Masters of the Air

Published 8:00 am Friday, May 24, 2024

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If you know me personally, then you know I’m obsessed with airplanes––specifically, WWII aircraft. 

And more specifically, the WWII B-17 Flying Fortress––a machine that the Japanese deemed the “four-engine fighter” for its stealth above war skies. Scraped and bruised as the aircraft became during battles, the B-17 frequently returned home. I wish more people knew about it.

I recently started watching a television mini-series called “Masters of the Air.” It follows some groups of airmen who flew their B-17 bombers over enemy territory, all based on a true story. 

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Before we know it, WWII will have been a century ago. I realized that as I was watching Episode 2. One day, the stories will die out, all the veterans will be gone, and we’ll only have the planes parked and housed in a museum. 

Today––if my memory serves me right––there are only three or four B-17s still flying.

Last October, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour the inside of a B-17. Though she never saw combat, The Yankee Lady looked like she encompassed all the experience and charm of one that did. 

This show that I’m watching offers a rather vivid point of view of what life was like for an airman in WWII. One moment, they’re eating breakfast with a crew member, and then they’re watching their crew member’s plane burst into flames, take a nosedive, and fall into its tragic fate. 

I literally cannot close my eyes and fathom the depth of that moment. Watching a plane––a plane as beautiful and majestic as a B-17––falling from the sky. Watching the men you ate breakfast with fall with it. There must have been some emotional guard those men put up against relationships. It must have been complicated to be part of the camaraderie of the US Army in the 1940s, staying close enough to help keep your men alive but far enough so that when you watched them die, you could still get the plane home safely. 

(I know this is harsh, but this is real life. This really happened. Can you imagine? If you actually can imagine and you have a WWII story, email me. I’ll interview you.)

I really wondered, after watching Masters of the Air, how those guys just…went on living. I guess it was hope? Hope that they’d get to go home and finally see their families again? Because when it comes down to it, and death is staring at you in the face at 30,000 feet high, hope is really the last thing you’ve got to hold on to. 

At the end of episode 3, a group of airmen land the B-17, and the metal is peeling off the wings, the tail, the fuselage. The pilot slides open his window, peers outside, blood on his face, and breathes.

I’m writing this column because I want people to picture that image in their minds and remember that those moments were real. This happened. 18-year-old boys pulled on a chute, jumped from a flaming B-17, and landed wherever they may. Those in the bombers that held up were never promised another successful mission. 

As Memorial Day approaches, I hope people remember. 

I hope people remember the Second World War and honor the ones who lived and the ones who died.