‘Masters of the Air’ Part Nine: Unreal, impossible, unimaginable

Miguel Ortiz
Mar 15, 2024 6:41 AM PDT
7 minute read
(Apple TV+)

(Apple TV+)


The finale of the incredible “Masters of the Air” didn’t disappoint.

The finale of Masters of the Air opens at the start of 1945 with the Eighth Air Force flying uncontested in the skies over the Reich; the "true masters of the air," as Crosby narrates. However, ground-based air defense was still a threat to the bombers. When Rosie's plane catches fire, he and his surviving crew are forced to bail out. Not keen on dropping into German hands, Rosie keeps the Fort airborne long enough to get close to the Oder River and friendly Soviet lines. After his crew escaped, Rosie abandoned ship and dropped east of the river. This was actually his second time bailing out; in September 1944, Rosie's Fort was damaged by flak over Nuremberg and crashed in Northern France. With a broken arm and nose, he was rescued and flown back to England unconscious. Initially assigned a desk job at wing headquarters after he recovered, Rosie made himself a pest and was returned to the 100th Bomb Group with a promotion to Major and command of the 418th Squadron. On February 3, 1945, after bailing out for a second time and at just 2,000 feet, Rosie fractured the same arm that he broke previously. When three Soviet soldiers came upon the injured American armed with a .45 pistol and thought he was a German, Rosie threw his arms up and shouted everything he could to identify himself. "Americanski! Coca-Cola! Lucky Strike! Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin!" According to author Donald Miller, this earned Rosie a Russian bear hug and kisses on his cheeks.

Rosie leads a mission over Berlin (Apple TV+)

With the allies closing in around the Reich, the Luftwaffe sends the American prisoners of Stalag Luft III on a forced march west. Given just 30 minutes, the POWs dress in their warmest clothes and gather whatever valuables and Red Cross food (that the Germans haven't sabotaged) they can carry. Still, this doesn't stop "Hambone" Hamilton from digging into some tainted food against Bucky's advice. Burning the barracks behind them, the Germans escort their prisoners onto the snowy road at gunpoint. On the road though, the line between guards and prisoners is blurred as Americans help Germans carry their gear and continue through the blizzard. This really did happen, with prisoners carrying weapons and other equipment for their captors during the forced marches. After a night defrosting by a factory furnace and a cramped train ride in box cars, the Americans find themselves at Stalag XIII in Bavaria. There, Buck reunites with his best friend from college, George Neithammer.

The prisoners were forced to march through blistering cold (Apple TV+)

Back at Thorpe Abbotts, Crosby and Douglass desperately await any news of Rosie and his crew. The night that Rosie didn't return, Crosby wrote, "Rosie, the Indomitable, gone." However, even the apparent loss of the 100th's legendary leader isn't enough to keep Cros off the warpath when a B-17 crew is locked out of the equipment room and their parachutes. After gearing the men up, Crosby lights up Capt. Clouter with a fiery reprimand and a face full of his own breakfast.

Rosie sees firsthand what the Nazis are capable of (Apple TV+)

Riding with the Red Army, Rosie begins his long trip back to England. Passing a burning camp, the audience knows exactly what is coming when the Soviet officer hands Rosie a handkerchief "for the smell." With the convoy stuck behind a broken wagon, Rosie stretches his legs in the Zabikowo forced labor camp. The dead and burned bodies, coupled with Hebrew writing and Jewish symbols on the walls, confirm the audience's suspicions and shock Rosie. However, he's more shocked to learn that additional camps, including mass murder facilities, were discovered by the Soviets. Some men in the 100th perpetuated an untrue rumor that Rosie kept flying because he had Jewish family members being held in Nazi concentration camps. In reality, Rosenthal didn't need a personal connection to help lead the bombing campaign against the Germans and their crimes against humanity.

American prisoners sometimes fell prey to strafing by Allied fighters (Apple TV+)

During another forced night march, the American prisoners are strafed by a friendly P-51 Mustang that mistook the column of prisoners for a mass of German troops. Convincing the German commander to stop for the night, Lt. Col. Clark instructs the men to find shelter in a German town. Buck, Bucky, George, and Bill Aring (named Bill in the show, perhaps to avoid confusion with Neithammer) decide to make a break for it. Unlike the dramatic fight with a guard that covered the escape of the other three men, Bucky actually stayed behind because Col. Darr Alike placed him in charge of security operations during the march. Instead of slipping cooly over a wall and into a field, Buck, Neithammer, and Aring actually crawled through a stockade full of manure while Bucky worked a rusty pump, using the squeaking to cover the escape. "It was Chanel No. 5," Buck later said of the manure. "It took the dogs off our scent." Unlike in the show, Miller writes thatNeithammer was separated from Buck and Aring that first night of evasion, was captured, and shot. Still, the depiction of child soldiers armed with empty guns highlights the desperation of Nazi Germany as the Reich capitulated. Rather than coming across American troops at night, Buck and Aring walked by day after they saw an American Piper Cub fly overhead and were guided to the U.S. 45th Division by friendly German farmers.

After keeping them airborne for years, Ken goes for his first ride in a plane (Apple TV+)

Upon Rosie's return to Thorpe Abbotts, the base goes wild with excitement; their indomitable leader was back. After taking in Rosie's odyssey back to England, including a ride aboard Winston Churchill's personal B-24 Liberator named Commando, Crosby shares that his wife is pregnant. Despite Rosie's excitement, Cros can't help but question his suitability for fatherhood given everything he's seen and done in the war (nevermind his nights with Sandra). However, Rosie reminds Cros that their cause is just; the Bomber Boys had to do tough things, but only to stop the atrocities that Rosie witnessed at Zabikowo. Emphasizing this, the 100th undertakes mercy missions to deliver food to civilians in the German-occupied Netherlands. Upon his own return to Thorpe Abbotts, and collecting Bucky's lucky $2 bill, Buck joins Rosie, Crosby, and Douglass on one of the mercy missions. Even crew chief Sgt. Ken Lemmons came along for his first flight ever.

Awaiting liberation in the Stalag (Apple TV+)

Arriving at Stalag VIIA in Moosburg, the fact that the new Americans aren't processed into the camp is another sign of Germany's fall. The Americans are also mixed in with other Allied forces including troops from British and French colonies. Later, a P-51 strafes the guard positions in the camp in advance of an American armored column. During the chaos, the prisoners overwhelm the guards. After acquiring one of the contraband American flags, Bucky climbs the flagpole and rips down the Nazi flag to replace it with the Stars and Stripes. The emotional scene mirrors Bucky's freedom with that of Europe. While it wouldn't have made for as good of an on-screen segment, the true liberation of Stalag VIIA was similarly emotional. The camp guards left on the morning of April 29, 1945, to reinforce the SS in the town. Bullets whizzed through the camp during the battle, but at 1230 hours, Bucky saw Old Glory flying from the steeple of the village church. "My first glimpse of the red, white and blue in 19 months," he later wrote. Crying, thousands of Americans in the camp saluted the flag. When the first Sherman tank broke down the gate, men rushed up to hug and kiss it; a captain emerged from the tank and announced that he had come for his brother who ran up to the tank for the siblings to share an embrace. Another tanker freed his son who was an Army Air Forces lieutenant.

"Stone in my shoe" (Apple TV+)

Coming up on Thorpe Abbott after a successful mercy mission over the blooming Dutch tulip fields, Buck receives confusing landing instructions from a familiar voice; Bucky was back. The "stone in his shoe" was just in time to share his flask with Buck on V-E Day and witness the Wyoming native take a drink. In reality, Buck left England on V-E Day for Hobbs, New Mexico where his father was transferred to and where he met Marge. He received word of Neithammer's death upon his arrival home and started hitchhiking his way to Wyoming the next day to serve as a pallbearer for his friend. Bucky later following Buck to Hobbs to serve as best man at the wedding like he promised. He brought with him a silk parachute for Marge's dress, a major luxury given the wartime rationing. As Marge walked down the aisle with her father, Bucky whispered to Buck, "Where's the ripcord?"

Finally going home (Apple TV+)

With the war over, the 100th begins the process of packing up to go home. After settling in at Thorpe Abbotts and years of brutal fighting, it's a strange feeling for the Americans to be leaving. Despite fights and disagreements, the English communities that they integrated with during the war also find it strange to see the Yanks off. Reflecting on the men who aren't going home with them, Buck and Bucky conduct pre-flight checks for their journey home. We see Rosie, Douglass, and Crosby taking off from Thorpe Abbotts for the last time; Cros also laments the fact that more men of the 100th weren't going home. Leaving behind good friends like Bubbles Payne, Curt Biddick, and many others must have been painful for the men who survived the war as they climbed into the blue sky. However, their legacy of a free world stands as a testament to those immortal masters of the air.


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