearby bases, the 390th and the 95th, the three groups forming the 13th Combat Wing. A combat wing was one small part of a formation of many hundreds of bombers and fighter escorts that shook the earth under the English villagers who spilled out of their cottages at dawn to watch the Americans head out "to hit the Hun."

"No one . . . could fail to thrill at the sight of the great phalanxes streaming away from their East Anglian airfields," wrote the historian John Keegan, a boy growing up in England during the war. "Squadron after squadron, they rose to circle into groups and wings and then set off southeastward for the sea passage to their targets, a shimmering and winking constellation of aerial grace and military power, trailing a cirrus of pure white condensation from 600 wing tips against the deep blue of English summer skies. Three thousand of America's best and brightest airmen were cast aloft by each mission, ten to a 'ship,' every ship with a characteristic nickname, often based on a song title, like My Prayer; or a line from a film, like 'I am Tondelayo.' "

On the flight to the coast, "we turned on the BBC to listen to all the sentimental songs of the day," recalled co-pilot Bernard R. Jacobs of Napa, California. Passing over the eternally green English countryside, it seemed strange to Jacobs that such a tranquil-looking land was the staging area for a campaign of unimaginable slaughter, destruction such as the world had never seen.

Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt had recently ended all voluntary enlistments, the Eighth Air Force was still an elite outfit, made up almost entirely of volunteers, men who had signed up before the president's order or highly qualified men who were snapped up by Air Force recruiters after they were drafted by the Army but before they were given a specific assignment. Eighth Air Force bomber crews were made up of men from every part of America and nearly every station in life. There were Harvard history majors and West Virginia coal miners, Wall Street lawyers and Oklahoma cow punchers, Hollywood idols and football heroes. The actor Jimmy Stewart was a bomber boy and so was the "King of Hollywood," Clark Gable. Both served beside men and boys who had washed office windows in Manhattan or loaded coal cars in Pennsylvania -- Poles and Italians, Swedes and Germans, Greeks and Lithuanians, Native Americans and Spanish-Americans, but not African-Americans, for official Air Force policy prevented blacks from flying in combat units of the Eighth Air Force. In the claustrophobic compartments of the heavy bombers, in the crucible of combat, Catholics and Jews, Englishmen and Irishmen, became brothers in spirit, melded together by a desire not to die. In bomber warfare, the ability to survive, and to fight off fear, depended as much on the character of the crew as on the personality of the individual. "Perhaps at no time in the history of warfare," wrote Starr Smith, former Eighth Air Force intelligence officer, "has there been such a relations...

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