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‘Masters of the Air’ Part Seven: Punching through

In the 7th episode of Masters of the Air, the men from the 100th Bomb Group face the struggle of survival in the Stalag Luft III POW camp.
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(Apple TV+)

Reunited with Buck Cleven, Bucky Egan and other men from the 100th Bomb Group, including Crank Cruikshank, Frank Murphy, Hambone Hamilton and Benny DeMarco, face the struggle of survival in the Stalag Luft III POW camp. Their German captors, called “goons” by the prisoners, fed them little more than cabbage water and moldy rye bread. For protein, POWs relied on canned meat in Red Cross packages…or whatever they could catch in the Stalag, as DeMarco was shocked to learn.

Despite having luxuries like record players, a library, and even a theater, life in a Stalag for American POWs was tough (Apple TV+)

Maintaining military order and discipline, American POWs organized under their ranking officers. Egan and Cleven led efforts to gather intelligence and disseminate it throughout the camp via makeshift radios and secret notes. Although they are depicted as being led by Lt. Col. Albert “Bub” Clark in the show, Donald Miller’s Masters of the Air book notes that the Americans in the West Compound of Stalag Luft III were under the command of Col. Darr “Pappy” Alkire, the first commander of the 100th Bomb Group in the United States before the unit left for England. He was shot down on his 19th mission in January 1944.

Crosby’s position as Group Navigator largely kept him from flying missions (Apple TV+)

Back at Thorpe Abbotts, heavy casualties in the skies over Europe mean a constant stream of replacement aircrews arriving at the base. Harry Crosby later recalled one pilot who arrived in the afternoon, was assigned to a barracks, flew his first mission the next morning before he’d unpacked his bags, and was shot down; he became known as “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” These new arrivals relied on experienced leaders like Rosie Rosenthal to show them the ropes and give them a chance of making it to 25 missions. Still, there was a way to go home alive without completing a tour of duty.

Quinn and Bailey return to Thorpe Abbotts after evading capture (Apple TV+)

After evading capture and returning safely to England, Sergeants Williams Quinn and Chas Bailey are given a ticket home to prevent any compromise of the European resistance members who helped them. Notably, future aviation legend Chuck Yeager escaped back to England after being shot down and raised hell all the way up the chain of command to Gen. Eisenhower who eventually allowed the West Virginian to fly combat missions again.

Rosie watches as the 100th returns on Black Monday (Apple TV+)

On March 6, 1944, the Eighth Air Force launched its 250th combat mission and first maximum-effort daylight raid on Berlin. A reinforced Luftwaffe, defending their capital city, showed the bombers no mercy. The Bloody Hundredth lost 150 men, over half of its fighting force. As Rosie would later learn, Black Monday represented a change in strategy by the Eighth’s new commander, Maj. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle; achieve air superiority by luring the Luftwaffe into the sky with bombers and shooting them down. This made Doolittle extremely unpopular with bomber groups like the 100th, a sentiment that was worsened when he extended their tours of duty from 25 to 30 missions; Doolittle reasoned that it was wasteful to send experienced airmen home after they reached their peak efficiency.

To cope with the rising casualties and plummeting morale, airmen turned to drinking, fighting and sex. In his book, A Wing and a Prayer, Crosby recounts the close relationship he had with a British officer named Landra Wingate (depicted as Sandra Westgate in the Masters of the Air show). In the book, Miller writes that Crosby toured London after the Schweinfurt mission with an Iowa girl named Dot whom he had been in love with before he met his wife, Jean. The English capital was a popular destination for men to blow off steam on pass. Women of the night would even feel the uniforms of their potential clients to determine how much to charge; American uniforms were made of nicer material than their British counterparts, and the uniforms of better paid officers were nicer still.

Lt. Col. Clark and his senior leaders, including Bucky and Buck, are cautioned against further escape attempts to prevent the SS from taking over the Stalag from the Luftwaffe (Apple TV+)

In the Stalag, Bucky works the secret underground of the camp to acquire parts for Buck to assemble a crystal radio. Buck also receives a letter from Marge who agrees to marry him; conversely, Bucky comes to the difficult realization that he won’t be receiving letters like his friend. Regardless, the two men work together to build Buck’s radio while debating the pros and cons of an escape attempt and the chances of survival. Following the “Great Escape” by the British and Commonwealth airmen in the North Compound of Stalag Luft III, Buck and Bucky brace themselves for further challenges in captivity.

The P-51 Mustang, a little friend to the big bombers, changed the air war in Europe (U.S. Air Force)

Two days after Black Monday, the 100th flies a second mission to Berlin. In reality, Col. Chick Harding was rushed to the hospital on March 6, 1944 for a severe case of gallstones which he had been ignoring. Lt. Col. John Bennett, who previously commanded the 349th Squadron and had just been promoted to Air Exec by Harding on March 5, 1944, was thrown into command of the 100th and led the group on Black Monday; he did so again on the return mission on March 8, 1944. Luckily for Rosie and his crew, on their 25th mission, P-51 fighters had the range and performance to escort the bombers all the way to Berlin, intercept the German fighters, and return to England.

Rosie returns from his 25th mission (Apple TV+)

Exempt from the increase in tour requirements, Rosie and his crew are treated to a celebration and have their tickets home. However, feeling that his work in Europe is incomplete, Rosie decides to stay and takes command of the 350th Squadron. In reality, he didn’t take command until May 1944. As they continue to fly bait missions in preparation for D-Day, the 100th will rely on the leadership, experience, and knowledge of men like Rosie and Crosby to get through.