Donald L. Miller’s massive book Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany came out in 2007 and provided the basis for the new series on AppleTV+. In 2019 Aviation History had contributing editor Stephan Wilkinson look back at the then 12-year-old book in light of the announcement that HBO was going to turn it into a series. Now that the series has begun (but not on HBO), we thought it would be interesting to revisit a review of a book we had already agreed was a classic.
The epic of the Eighth Air Force during World War II is fertile ground thoroughly plowed by aviation historians. A search of Amazon’s e-shelves elicits nearly 200 such books, and several writers have made entire careers of covering the Mighty Eighth.
The best of them all is Donald Miller’s Masters of the Air. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg apparently agree, as they are basing their proposed 10-part HBO project, “The Mighty Eighth,” on this book. If—and that’s a big if—the miniseries comes to fruition, it will be the third in the trio that includes “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.” No release date has been specified, and filming has not begun.
The Eighth’s bombing campaign has been called the Children’s Crusade, for the crews were made up of young men in their early 20s, even teenagers. The horrors they suffered are incomprehensible to anybody (like me) who hasn’t gone to war.
Some of the most gripping chapters of Miller’s book are those that describe the conditions into which bomber crews were thrust in 1943 and ’44, when B-17s and B-24s were sent into stratospheric winds and temperatures minimally understood by the aeromedical professionals of the time—ill-equipped flight surgeons whose resources dated back to the 1920s. Nor did the vaunted Norden bombsight come anywhere near living up to its PR-stoked reputation, and the minimally trained gunners who supposedly made their aircraft “flying fortresses” might just as well have been firing .50-caliber garden hoses.
Miller’s book is not without minor faults. He believes that contrails are created by an aircraft’s propellers and repeats the myth of the crushed ball-turret gunner who died when his B-17 had to land gear up—a tale traced back to famously creative reporter Andy Rooney. Most are irrelevant except to rivet-counters. The comprehensiveness and well-written grace of this book vastly outweigh them and simply make it plain that nobody knows everything.