Masters of the Air, Episode 4

  • Published

Masters of the Air, season 1, episode 4, “Part Four,” directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, written by John Orloff. Aired February 9, 2024, Apple TV+.

By this episode, it seems the catch phrase of Major Gale “Buck” Cleven (played by Austin Butler), “Don’t count on it,” applies to almost any situation members of the 100th find themselves in. Nothing is going to plan, the losses are adding up, and positive outcomes are difficult to discern. Yet, there are constants that buoy all the crew involved in proving the efficacy of daylight strategic bombardment: support from loved ones back home, camaraderie formed from bonds strengthened in combat, and commitments to the triumph of good over evil.

Episode four shifts from the difficulty of combat at 25,000 feet to the commitments and ties that bind those determined to make a difference in the vast effort of World War II. The determination and efforts of folks who are not on the front lines are this episode’s subject—women, the underground resistance, support troops, and the displaced.

 Although barred from combat, women played a huge role in Allied victory. Liberated to a degree from domestic roles, they took jobs in factories to produce the instruments of victory while men went to fight. For other women, the opportunity to travel and get closer to the action drew them to service in organizations such as the Red Cross. Glimpses of these Doughnut Dollies—largely nicknamed by Katherine “Tattie” Spaatz, active Red Cross volunteer and daughter of Twelfth Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Carl A. Spaatz—came in previous episodes.1

Motivated by a desire to both help with the war effort and see the world, Helen (Emma Canning) is the living embodiment of the “girl next door” back home—dispensing coffee, doughnuts, and smiles to 100th Bomb Group members in East Anglia.2 At a group dance, she catches the eye of replacement pilot Lieutenant Herbert Nash (Laurie Davidson). Nash seems interested in her as more than a reminder from back home, while Helen struggles with maintaining her professional role over a more romantic one. When Nash is later lost in combat, Helen must deal with the shock of loss that service members confront directly. Although Helen fills a role as a morale builder who ensures the crews see a pretty face before they go into combat, the independence and freedom from societal norms that come with uniformed Red Cross service offer her scant protection from the direct pain of loss.

 Following the Regensburg-Schweinfurt double raid in North Africa, bombardier Captain James Douglass (Elliot Warren) also seeks female support while composing a letter that conveys his nostalgia for the comforts of home and family, amid the long hours of training and combat far from home. This segues to Thorpe Abbotts, where the crew of Captain Glenn Dye (George Webster) returns from their mission. They are the first crew of the 100th to complete 25 missions and earn a trip home from the war. Dye’s return temporarily elevates his English girlfriend, Lil (Nancy Farino), from a prop to a more prominent position as she apprehensively scans the skies as well. That night, Dye and his compatriots are feted with a celebration that serves as an introduction for a number of replacement aircrew—led by Lieutenant Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal (Nate Mann)—who seek acceptance from both senior leaders and experienced crews while contemplating the event’s significance. The men account for the losses, with only 12 of the original 35 crews that established the 100th Bomb Group in England remaining after three months of combat. In reality, Dye’s crew was the only crew of the original 35 that completed a 25-mission tour.3

Commander Colonel Neil “Chick” Harding (James Murray) bristles at the suggestion from the medical staff that his unit is “flak-happy” and needs some time at a rest house to deal with the stress of combat. Harding’s view here seems counter to the historical view of the Eighth Air Force leadership and most aircrew. Keeping morale high and aircrew motivated were important to the medical staff and most commanders, so leave and passes were fairly liberal, and time in rest and recreation facilities was quite common.

Major John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner) takes Cleven’s advice for an extended leave in London and is soon in a Polish restaurant/club in Hammersmith enjoying shots and the company of Paulina (Joanna Kulig), the wife of a Polish Air Force pilot. Flying, marital status, dancing, and sex are the topics, not atypical for American aircrew in English towns and cities, especially London.4 There is even a brief mention of the famed Piccadilly Commandos, the army of prostitutes who plied their trade in London during the war.5 Paulina later relates that her husband stayed to fight the invading Germans while she evacuated and she is unsure if he is a prisoner or dead in a Silesian potato field.

Ultimately, Egan and Paulina spend the night together. As London is bombed around them, Egan becomes mesmerized by the Luftwaffe raid and confesses that he has never seen the “business end” of what he does. Paulina asserts that the Germans deserve whatever violence and destruction can be delivered to them. The next day, she declares her heart cannot lose another pilot after Egan tries to entice her to spend the day with him. Their story arc details how different people are affected by the chaos of war, seeking escape and respite for many varied reasons.

Meanwhile, the ripples from Regensburg-Schweinfurt radiate further as Sergeant William Quinn (Kai Alexander) opts for passage to freedom through the resistance network. He meets up with fellow crewman Sergeant Charles Bailey (Bailey Brook) and another airman, Bob, in a Belgian café. Dour members of the resistance interrogate them, demanding verbal and written answers. The three crewmen, accompanied by two Belgians, move out after offering responses on baseball and rousing renditions of the Star-Spangled Banner. Quinn and Bailey are shocked when Bob is summarily executed in front of them. Neither are swayed when the resistance guides insist he was a German infiltrator. Although it seems most viewers also don’t understand why Bob was singled out as a traitor, it appears that Bob dated his written responses in the European format of day-before-month while the others must have employed the American month-before-day standard. This scene mirrors another from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) involving the exposure of an infiltrator, where an undercover British commando orders beers with an English hand gesture that gives himself away to the German authorities.

As the Americans continue their journey, female members of the resistance become objects of both affection and authority, which Quinn struggles to accept. The resistance, in most European countries, was another avenue for women to surmount traditional gender roles, and the series showcases this as well.6 

Back at Thorpe Abbotts, the bomb group is gearing up for the next big mission to Bremen. Cleven will lead the high squadron, but Egan will be in London on a pass. Cleven’s plane has maintenance issues, but Sergeant Ken Lemmons (Rafferty Law), a regular in all the episodes since the group arrived in England, comes through for him.

Throughout the series, there have been the almost obligatory kudos for the maintenance troops, but not to the extent of this scene. Cleven’s plane, Our Baby, has an issue with the number two engine and will have to abort the mission if it cannot be fixed. Lemmons assures Cleven that he can repair the problem on the runway. Riding on the left landing gear while the plane taxis, he completes the repair just as the B-17 lines up on the runway for takeoff. Lemmons then rolls off the gear and under the wing and horizontal stabilizer to a waiting jeep, yelling “you’re good to go!” to Cleven. His commitment to accomplishing the mission shines through.

The episode ends with a focus on Lemmons and his crew as the planes return from Bremen. The crew chief is disappointed to discover that Our Baby is not coming back, along with eight other Flying Fortresses of the group. Lemmons kicks a toolbox out of frustration, and the pain from both the loss and action is etched on his face. Only 16 of 24 crewmen return, with Cleven, Major Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle), and Nash among the missing.

The storyline shifts to Rosenthal, who has completed his first mission and heads into debrief. Obviously stunned by the carnage he has witnessed, he is in a state of shock. He grabs a mission whiskey, but lets it go as he realizes that someone has to tell Helen that Nash is not coming home. Simultaneously, other aircrew realize that Egan must be notified as well that his best friend is also presumed dead.

Strolling down a street in London, Egan confronts the scene of a bombed-out house and mother screaming for her dead child. Once more, he witnesses firsthand the business end of strategic bombing, but he moves on, seeking news regarding the Bremen raid. At the newsstand, the headline screams Bremen has been destroyed and 30 bombers did not return. He rushes to the iconic red phone booth and calls the base. In a transparent baseball code, we all learn that Cleven is presumed dead. Egan steels himself and confirms he will be back for the next mission.

This episode widens our aperture on who has a stake in the success of the Mighty Eighth and all the lives these incredibly youthful Airmen are affecting. Simultaneously, episode four resets the cast of characters for dedicated viewers. The original core of the 100th is almost completely gone, and those who remain are barely hanging on. Attrition is even hitting the new crews so fast, we can barely remember them as well. Rosenthal appears to have a promising future. Will Egan be there to guide him to become a master of the air as well? As his best friend would state, don’t count on it.

Dr. John G. Terino, Lieutenant Colonel, USAF, Retired 

1 See David R. Mets, Master of Airpower: General Carl A. Spaatz (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1997), 170, 178–179.

2 See Kara Dixon Vuic, The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019), ch. 2 and 3.

3 Harry H. Crosby, A Wing and a Prayer (New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1993), 131.

4 See, for example, Juliet Gardiner, “Overpaid, Oversexed, and Over Here”: The American GI in World War II Britain (New York: Canopy Books, 1992); Robert Morgan with Ron Powers, The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle: Memoir of a WWII Bomber Pilot (New York: New American Library, 2011), 138–39; and Crosby, Wing, 305–309.

5 See Donald Miller, Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War against Nazi Germany (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007), 216–20.

6 See In the Shadows of War: An American Pilot’s Odyssey through Occupied France and the Camps of Germany (New York: Henry Holt, 2002).

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