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

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

by Donald L. Miller
Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany

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

by Donald L. Miller



Available on Compatible NOOK devices, the free NOOK App and in My Digital Library.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now

Related collections and offers


The inspiration for the major Apple TV+ series, streaming now!

The riveting history of the American Eighth Air Force in World War II and the young men who flew the bombers that helped beat the Nazis and liberate Europe, brilliantly told by historian and World War II expert Donald L. Miller. The Masters of the Air streaming series stars Austin Butler and Callum Turner, and is produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, the legendary duo behind Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

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 you 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. 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 you 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 US air bases in England. But they had a much greater chance of dying than ground soldiers.

The bomber crews were an elite group of warriors who were a microcosm of America—white America, anyway. 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.

Masters of the Air is “a stunning achievement” (David McCullough), “a fresh new account” (Walter Boyne, former director of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum) 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 that “accurately and comprehensively” (Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, USMC (Ret.) and coauthor of Cobra II) tells of the world’s first and only bomber war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743298322
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 10/10/2006
Format: eBook
Pages: 688
Sales rank: 3,713
File size: 34 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Donald L. Miller is the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History Emeritus at Lafayette College and author of ten books, including Vicksburg, and Masters of the Air, currently being made into a television series by Tom Hanks. He has hosted, coproduced, or served as historical consultant for more than thirty television documentaries and has written for The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and other publications.

Read an Excerpt

Masters of the Air

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

By Donald L. Miller

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2006

Donald L. Miller

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0743235444


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 ofCambridge, 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 relationship among fighting men as existed with the combat crews of heavy bombardment aircraft."

The Eighth Air Force had arrived in England at the lowest moment of the war for the nations aligned against the Axis Powers: Germany, Italy, Japan, and their allies. The Far Eastern and Pacific empires of the English, the Dutch, and the French had recently fallen to the Japanese, as had the American-occupied Philippines. By May 1942, when Maj. Gen. Carl A. "Tooey" Spaatz arrived in London to take command of American air operations in Europe, Japan controlled a far-reaching territorial empire. The Royal Air Force's fighter boys had won the Battle of Britain the previous summer, and England had stood up to the Blitz, the first long-term bombing campaign of the war, but since the evacuation of the British army at Dunkirk in May 1940, and the fall of France soon thereafter, Germany had been the absolute master of Western Europe. In the spring of 1942, Great Britain stood alone and vulnerable, the last surviving European democracy at war with the Nazis. And the question became, How to hit back at the enemy?

"We have no Continental Army which can defeat the German military power," Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared. "But there is one thing that will bring him . . . down, and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland." Beginning in 1940, the RAF's Bomber Command went after industrial targets in the Rhineland and the Ruhr, centers of Nazi material might. The first RAF raids of the war had been flown in daylight, but after taking murderous losses, the RAF was forced to bomb at night and to alter its targeting. Since industrial plants could not be sighted, let alone hit, on moonless nights, the RAF began bombing entire cities -- city busting, the crews correctly called it. The purpose was to set annihilating fires that killed thousands and that would break German civilian morale. The bombing was wildly inaccurate and crew losses were appalling. But killing Germans was wonderful for British morale -- payback for the bombing of Coventry and London, and England had no other way to directly hurt Germany. Until Allied armies entered Germany in the final months of the war, strategic bombing would be the only battle fought inside the Nazi homeland.

The Eighth Air Force had been sent to England to join this ever accelerating bombing campaign, which would be the longest battle of World War II. It had begun combat operations in August 1942, in support of the British effort but with a different plan and purpose. The key to it was the top secret Norden bombsight, developed by Navy scientists in the early 1930s. Pilots like Johnny Egan had tested it in the high, sparkling skies of the American West and put their bombs on sand targets with spectacular accuracy, some bombardiers claiming they could place a single bomb in a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet. The Norden bombsight would make high-altitude bombing both more effective and more humane, Air Force leaders insisted. Cities could now be hit with surgical precision, their munitions mills destroyed with minimal damage to civilian lives and property.

The Eighth Air Force was the proving instrument of "pickle-barrel" bombing. With death-dealing machines like the Flying Fortress and the equally formidable Consolidated B-24 Liberator, the war could be won, the theorists of bomber warfare argued, without a World War I-style massacre on the ground or great loss of life in the air. This untested idea appealed to an American public that was wary of long wars, but less aware that combat always confounds theory.

Daylight strategic bombing could be done by bombers alone, without fighter planes to shield them. This was the unshakable conviction of Brig. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, the former fighter pilot that Carl Spaatz had picked to head the Eighth Air Force's bomber operations. Flying in tight formations -- forming self-defending "combat boxes" -- the bombers, Eaker believed, would have the massed firepower to muscle their way to the target.

Johnny Egan believed in strategic bombing, but he didn't believe this. He had entered the air war when Ira Eaker began sending his bomber fleets deep into Germany, without fighter escorts, for at that time no single-engine plane had the range to accompany the heavies all the way to these distant targets and back. In the summer of 1943, Johnny Egan lost a lot of friends to the Luftwaffe.

There were ten men in the crew of an Eighth Air Force heavy bomber. The pilot and his co-pilot sat in the cockpit, side by side; the navigator and bombardier were just below, in the plane's transparent Plexiglas nose; and directly behind the pilot was the flight engineer, who doubled as the top turret gunner. Further back in the plane, in a separate compartment, was the radio operator, who manned a top-side machine gun; and at mid-ship there were two waist gunners and a ball turret gunner, who sat in a revolving Plexiglas bubble that hung -- fearfully vulnerable -- from the underside of the fuselage. In an isolated compartment in the back of the plane was the tail gunner, perched on an oversized bicycle seat. Every position in the plane was vulnerable; there were no foxholes in the sky. Along with German and American submarine crews and the Luftwaffe pilots they met in combat, American and British bomber boys had the most dangerous job in the war. In October 1943, fewer than one out of four Eighth Air Force crew members could expect to complete his tour of duty: twenty-five combat missions. The statistics were discomforting. Two-thirds of the men could expect to die in combat or be captured by the enemy. And 17 percent would either be wounded seriously, suffer a disabling mental breakdown, or die in a violent air accident over English soil. Only 14 percent of fliers assigned to Major Egan's Bomb Group when it arrived in England in May 1943 made it to their twenty-fifth mission. By the end of the war, the Eighth Air Force would have more fatal casualties -- 26,000 -- than the entire United States Marine Corps. Seventy-seven percent of the Americans who flew against the Reich before D-Day would wind up as casualties.

As commander of the Hundredth's 418th Squadron, Johnny Egan flew with his men on all the tough missions. When his boys went into danger, he wanted to face it with them. "Anyone who flies operationally is crazy," Egan confided to Sgt. Saul Levitt, a radioman in his squadron who was later injured in a base accident and transferred to the staff of Yank magazine, an army publication. "And then," says Levitt, "he proceeded to be crazy and fly operationally. And no milk runs. . . .

When his "boy-men," as Egan called them, went down in flaming planes, he wrote home to their wives and mothers. "These were not file letters," Levitt remembered. "It was the Major's idea they should be written in long-hand to indicate a personal touch, and there are no copies of these letters. He never said anything much about that. The letters were between him and the families involved."

Major Egan was short and skinny as a stick, barely 140 pounds, with thick black hair, combed into a pompadour, black eyes, and a pencil-thin mustache. His trademarks were a white fleece-lined flying jacket and an idiomatic manner of speaking, a street-wise style borrowed from writer Damon Runyon. At twenty-seven, he was one of the "ancients" of the outfit, but "I can out-drink any of you children," he would tease the fresh-faced members of his squadron. On nights that he wasn't scheduled to fly the next day, he would jump into a jeep and head for his "local," where he'd gather at the bar with a gang of Irish laborers and sing ballads until the taps ran dry or the tired publican tossed them out.

When Egan was carousing, his best friend was usually in the sack. Major Gale W. Cleven's pleasures were simple. He liked ice cream, cantaloupe, and English war movies; and he was loyal to a girl back home named Marge. He lived to fly and, with Egan, was one of the "House of Lords of flying men." His boyhood friends had called him "Cleve," but Egan, his inseparable pal since their days together in flight training in the States, renamed him "Buck" because he looked like a kid named Buck that Egan knew back in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The name stuck. "I never liked it, but I've been Buck ever since," Cleven said sixty years later, after he earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and a Ph.D. in interplanetary physics.

Lean, stoop-shouldered Gale Cleven grew up in the hardscrabble oil country north of Casper, Wyoming, and worked his way through the University of Wyoming as a roughneck on a drilling crew. With his officer's cap cocked on the side of his head and a toothpick dangling from his mouth, he looked like a tough guy, but "he had a heart as big as Texas and was all for his men," one of his fliers described him. He was extravagantly alive and was easily the best storyteller on the base.

A squadron commander at age twenty-four, he became a home-front hero when he was featured in a Saturday Evening Post story of the Regensburg Raid by Lt. Col. Beirne Lay, Jr., later the co-author, with Sy Bartlett, of Twelve O'Clock High!, the finest novel and movie to come out of the European air war. The Regensburg-Schweinfurt mission of August 17, 1943, was the biggest, most disastrous American air operation up to that time. Sixty bombers and nearly 600 men were lost. It was a "double strike" against the aircraft factories of Regensburg and the ball bearing plants of Schweinfurt, both industrial powerhouses protected by one of the most formidable aerial defense systems in the world. Beirne Lay was flying with the Hundredth that day as an observer in a Fortress called Piccadilly Lilly, and in the fire and chaos of battle he saw Cleven, in the vulnerable low squadron -- the so-called Coffin Corner, the last and lowest group in the bomber stream -- "living through his finest hour." With his plane being shredded by enemy fighters, Cleven's co-pilot panicked and prepared to bail out. "Confronted with structure damage, partial loss of control, fire in the air and serious injuries to personnel, and faced with fresh waves of fighters still rising to the attack, [Cleven] was justified in abandoning ship," Lay wrote. But he ordered his co-pilot to stay put. "His words were heard over the interphone and had a magical effect on the crew. They stuck to their guns. The B-17 kept on."

Beirne Lay recommended Cleven for the Medal of Honor. "I didn't get it and I didn't deserve it," Cleven said. He did receive the Distinguished Service Cross but never went to London to pick it up. "Medal, hell, I needed an aspirin," he commented long afterward. "So I remain undecorated."

The story of Cleven on the Regensburg raid "electrified the base," recalled Harry H. Crosby, a navigator in Egan's 418th Squadron. Johnny Egan had also fought well that day. Asked how he survived, he quipped, "I carried two rosaries, two good luck medals, and a $2 bill off of which I had chewed a corner for each of my missions. I also wore my sweater backwards and my good luck jacket." Others were not so fortunate. The Hundredth lost ninety men.

Casualties piled up at an alarming rate that summer, too fast for the men to keep track of them. One replacement crewman arrived at Thorpe Abbotts in time for a late meal, went to bed in his new bunk, and was lost the next morning over Germany. No one got his name. He was thereafter known as "the man who came to dinner."

With so many of their friends dying, the men of the Hundredth badly needed heroes. At the officers club, young fliers gathered around Cleven and Egan and "watched the two fly missions with their hands," Crosby wrote in his memoir of the air war. "Enlisted men adored them," and pilots wanted to fly the way they did. With their dashing white scarves and crushed "fifty-mission caps," they were characters right out of I Wanted Wings, another Beirne Lay book, and the Hollywood film based on it, which inspired thousands of young men to join the Army Air Corps. They even talked like Hollywood. The first time Crosby set eyes on Cleven was at the officers club. "For some reason he wanted to talk to me, and he said, 'Taxi over here Lootenant.' "

Cleven liked the young replacements but worried about their untested bravado. "Their fear wasn't as great as ours, and therefore was more dangerous. They feared the unknown. We feared the known."

On the morning of October 8, 1943, an hour of so before Johnny Egan stepped on the train that brought him to London on his first leave from Thorpe Abbotts, Buck Cleven took off for Bremen and didn't return. Three Luftwaffe fighters flew out of the sun and tore into his Fortress, knocking out three engines, blowing holes in the tail and nose, sheering off a good part of the left wing, and setting the cockpit on fire. The situation hopeless, Cleven ordered the crew to jump. He was the last man out of the plane. When he jumped, the bomber was only about 2,000 feet from the ground.

This was at 3:15 P.M., about the time Johnny Egan would have been checking into his London hotel. Hanging from his parachute, Cleven saw he was going to land near a small farmhouse "and faster than I wanted to." Swinging in his chute to avoid the house, he spun out of control and went flying through the open back door and into the kitchen, knocking over furniture and a small iron stove. The farmer's wife and daughter began screaming hysterically, and in a flash, the farmer had a pitchfork pressed against Cleven's chest. "In my pitiful high school German, I tried to convince him I was a good guy. He wasn't buying it."

That night, some of the men in Cleven's squadron who had survived the Bremen mission walked to a village pub and got extravagantly drunk. "None of them could believe he was gone," said Sgt. Jack Sheridan, another member of Cleven's squadron. If Cleven "the invincible" couldn't make it, who could? But as Sheridan noted, "missing men don't stop a war."

The next morning, over a hotel breakfast of fried eggs and a double Scotch, Johnny Egan read the headlines in the London Times, "Eighth Air Force Loses 30 Fortresses Over Bremen." He sprang out of his chair and rushed to a phone to call the base. With wartime security tight, the conversation was in code. "How did the game go," he asked. Cleven had gone down swinging, he was told. Silence. Pulling himself together, Egan asked, "Does the team have a game scheduled for tomorrow?"

"Yes," came the reply.

"I want to pitch."

He was back at Thorpe Abbotts that afternoon in time to "sweat out" a long mission the group flew to Marienburg, a combat strike led by the Hundredth's Commander, Col. Neil B. "Chick" Harding, a former West Point football hero. As soon as the squadrons returned, Egan got Harding's permission to lead the Hundredth's formation on the next day's mission. At dawn, he went to one of the crew huts and woke up pilot John D. Brady, a former saxophone player in one of the country's big bands. Harry Crosby, whose bed was directly across from Captain Brady's, overheard the conversation. "John, I am flying with you. . . . We are going to get the bastards that got Buck." Then the two men left for the pre-flight briefing.

"The target for today is Munster," the intelligence officer, Maj. Miner Shaw, informed the sleepy crews as he pulled back the curtain that covered a wall-size map of Northern Europe. A red string of yarn stretched from Thorpe Abbotts across the Netherlands to a small railroad juncture just over the Dutch border. It would be a short raid, and P-47 Thunderbolts -- the best Allied fighter planes available -- would escort the bombers to the limit of their range, nearly all the way to the target. It looked routine -- except for one thing. The Aiming Point was the heart of the old walled city, a marshaling yard, and an adjacent neighborhood of workers' homes. Nearby, was a magnificent cathedral whose bishop was known to be a strident opponent of the Nazis. "Practically all of the railroad workers in the [Ruhr] valley [are] billeted in Munster," Shaw droned on in a low monotone. If the bombardiers hit their target accurately, the entire German rail system in this heavily trafficked area would, he said, be seriously disrupted.

This was a radical change in American bombing practice. Later, the Eighth Air Force would officially deny it, but the Münster raid was a city-busting operation. Declassified mission reports and flight records clearly list the "center of town" as the Aiming Point; one report, that of the 94th Bomb Group, describes the Aiming Point as, "Built up section of North East tip of Marshalling yards."

When Shaw announced that "we were going to sock a residential district. . . . I find [sic] myself on my feet, cheering," Egan said later. "Others, who had lost close friends in [previous] . . . raids joined in the cheering 'cause here is a chance to kill Germans, the spawners of race hatred and minority oppression. It was a dream mission to avenge the death of a buddy."

Some of the fliers who were in the briefing room that morning do not recall any cheering. One of them, Capt. Frank Murphy, was at the time a twenty-two-year-old jazz musician from Atlanta, Georgia, who had left Emory University to become an Air Force navigator. Murphy has no recollection of Egan jumping up and swearing revenge, but he does say that no one in the room openly protested the targeting of civilians, not even those like himself who had relatives born in Germany. Perhaps some of the men remembered the warning that their first commander, Col. Darr H. "Pappy" Alkire, had given them back in the States, right after they completed flight training and received their wings. "Don't get the notion that your job is going to be glorious or glamorous. You've got dirty work to do, and you might as well face the facts. You're going to be baby-killers and women-killers."

Not everybody in the Hundredth saw himself in the murder business, but most of the men trusted their leaders. "I felt I was there to help win the war, if possible," said Lt. Howard "Hambone" Hamilton, Captain Brady's bombardier. "The basic problem in trying to bomb a railway system is that, if sufficient labor is available, railroad tracks can be repaired in a short time. We were told that the idea of bombing these railroad worker's homes was to deprive the Germans of the people to do the repair work."

But at briefings that same morning at neighboring bomber bases, there was some grumbling about the target selection. "It was a Sunday, and many crewmen...had deep reservations about bombing anywhere near churches," recalled Lt. Robert Sabel, a pilot with the 390th Bomb Group. Capt. Ellis Scripture, a navigator who would be flying in the 95th Bomb Group's lead Fortress, The Zootsuiters, later described his reaction. "I'd been raised in a strict Protestant home. My parents were God-oriented people. . . . I was shocked to learn that we were to bomb civilians as our primary target for the first time in the war." Ellis Scripture went to his group commander after the briefing and told him he didn't want to fly that day. Col. John Gerhart exploded: "Look Captain, this [is] war, spelled W-A-R. We're in an all-out fight; the Germans have been killing innocent people all over Europe for years. We're here to beat the hell out of them . . . and we're going to do it. . . . Now -- I'm leading this mission and you're my navigator. . . . If you don't fly, I'll have to court-martial you. Any questions?"

Scripture said "no sir" and headed for the flight line. "I made up my mind there and then that war isn't a gentleman's duel," he said later. "I never again had any doubts about the strategy of our leaders. They had tough decisions to make -- and they made them."

Another flier from Scripture's bomb group, Lt. Theodore Bozarth, described most accurately how most of the men in the 13th Combat Wing felt about this mission. It would be the wing's third mission in three days: Bremen, Marienburg, and now Münster. "We were just too tired to care much one way or the other."

Harry Crosby was not slated to fly to Münster. He and his pilot, Capt. Everett Blakely, were recovering from a spectacular crash landing on the English coast on their return from Bremen. The morning of the Münster mission they decided to commandeer a war-damaged plane and fly down to the resort town of Bournemouth for a brief seas


Excerpted from Masters of the Air
by Donald L. Miller
Copyright © 2006 by Donald L. Miller.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Prologue: The Bloody Hundredth


The Bomber Mafia


Eaker's Amateurs


The Dangerous Sky


Airman Down!


The Anatomy of Courage


Teach Them to Kill


The Bells of Hell


Men at War


The Turning


Liberated Skies


The Fatal Trap


Prisoners of the Swiss


My Bellyful of War


The Wire


Terror Without End


The Chimneys Hardly Ever Fall Down


A Pageant of Misery






What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Masters of the Air is a piece of history that accurately and comprehensively tells the story of the Eighth Air Force going mano a mano against a tough and determined foe. The incredible cost to both sides is recounted in riveting detail. It left me shaken."

— Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, USMC (Ret.) and coauthor of Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq

"Miller's work is always extraordinary but this large volume is especially remarkable for its valuable recovery of details, like all the psychiactric ruin of the many bomber boys assigned to kill German civilians. This is a rare account of the American Eighth Air Force, and with so many readers hoodwinked by fantasies of The Good War, it deserves wide acceptance and ultimate enshrinement as a classic."

— Paul Fussell, author of The Great War and Modern Memory

"When I learned that Don Miller had written a history of the air war against Germany, I knew that readers would be transported as virtual eye witnesses to this aerial battle field. His gripping reconstruction of what was happening in the planes is matched by the best account yet of what the bombings were doing to Germans on the ground. This book bears the Miller trademark: a strong narrative supported by solid history."

— Joseph E. Persico, author of Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day 1918

"Masters of the Air is a fresh new account of the incredible rise of the American air force from young men learning their trade on the job in combat to an irresistible force that swept the vaunted Luftwaffe from the skies. Author Donald L. Miller knits together the big events of the bombing campaign with illuminating individual human stories of the heroes who lived and died over Germany."

— Walter J. Boyne, former director, National Air and Space Museum

"Over the first years of World War II, the only American casualties on European soil were flyboys shot out of the sky. Long before Normandy, America's bomber boys waged the Allies' longest WWII campaign and brought the war to Hitler. Now we are fortunate that the incomparable Donald Miller has brought the memory of these Masters of the Air back to us."

— James Bradley, author of Flags of Our Fathers and Flyboys

"Masters of the Air is masterful narrative history, the elegantly interwoven story of the men and boys who first took the war to the heart of Germany. Vivid and meticulous, judicious but not judgmental, Donald L. Miller chronicles the air war over Europe in all its heroism and horror."

— Geoffrey C. Ward, author of Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

From the B&N Reads Blog

Customer Reviews