Masters of the Air, Episode 8

  • Published

Masters of the Air, episode 8, “Part Eight,” directed by Dee Rees, written by John Orloff. Aired March 8, 2024, Apple TV+.

Instead of bomber crew members from the 100th Bomb Group within the Eighth Air Force, in episode 8 we are introduced to fighter pilots from the Tuskegee Airmen of the 99th Fighter Squadron in the Fifteenth Air Force of the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. While one might question the initial incongruency of a completely different organization in a different theater of the war, screenwriter John Orloff has held true to the compelling story of the camaraderie so prevalent in warfare by weaving in the Tuskegee Airmen’s story into the overarching narrative of the 100th. While other movies such as HBO’s Tuskegee Airmen (1995) and George Lucas’ Red Tails (2012) focus on the Tuskegee Airmen as a collective, episode 8 offers insight into actual individuals.

The opening scene shows a flight of P-40L Warhawks on a true dusk bombing mission on June 1, 1944, to strike an ammunition dump in Italy.1 The narration references the original World War I-era nomenclature of pursuit squadrons, which changed to fighter squadrons in 1942.2 Notably, all four P-40s are sporting the distinctive shark mouth nose art made famous by China’s Flying Tigers. While the Tuskegee Airmen were not known to paint the grins on their P-40s, the scene shows just how synonymous they had become with the P-40. The scene introduces the Tuskegee Airmen and subtly shows that at that point in the war, they were relegated mostly to a ground attack role flying obsolete aircraft.

We next see Major Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle) in the frenzied preparation for D-Day. D-Day often evokes images of paratroopers jumping out of C-47s in the middle of the night or men storming the beaches from Higgins Boats, but rarely does it call to mind the contributions of airpower in the invasion. In addition to the targeting of railroads, bridges, and other lines of communication in the lead-up to D-Day, the previous episode showed the focus on the destruction of the Luftwaffe to ensure air superiority for the invasion. As Crosby references, instead of a single mission per day for the 100th, the invasion required multiple sorties per day. With the proximity of the Normandy region to the bomber bases in East Anglia, bombers were able to conduct quick-turn missions to strike, return, re-arm, refuel, and go back out. Not only did this maintain pressure on the German army in preventing its ability to counter the invasion, but it also provided a visual umbrella of non-stop American and Allied aircraft over the landing force, proving the Allies’ attainment of air supremacy. As the supreme commander of Allied forces, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, stated in late June while surveying the Normandy beachhead, “If I didn’t have air supremacy, I wouldn’t be here.”3

Crosby demonstrates the oft-overlooked fact that each of those missions had to be planned down to the minute detail—not only to secure headings, distances, and altitudes, but also to ensure deconfliction in time and space for the myriad of other aircraft flying in support of the invasion. The burden falls on Crosby as group navigator to plan all of the missions. With no time to rest, he stays awake for nearly three days of non-stop preparation until passing out from sheer exhaustion.

Episode 8 also continues to tease out the story of Sandra Westgate (Bel Powley)—the real-life Landra Wingate. Crosby could never confirm Wingate’s actual role, but he long suspected she was an operative of the Special Operations Executive—the UK’s counterpart to the American Office of Strategic Services, the modern CIA’s precursor. Although Westgate’s brief appearances do little to advance the overall narrative, they do expose how women served in the highly dangerous role of covert intelligence collection in Nazi-occupied territories during the war.

In the subsequent mission brief for D-Day we see two leadership transitions. The overt transition is in the change of command from Lieutenant Colonel John Bennett’s (Corin Silva) temporary leadership of the 100th, to the permanent command of the beloved Colonel Tom Jeffrey (Christopher Lakewood)—known to 100th veterans as “Colonel Jeff”—who served as their longest-tenured commander.4 Major Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal’s (Nate Mann) also transitions from an advice-seeking neophyte pilot in episode 4, to the veteran leader and squadron commander doling out advice in episode 8, after volunteering for a second tour. Such was often the case in combat, with lieutenants rapidly rising to field-grade ranks and command positions, often due to the combat attrition of leaders.

Although we don’t see any actual bombing on the D-Day missions, Rosenthal does mention the pace and scale of operations, flying multiple sorties on D-Day, and the near-mythical sight of the thousands of ships and boats in the invasion fleet, which many aviators described as a near-religious event. The fact that Crosby slept through all of it is also true to the fact that sometimes we miss the big show—either by being out of the theater of conflict, off the flying schedule, or simply asleep.

Back in Foggia, Italy, the 99th is united under the 332d Fighter Group and the legendary leadership of Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (Jerry Mackinnon). The bar scene subtly acknowledges the debunking of the myth that the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a bomber to enemy fighters under their escort.5 The airmen’s combat record is one of distinction and honor that doesn’t need any embellishment, yet one that had to actively counter a false narrative that grew in relatively modern years.

The following mission accurately depicts a strike on August 12, 1944, by the 332d against radar sites at Toulon in preparation for Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of southern France, just a few days later. Now flying P-51s, the 332d is able to conduct long-range attacks and escort bombers into Germany. Although shown flying P-51Ds with high velocity aircraft rockets (HVARs), the 332d was in actuality flying P-51B/Cs with no rockets on that mission, notable because the B/C-models had only four .50-caliber guns compared to the D-model’s six, reducing available firepower by a third.6 Without high-explosive armament like HVARs or bombs, targeting radar installations with just four machine guns was a highly inefficient task. The scene does, however, highlight the challenges of maximum range operations necessitating external fuel tanks along with the performance impact due to the drag of the external tanks and having to occasionally use aircraft movement to shake loose a “hung” tank.

In the process, Lieutenants Richard Macon (Josiah Cross), Robert Daniels (Ncuti Gatwa), and Alexander Jefferson (Brandon Cook) are shot down, with Macon sustaining a broken shoulder and neck. As in previous episodes, the German interrogators at Stalag Luft use the more relaxed, friendly interrogation method they favored over the harsh torture experienced by airmen in other theaters from the Japanese. In his memoir, Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free, Jefferson recalls not only his interrogator’s love of jazz and Lucky Strike cigarettes, but also his own shock at the amount of information his captors had in his dossier, to include the maintenance inspection report completed on his very aircraft just the day prior to his fateful mission.7

The interrogation also reveals the common sentiment of the Tuskegee Airmen—who fought for a country that treated them as second-class citizens— that America, though not perfect, was worth fighting for. These airmen were in fact fighting two wars: the war against Nazi tyranny and the war against segregation and racism at home. Many African-American veterans from World War II went on to be civil rights advocates and leaders, inspired by their combat service to fight at home for a better America.

Despite segregation at home and a segregated military, Black airmen were forced into integration in the shared experience as prisoners of war (POW). White and Black airmen relied on each other to survive. As the episode reveals, when Macon, Daniels, and Jefferson were shot down, many POWs had already been in prison for up to a year or more and had no idea about the Tuskegee Airmen. Seeing the men at the POW camp was a surprise for most.

Only 12 Tuskegee Airmen were held in Stalag Luft III, but when a downed bomber pilot later shows up and excitedly claims that “if the Red Tails had been escorting us we wouldn’t have gotten shot down,” declaring “how many times the Red Tails saved them,” word about their reputation in combat quickly spreads through the camp.8 In his memoir, Jefferson notes with irony that a white prisoner from the South—Major Gale “Buck” Cleven (Austin Butler) in the movie, but a different prisoner in reality—chose him to bunk in his room because he knew Jefferson wasn’t a spy. Jefferson says he likely would have “caught hell” from a white Southerner back home. But in the POW camp, ironically, he was trusted because he was Black.9

Lt Col Matthew Ziemann, Instructor, Air Command and Staff College

1 99th Fighter Squadron Sortie Reports, June 1943–May 1945, 2 of 4, 156, https://blackfreedom.proquest.com/.

2 Daniel L. Haulman, historian, e-mail to the author, March 13, 2024.

3 Silvano Wueschner, “Key to Success: Allied Airpower at Normandy,” Maxwell AFB (website), May 29, 2019, https://www.maxwell.af.mil/.

4 “Col Thomas S. Jeffrey, Jr,” 100th Bomb Group Foundation, accessed March 13, 2024, https://100thbg.com/.

5 Daniel L. Haulman, Tuskegee Airmen Myths and Realities (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air Force Historical Research Agency, 2014), 7.

6 99th Fighter Squadron Sortie Reports, June 1943–May 1945, 3 of 4, 110, https://blackfreedom.proquest.com/.

7 Alexander Jefferson, Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 55–60.

8 Jefferson, 76.

9 Jefferson, 65.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."