Masters of the Air: Tribute to the Mighty Eighth

HBO to bring stories of WWII aviators to life.

Masters of the Air TV B-17

Masters of the Air TV B-17

In the thin air above 20,000 feet, with German fighters bearing down from all directions, the inside of an unpressurized American bomber in World War II was an altogether foreign world. Freezing cold, oxygen-deprived and hundreds of miles from the nearest friendly fighter escort, the bombers faced desperate odds with each mission deep into enemy territory. It's a story we imagine we know well — but then, we've never seen or heard it told quite like this.

Building on the successful formula they established with the Academy Award-winning film Saving Private Ryan and the hit HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are teaming up once again, this time to tell the engrossing personal stories of the men who fought and sometimes died over Nazi-­occupied Europe flying with America's famed Eighth Air Force.

And what an account it will be. As you probably know already, World War II could not have been won without the Eighth Air Force's formidable B-17 Flying Fortresses (the "Boeings," the Luftwaffe called them), which pounded Germany by day while the British bombed at night. As America's main strategic bomber command, the Mighty Eighth brought Nazi Germany to its knees with an unrelenting aerial assault from bases in eastern England involving tens of thousands of airplanes and hundreds of thousands of men. Never before in the history of warfare has such a fearsome force been unleashed on an enemy — nor is it likely in the post-nuclear era that the world will ever again witness such an awesome aerial display.

That's not to say that the young American men inside the bombers flew without fear. The Eighth Air Force's B-17s and B-24s launched on audaciously daring missions over heavily defended Europe to strike at the heart of Adolf Hitler's industrial war-­making capacity. Daylight strategic bombing on such a massive scale was an untested idea at the start of World War II, but military commanders including legendary American generals like Ira Eaker and Jimmy Doolittle knew that, while the plan was risky, it was also the surest way to inflict crippling damage on Hitler's ability to wage war.

The Mighty Eighth would eventually achieve its objectives through relentless bombing of German airplane factories, submarine pens, oil refineries, railway yards, ball bearing production facilities and other industrial targets deemed central to the Nazi war effort. In the beginning it would do it alone, without fighter escorts, another untested approach. But against the dug-in Nazis there seemed no other way. As President Franklin Roosevelt put it in 1943, "Hitler built walls around his ‘Fortress Europe' but he forgot to put a roof on it."

WAR IN THE LIVING ROOM

With a purported budget of $500 million (more than seven times that of Saving Private Ryan) the 10-part HBO miniseries Masters of the Air is poised to become the most expensive production in television history as Spielberg and Hanks endeavor to produce a visually stunning and at times viscerally heart-rending tribute to the brave aircrews who flew into the teeth of Nazi air defenses, suffering massive losses of aircraft and lives while helping to make the Allied invasion of Europe on D-Day possible.

The TV series, they say, will avoid using composite characters, focusing instead on the real stories of the actual figures who flew with Eighth Air Force, and in particular the "Bloody Hundredth" bomb group, one of the hardest hitting — and hardest hit — which alone lost 229 airplanes and suffered nearly 1,900 men killed or taken prisoner between June 1943 and April 1945.

The unflinching stories brought to life in your living room will be taken from the pages of the absorbing 2006 book of the same name written by historian Donald L. Miller. In it Miller chronicles not only the remarkable stories of the Eighth Air Force's aircrews, but also the people under the bombs in London, Germany and occupied Europe. Shifting deftly from finely detailed descriptions of the inner workings of a B-17 to the dreadful stories of those who died in bomb attacks, the book is an apt blueprint for an epic TV miniseries from two of Hollywood's finest storytellers.

Miller did much of the research for Masters of the Air at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force near Savannah, Georgia, where the command was originally activated on Jan. 28, 1942. Working from materials in the museum's library and archive rooms provided him with access to a massive trove of military documents as well as personal histories written down in hundreds of aircrew and prisoner-of-war diaries. The story of the Mighty Eighth in World War II is laid out in rich detail, gleaned from the museum's meticulous mission records and first-hand accounts and its artifacts. They help make Miller's seminal tale of the "bomber boys" who won the air war a must-read for any aviation or military history buff.

If you've never had the chance to visit, to step foot inside the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum is to be transported in time to an American air base in the British countryside as the anticipation of the battles to come grow ever more palpable. Visitors are invited inside a replica of a base Nissen hut for a simulated pre-mission briefing, followed by a re-creation of an actual bombing run complete with flashes and bangs as flak and machine gun fire from Luftwaffe fighters put the successful completion of the bombing run in doubt.

After I went through the exhibit on a recent tour with my knowledgeable museum guide, John Telgener, I wasn't sure if we'd survived or not. He said some veterans of the Mighty Eighth who have visited the museum have "excused themselves from the experience" because of the painful memories the simulated flight brings back to the surface.

TALES BROUGHT TO LIFE

The National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, located in Pooler, Georgia, right next to the ­Savannah International Airport, isn't your typical aviation shrine. In fact, there are very few airplanes inside the museum, and some of them are replicas. The exhibits, instead, are meant to focus not so closely on the aircraft that fought in the war as the men who flew them, fired their guns and kept them airworthy turning ­wrenches around the clock.

"This isn't really an airplane museum," Telgener explained. "It's a story museum."

Those stories can be found everywhere. Even the museum cafeteria is made to look like an old English pub. Out back beside the reflecting pools and dozens of touching aircrew memorials is a replica of an English chapel. The stained glass windows are decorated with airmen and airplanes rather than the usual Biblical scenes. The main triptych on the chapel's east-facing wall shows Jesus attending to a floating airman in his flight suit and Mae West life jacket.

There is at least one real airplane in the museum, however, and it is the star attraction not to be missed. The nearly fully restored B-17G Flying Fortress City of Savannah occupies almost the entire main hangar bay, taking up so much room that it's impossible to view the entire airplane from any one spot in the museum. During my visit, scaffolding and ladders surrounded much of the B-17 as museum volunteers eagerly prepared for the airplane's official christening — fittingly scheduled to occur this Jan. 28 on the anniversary of the Eighth Air Force's creation.

Even then the B-17 won't be totally finished. When the project finally is completed, City of Savannah will be among the most meticulously restored World War II bombers in all the world. The interior is being completely restored to original condition. It will also be the only B-17 with all three of its gun turrets in working order and available for demonstrations to museum visitors.

I learned quite a lot about B-17 turrets on the day of my visit after talking with Fred Bieser, aka "Fred the Turret Guy." From what I gleaned, he probably knows more about Flying Fortress top turrets, ball turrets and chin turrets than anybody in the world — or at least anybody who didn't actually serve on a B-17 maintenance crew in World War II.

A lot of what Bieser knows about B-17 turrets, of course, has been on-the-job training while restoring City of Savannah. When the museum acquired the Flying Fortress from the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in 2009, the airplane didn't have any turrets, nor did it have an interior, cockpit, radios or even the correct nose. The entire interior had to be stripped bare and repainted because of damage caused by birds as the airplane sat forlorn for many years at the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, awaiting a new home.

Bieser explained how he and his team built each of the B-17's turrets almost from scratch. The tail turret, in fact, is totally new. It was fabricated from the pattern of a damaged tail turret off a B-17 that crashed decades ago in Alaska. Bieser sold the museum its chin turret, which is how he became involved with the project. The top turret, meanwhile, was salvaged from a rusting hulk of heavy round metal rescued from outside a military museum in Ohio, where it was being used as a flower planter.

Much of the technical assistance for the B-17 restoration project is being provided by Savannah neighbor Gulfstream Aerospace, which is a major contributor to the Eighth Air Force Museum not just in terms of financial support but also with the ready supply of talented engineers and designers. Jerry McLaughlin, the museum's B-17 restoration project manager, took me on a tour of the airplane, showing off the pristine paintwork on the newly restored instrument panel and throughout the interior, performed by the skilled craftsmen at Gulfstream's world-class paint shop.

"The contributions by Gulfstream to this project have been invaluable," McLaughlin said. "We wouldn't be able to restore this airplane to such a high level without its support."

McLaughlin said City of Savannah should be fully finished by this summer. The project has involved more than 60,000 man-hours so far on a team that has counted more than 140 volunteers in all. Together they have created the good-as-new interior, cockpit and even replacement wooden ammunition boxes from scratch.

FILMING A MODERN WAR CLASSIC

In bringing the Eighth Air Force's "Forts" to life, Spielberg and Hanks will face similar challenges, but on a much grander scale. The thorniest test will be in deciding how to present the story of the Eighth Air Force in a way that captures the true essence of an imposing bomber formation without actually launching hundreds of B-17s on mock missions over Europe.

For the miniseries, Spielberg and Hanks plan to make use of the latest computer-generated imagery to create virtual aircraft formations. There's a certain amount of risk to this approach. If the CGI animators get the flying physics even slightly wrong, aviation-savvy audiences will be sure to spot it. Spielberg and Hanks haven't revealed how they'll pull off the flying scenes, but based on the exceptional cinematography that made Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers instant classics in the pantheon of war stories, there's ample reason to believe that the pair's treatment of the Mighty Eighth will be equally as gripping.

They certainly don't lack for material. The stories that emerged from the air war over Europe need no embellishing. Producers from Hanks' Playtone production company have already interviewed many actual members of the Eighth Air Force, sitting veterans down in front of cameras during a reunion at the Eighth Air Force Museum of the 100th Bomb Group to hear their accounts firsthand. The stories will be woven into the miniseries to enhance its authenticity and immediacy.

A figure who will play a central role in the HBO series is a name you might recall from your World War II history books. Robert "Rosie" Rosenthal was a New York City lawyer who enlisted in the Army the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and went on to become a highly decorated bomber pilot with the Bloody Hundredth. The commander of the B-17 Rosie's Riveters, Rosenthal and his crew completed their required 25 missions only for the commander to extend his tour, completing 53 missions in all.

During one mission over Germany in October 1943, Rosenthal's B-17 was the only airplane to return, with two engines dead, the intercom and oxygen system shot out and a large, ragged hole in the left wing. In September 1944, Rosenthal wasn't so lucky. His airplane was shot down over Germany. He suffered a broken arm and nose, evading capture until being picked up by the Free French Forces and returning to active duty as soon as his wounds healed. Five months later, on a mission over Berlin, Rosenthal again was shot down, this time being picked up by the Soviets before returning to duty. After the war the Jewish-born attorney participated in the Nuremberg trials, where he personally interrogated Hermann Göring, commander of the Luftwaffe.

Rosenthal died in 2007 at age 90, taking with him his tales of the war over Europe. It's a situation we now face with a growing number of veterans of World War II, the very youngest of whom are in their late 80s. And there are fewer of them with us all the time. That's what makes it so important to cherish these heroes and to hear their stories now, while they are still around to tell them in their own words.

HONORING OUR VETS

During my visit to the Eighth Air Force Museum, I had the pleasure of meeting two veterans of the Mighty Eighth who today volunteer their time to pass along some of those stories to visitors. Ken Scott was a P-51D pilot with the 361st Fighter Group who flew 62 missions over Europe and was one of the few Allied pilots to have tangled with a Luftwaffe Me 262 jet fighter. His friend Bud Porter was a B-17 gunner in one of the most dangerous places to be on that airplane: the ball turret. Now in their early 90s, there is still a sparkle in their eyes when they talk about their past lives in the skies over war-torn Europe.

Over lunch we discussed their flying careers in more detail. Scott continued for another 29 years after the war in successively faster and more capable fighters, from the F-86 Sabre to the F-104 Starfighter. But his P-51 Mustang Curious Betty, he admitted, was his favorite. I asked him how hard it was shooting down an Me 262. "Not hard at all," he said with a smile. "He never saw me. He cut in front of me, I fired a burst at him, and down he went."

I asked Porter if he ever shot anyone down from his lowly perch in the belly of his B-17. "Shot anyone down?" he exclaimed with a chuckle. "I don't think I ever hit anybody. I fired at 'em enough times, but I doubt any of my bullets struck what I was aiming for."

Porter's indoctrination to the B-17's ball turret, he said, came when he stepped off the bus after basic training and commanders saw how small in stature he was. On his first mission, he recalled, he was so scared that he spun around wildly in the turret, firing blindly in all directions. Another gunner, he explained, had told him flak would bounce off a moving turret.

I asked Scott for the story of the name of his P-51. Betty, he explained, was his sweetheart at the time back home in Alabama. "And boy was she curious," he said, "just curious about everything." Did they stay together after the war? "Yes," he said. "We'll be celebrating our 70th wedding anniversary next month." Then he added quickly, "Do you want to see a picture?" He reached into his wallet and pulled out a creased black-and-white photograph of his stunningly beautiful bride seated against the arm of a sofa. "I call her my Miss Alabama," he said, his pale blue eyes brimming with pride.

With the coming HBO miniseries, the stories of the Mighty Eighth will reach a much broader audience, fueling the public's interest and giving the museum in Savannah a whole new influx of visitors. Even though it is technically the "National Musuem" of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, it receives no government funding, said museum President and CEO Henry Skipper. Visitors and donations keep the museum going, he said.

The writing team appointed by Spielberg and Hanks is polishing the script for Masters of the Air now — and at this point, even the name could still change. When the series will finish production has yet to be announced. Whether you decide to visit Savannah now to tour the museum or wait for the miniseries to air is up to you. Either way, set a date to go. You'll be glad you did.

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