'Masters of the Air' Uplifts—But Disappoints
The anti-Nazi underground’s key role in rescuing downed air crews is also missing in action
Moments into Masters of the Air, the much anticipated streaming serial about the flyboys of the Eighth Air Force in World War Two, we are riding with those brave young American B-17 bomber crews as they dodge Nazi fighter planes and torrents of flak, those shards of hot metal that tear through their fuselages and flesh.
Almost three quarters of a century later, our fascination with World War Two combat—victorious at the end but with notable setbacks along the way—runs strong and deep. We recognize the clarity of stakes back then--the stark choice between triumphing over the armies of fascism or succumbing to them.
The nine part series, which debuted on Apple TV + last week, is the third World War Two combat collaboration of Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who also were executive producers of the highly regarded war epics Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Set in the Eighth Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group, Masters of the Air stars Austin Butler (Elvis, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and Callum Turner (The Boys in the Boat) as pilots. They play Buck and Bucky, friendly rivals whose easy machismo barely survives the sheer terror of high casualty daylight bombing runs over Nazi-occupied Europe and Germany itself.
Masters of the Air is unfortunately weighted with shopworn war movie clichés—carousing lover boys on the ground and barefaced kids barely out of high school who overnight become toughened fighters hoping to defy death—a surprising departure from its far more dramatically disciplined antecedents. But its portrayal of the terror the airborne crews faced comes off as authentic and moving.
In the course of the war, the men of the Eighth Air Force flew more than 600,000 sorties against Nazi targets and dropped 670,000 tons of bombs. The casualties were more than sobering: About 26,000 Eighth Army flyers died in action, and 28,000 were captured, the highest rate of casualties of any World War II command. (The Marines lost 24,500 during their war, mostly in the island-hopping Pacific campaign.)
What made the young pilots clamber into their cockpits day after day, knowing their chances of surviving a hit were so slim? It certainly wasn’t their parachutes, which Masters of the Air shows the gunners, navigators and radio men stuffing under their rumps to protect against shrapnel. No, it was another crucial element in the air campaign’s toolkit that gave the crews a measure of comfort: the European underground that stood ready to rescue the downed American and British crews.
Inevitably. the outsize role played by such underground networks, which worked closely with MI9, the secret escape-and-evasion section of British Military Intelligence, had to be circumscribed in a drama that remains tightly focused on the combat drama of Masters of the Air. Their presence enters a third of the way into the series.
In my 2005 book, The Freedom Line, I told a story of the underground, highlighting one of its most prominent escape groups: the Comet Line. That clandestine network rescued about 800 flyers from 1942 to 1944, but the organization’s reach went beyond the numbers. Comet gave a huge psychological boost to the flyers as they took off from their English airstrips, arming them with confidence knowing that there were many agents in Nazi-occupied Europe ready to rescue them if they survived being shot down.
“When a man returns alive and safe he is living proof to his friends that…there are people to help them if they, too, are shot down. It gives them heart on their raids,” Airey Neave, an MI9 officer and later member of Parliament, wrote in Little Cyclone: The Girl Who Started the Comet Line, a 1954 biography of underground star Andrée de Jongh, a young Belgian woman and commercial artist-turned Red Cross nurse. I married the story of de Jongh and the Comet Line with the tale of Lt. Robert Zeno Grimes, a 20-year-old B-17 pilot shot down over Belgium in October 1943.
A Fortuitous Meeting
I first met Grimes in 2001 as I started gathering information for a book on the underground. Needless to say I was eager to tell his story, but he was reluctant to talk. In 1944, when he got back to England, he explained, his MI9 debriefers and U.S. military intelligence officers told him and his fellow airmen that everything about their evasion and escape was top secret, never, ever to be repeated.
More than half a century later, the long retired Air Force colonel, his 30 years of service well behind him, was still cautious about spilling the details.
“Well, they never told me when I could start talking about it,” he said. He told me he had never even spoken to his wife and family about the details of his survival and rescue. Finally, though, he said, “I guess it’s okay now.”
The spigot loosened, Grimes recounted every detail, from his takeoff in England to his escape from his plummeting B-17 and beyond. In fact, he confessed to me, those days at war had kept him up nights for a half century, reliving every moment.
“In my mind, I'm back in the cockpit,” he recounted one day, “left seat, looking at the controls, and I'm dodging and diving around the Nazi fighters, trying to make it to a cloud bank. And I look for every option, but I never come up with anything to save us. You start thinking about it again, and it's something that never goes away. You never stop thinking about it.”
On October 20, 1943, on his fifth bombing run over Nazi-occupied territory, Grimes went down over Belgium. A supercharger on his four-engine Fortress, had malfunctioned just as he crossed beyond the English Channel. That put a drag on the plane, causing it to descend and fall out of formation. Within minutes, Luftwaffe fighters swooped in. One barrage shot out his tail rudder, another bullet pierced the fuselage and lodged in Grimes’ thigh.
He managed to keep the plane in the air long enough for his nine crewmen to jump, not knowing that three were already dead. Grimes, last out of the plane, parachuted into the Belgian countryside and huddled under a hedgerow, fearing a German patrol. Luckily, a young boy soon came along and guided him to a friendly home. And then The Comet Line came to the rescue.
The underground operatives hid him in a series of safe houses and eventually found a doctor in Brussels brave enough to secretly extract the bullet in his leg. When he regained his strength, Comet Line agents took him by train and bicycle out of occupied Belgium and France and then finally up and across the Pyrenees toward Spain. On Christmas Eve, 1943, with Nazi troops in pursuit, Grimes and a group of other airmen and underground rescuers waded across the Bidasoa River that divided France from officially neutral but pro-fascist Spain. British diplomats and operatives were waiting. Spanish police opened fire, cutting down several men in their final dash to freedom, but Grimes miraculously survived and was whisked back to Britain. Months later, he made it back to the States, and was training for possible missions over Japan when the war ended in August 1945.
He had no regrets. Had not the war come along, “I probably would have been back where my parents lived in Virginia, pumping gas at a filling station,” he told me, laughing but not exactly joking. Instead, he became a decorated pilot, and even flew hazardous postwar missions, airlifting food and other supplies into West Berlin in 1948. He also married, eventually had three daughters and, after retiring from military service, became an assistant superintendent of schools in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. He died in 2010, age 87.
There is one scene in Masters of the Air that matched hauntingly what Bob told me one day 22 years ago. He was describing his fourth mission in 1943, the one before he was shot down.
“The flak was heavy,” he recalled. The aluminum fuselage was hardly thicker than an old tin can. “When we landed back at the base, I just stayed out there by myself and walked around the plane. I couldn’t believe the holes in the fuselage, how the plane could have flown like that to get us home. It bothered me so much that I went to look for the chaplain to calm my nerves. I couldn’t find him. They said he was out somewhere getting drunk.”
The dashing Buck and Bucky, based on the real life pilots Gale Cleven and John Egan, respectively, remind me of Bob Grimes. Fifty years after he was shot down, Bob still had the bearing of a young and handsome, aw-shucks matinee idol that could match any actor in Masters of the Air.
I asked him once how he had managed to fly those planes into combat. Did he consider himself a hero?
“Who me?” he said. “No, I was just so young that I didn’t know any better to be scared.”
Those heroes have mostly passed on, yet the stories of Bob Grimes and all the fighting men of World War II remain with us. Whether a real life story or a TV series, they remind us of a time when Americans of all stripes just knew that they had to work and fight together against a mortal enemy—and win.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story opined that Masters of the Air’s depiction of Buck and Bucky as majors was “an unforced error,” as the the Eighth Air Force’s 20-something pilots were typically lieutenants. We were wrong on both counts. An astute and well informed reader wrote to tell us, “Both Buckey and Buck were indeed majors, because they joined the AAF a couple of years before WW II began. These individuals moved up very quickly once the war started, as the AAF jumped from a few hundred thousand in 1940 to 2.7 million personnel almost over night. That's why there were 24 year old majors and even higher.” Our story has been updated with corrections. We regret the error.
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