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Masters of the Air is a narrative history of the bomber war in World War Two. The U.S. had two air forces conducting strategic bombing in Europe during the war, the Eighth and the Fifteenth. The Eighth was the more powerful and was the one that bombed Germany. Masters of the Air is the story of the Eighth Air Force.
The American bomber war began in the summer of 1942 with a strike by a dozen Flying Fortresses (B-17s), or "Forts," as they were called, against Rouen, then occupied by the Germans. It ended in the spring of 1945 with a succession of thousand-bomber terror attacks against Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden and other cities in Germany.
Of all the military services in World War Two, only the German U-boat crews suffered a higher casualty rate than the bomber crews. The Eighth Air Force suffered over 26,000 fatal casualties, more than the entire Marine Corps. An additional 23,000 flyers were made prisoners of war. In 1943 an airman's chance of surviving 25 missions - the number required to go home - were about one in four. And as Catch-22 so cleverly suggested, many airmen suffered debilitating mental breakdowns.
Despite all this, the bombing campaign was a success. It took nearly two years for the commanders to figure out how to use the bombers most effectively, during which time the crews paid a horrible price for this new form of warfare. But starting in the spring of 1944, American bombers began punishing German oil and transportation targets, disrupting the Nazi war machine. By January, 1945, before a single soldier had crossed the Rhine, the German economy was in ruins and defeat was inevitable. As Don Miller puts it, air power alone did not win the war, but the war could not have been won without air power.
Masters of the Air, as its title suggests, focuses on the crews who flew the planes. It is based on over a thousand oral histories and an even greater number of unpublished letters and diaries.
Masters of the Air takes readers into battle with the crews, freezing in the air in unheated, unpressurized aircraft. It takes readers to East Anglia, where nearly a quarter of a million Eighth Air Force personnel were stationed, many living among their English hosts. Air men had comforts unknown to the infantry: beds with clean sheets, nights at the local pubs. But they faced far worse odds than any other branch of the armed services.
The POW camps are an important part of this story. Among the captured airmen was Chuck Yeager, who escaped a POW camp across the Pyrenees to Spain, with the help of the French Underground. Many airmen spent most of the war in the stalags, where life was far grimmer than portrayed in movies and television.
The book also grapples with the moral issue that has re-surfaced recently. Most of the air crews knew that they were bombing civilians. Some historians have argued that the bombing campaign failed to destroy the morale of the German people, but Miller makes clear that it succeeded. The problem was that the German people had no options but to continue to work and hope to survive, demoralized or not. The RAF believed strongly in "city busting," bombing civilians, but as Masters of the Air shows, bombing oil refineries, factories, and rail hubs was far more effective, even though these campaigns produced heavy civilian casualties, too.
All but a relative handful of the airmen had never flown in a plane in their lives until they joined the Eighth. Among those whose stories Miller tells are Robert Morgan, pilot of the famous Memphis Belle; Col. William Wyler, the director, who flew with Morgan and filmed the story of the plane and its crew (and who later directed the Oscar-winning Best Years of Our Lives, which featured Dana andrews as a bombardier just home from the war); Clark Gable, an Eighth Air Force gunner, who made a little-known documentary about the Eighth; Andy Rooney and Walter Cronkite, young war correspondents who flew in the bombers; Bernie Lay, Jr., an Eighth Air Force commander and flier who wrote Twelve O'Clock High!, the finest novel and film about the air war; and Jimmy Stewart, one of the most decorated air commanders in the Eighth Air Force.
At the center of the story is a single bomb group, the Hundredth, known as the Bloody Hundredth for its heavy casualties. Masters of the Air follows the Bloody Hundredth from basic training to the end of the war, when the POWs were reunited with their comrades back in England. The inspirational leader of the Bloody Hundredth is Robert "Rosie" Rosenthal, now 88. He enlisted on the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, a former athlete at Brooklyn College and law student at the time. He flew 52 combat missions (the record was 93) and was shot down three times, the last time behind Russian lines. In one bombing raid, over Munster, Germany, his was the only plane to return. He became part of the team of prosecuting attorneys at the Nuremberg Trials, where he met his wife, another young army prosecutor.
Masters of the Air deftly mixes the strategic with the personal, giving us a riveting account of the bomber war while at the same time telling us unforgettable stories about the young men who flew these planes.