- Lafayette professor Donald L. Miller’s book “Masters of the Air” was published in 2006
- It soon will be featured in a nine-episode limited series on Apple TV+, premiering in January 2024
- The book tells the true story of the American Eighth Air Force during WWII
EASTON, Pa. — It’s been 17 years since Lafayette College professor Donald L. Miller published his book “Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany.”
In a few months, the pages and the story finally will come to life on Apple TV+ as a big-budget production.
The subscription streaming service announced Thursday the nine-episode limited series will make its global debut on Friday, Jan. 26.
It caps years of speculation on the release of the World War II drama, which has been in production since 2021 and rumored for more than a decade.
Some big names are behind the limited series collaboration, including executive producers Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, who also produced “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.”
“We were flying high originally,” Miller said during an interview Friday.
“It took a while to conceptualize because it was a huge production. We were talking about it the other day — the entire team involved. It really was a project we should have expected to go 10 years. That’s pretty much what it took to do “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.” This was even more ambitious in terms of the technology involved in doing an air war.”
Who are the ‘Masters of the Air?’
The series will tell the true story of the American Eighth Air Force, a bomber group assembled after the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
“’Masters of the Air’ is a salute to the brave men of the 8th Air Force, who, through their courage and brotherhood, helped defeat Nazi Germany in World War II.”
Executive producer Gary Goetzman
“’Masters of the Air’ is a salute to the brave men of the 8th Air Force, who, through their courage and brotherhood, helped defeat Nazi Germany in World War II,” Goetzman said in a news release.
Based on Miller’s book of the same name, and scripted for television by John Orloff, “Masters of the Air” features the engrossing story of the 100th Bomb Group (the “Bloody Hundredth”) as they conducted high-altitude bombings under perilous conditions.
A review of the book from the New York Times noted how the “gap between theory and practice turned out to be hell for American airmen,” who were the first to fly long-range, fast-moving bombers into enemy territory and ended up as easy targets for German fighters and antiaircraft guns.
The airmen dealt with frigid conditions, lack of oxygen and the terror of combat, paying a psychological and emotional price to help destroy Hitler’s Third Reich.
“We really thought the combat element had to be paramount because you have to see what they went through and to get a feel for the danger involved, the peril involved, the difficulty involved,” Miller said.
“Just the cold, for example. The Air Force really didn’t figure this out early on that frostbite would be a bigger problem than the Germans. Nor did they think that combat fatigue, or what we now call PTSD, would be that much of an issue or manifest itself. They largely reacted to traumas — the loss of another plane, a horrible air accident in the mission beforehand and then they would just revisit it. It was this kind of shock effect and the wearing down of these airmen.
“It’s fatigue, it’s going day after day of constant uninterrupted warfare that broke these guys down over the long haul.
“But the major action in this takes place inside the plane. How 10 men in a crew, sometimes 11 stood up or sometimes didn’t stand up under the stress and strains of combat.”
Some of their stories
Actor Nate Mann portrays Maj. Robert ‘Rosie’ Rosenthal, a young Brooklyn lawyer who enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor, piloted 25 missions, then volunteered for another tour of duty.
Rosenthal completed another 27 missions, twice survived being shot down, and was awarded 16 decorations, including the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism.
Others, such as Maj. John C. Egan (portrayed by Callum Turner) flew on the ill-famed Regensburg raid of Aug. 17, 1943, when nine B-17s in the group went down.
According to the American Air Museum, he described it later as being “under fighter attack for three and a half hours … no one turned back, although some of us thought we were as good as dead.”
Egan and many others spent time as prisoners of war; many airmen died in combat, especially in the campaign leading up to D-Day. Others died during training accidents, or in planes that crashed in bad weather.
“I think the series has great movement, great characterization and you see them in all their dimensions,” Miller said.
“But we didn’t just want to make a ‘Hooray for USA’ film. Bombing is a very controversial subject. How much should have been done, what targets should have been hit, were there going to be civilian casualties? The film has a moral dimension as well … and we go straight at those kinds of dilemmas as the crew experienced them.”
Enormous in both scale and scope
The series was filmed in various locations across England and will follow the airmen from flights over bucolic fields to the harsh conditions of POW camps.
“We spent a lot of the film in prison camps, ” Miller said. “A lot of the film is about the difficulties of prison life, where the uncertainty becomes a major factor.
“There are so many types of experiences I hadn’t thought about we were able to include in the film, such as dropping food to the starving Dutch at the end of the war when the Germans in Holland were the last to surrender.
“We asked for permission to fly over and these B-17s did food drops. They had first refused … and eventually they flew the mission and it was called “Operation Chowhound” and it fed a whole nation for a while. So there were all these different manifestations of the air war I hadn’t thought about, so this takes in not just the air war but the whole war.”
The show thus will depict “a unique and crucial time in world history,” the release says, calling the production “enormous in both scale and scope.”
“Tom and Steven have always wanted to visualize cinematically what our author Don Miller has called, this ‘singular event in the history of warfare,’” Goetzman said.
“We’re thrilled that Apple TV+ has given us the opportunity to combine the efforts of so many talented people, on-screen and behind the camera, to tell this important story.”
The series will premiere with two episodes, followed by one new episode every Friday through March 15, 2024.
The cast is led by Academy Award nominee Austin Butler, along with Turner, Mann, Anthony Boyle, Rafferty Law, Academy Award nominee Barry Keoghan, Josiah Cross, Branden Cook and Ncuti Gatwa.
Coming Monday: Read the full interview with Donald Miller, the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History at Lafayette College.