Q&A with the Author on Masters of the Air

Q: There are so many stories from the Second World War. What prompted you to tell the story of the Eighth Air Force?

DM: The saga of the Eighth Air Force, in its completeness, is one of the untold stories of World War II, a story full of drama and moral meaning, and peopled by an incredible cast of characters, college-age flyboys who took the war directly to Hitler’s doorstep. Masters of the Air deals not only with combat in the sky, but with life in the German prison camps, life on the run—trying to escape the Gestapo—in Occupied Europe, life on the air bases in England and in war-torn London, the most exciting city on the planet in World War II. It delves into controversial subjects like racism and revenge and the morality of urban bombing.

I’m a cultural historian, not a trained military historian, and I’m interested in how people react under the extreme pressures of total war. I take readers to the face of battle, in the fire-filled skies over the Third Reich, but I also describe the plight of human beings under the bombs in German cities, where the primary victims were women with young children, many of whom wrote searing accounts of their experiences. I want to give readers an understanding of how war “felt,” as Stephen Crane did in The Red Badge of CourageMasters of the Air aimed at general readers, men as well as women, not just those interested in blood and thunder stories. And it is, I think, a book that resonates with meaning for our own times, for we live, unfortunately, in a world at war.

Q: You write about how most of the “Bomber Boys” had never even been in an airplane before they started training. How did these callow young men end up in this elite force?

DM: These were boys who grew up in the Golden Age of flight. They knew about the Wright brothers, had thrilled at Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight, and had gone out to local fairgrounds to watch the aerial acrobatics of touring barnstormers and stunt flyers. They built model planes out of balsa wood and watched the first Hollywood movies about the wonders of flight. Flying was romance, but they were also seduced by the recruiting campaign of the Army Air Force, which told them they would be joining an elite, all-volunteer outfit, the cream of the crop. By the time they completed their rigorous flight training, they knew this was true. They flew to war, like all innocents do, with blazing confidence.


Q: The Eighth Air Force suffered over 26,000 fatal casualties—more than the entire Marine Corps. How did the crewmen handle their fears, carrying on in the face of such dismal odds?

DM: It was love, not hatred of the enemy, that held them together. Men kept fighting and dying because they didn’t want to let their fellow crewmates down. The reporter Andy Rooney, who covered the ground and the air war, said that he had never seen so many instances of sacrificial comradeship as he saw in the Eighth Air Force. It is one of the ironies of history that wars could not be fought without love, the thing that sustains men under fire and allows them to go on killing for their country.

Q: The picture you paint of the realities of the missions is brutal—frostbite, oxygen deprivation, claustrophobia, not to mention the possibility of mental breakdown. Did many crewmen succumb to these conditions even before the Germans could get them?

DM: Weather was a greater threat than the enemy. Planes took off and flew to their targets in atmospheric conditions that would shut down an airport in peacetime; and there were hundreds of horrific accidents, accidents in which bombers collided in mid-air and exploded, leaving no survivors.

At 25,000 feet the cold kills and the air is un-breathable. Bombers were un-pressurized and their gun ports let in the freezing air, dropping temperatures inside to plane to 50 degrees below zero. The paralyzing cold froze men’s extremities, even their eyeballs, and it froze the equipment of survival: oxygen masks, electric suits and gloves, even the plane’s engines, guns, and hydraulic system.

And men’s minds froze and snapped in combat. As Joseph Heller points out in his novel Catch-22, there were far more cases of mental breakdown than the Air Force admitted. Some of these traumatized boys feared the airplane, their own plane, more than enemy fire. Masters of the Air reveals the aero-medical disaster the Air Force faced in World War II, and describes the mental torture the men went through and the harsh treatment that psychological casualties received in battlefront hospitals and on bomber bases. Men also broke down because they had trouble killing, a problem we are seeing in Iraq today.


Q: One of the sensitive issues you examine in MASTERS OF THE AIR is how the airmen knew their strategic bombing was responsible for the deaths of many civilians, half of them women and children. How did these young men deal with this disturbing truth?

DM: There is a myth about these Bomber Boys—that they were automatons, warriors who killed from long distance, without seeing the faces of their victims, and hence that they had no feelings for those their bombs destroyed. Some of the airmen fit this description; most do not. The Air Force ran its own secret surveys during the war. They are now de-classified and reveal that thousands of the men were deeply troubled by what they were doing, especially when they were sent against targets in densely populated cities, “women and children treatment,” the men called it.

But even the strongest dissenters believed in the correctness of their cause and realized that in total war the innocent would have to suffer along with the guilty. Most believed that Hitler and the German people had brought this scourge upon themselves and would have to take responsibility for the slaughter of their own children.

And while the airmen never thought of themselves as innocents, they, too, were suffering.


Q: Do you think there are any moral lessons about this civilian bombing that can be carried over to our own time of war?

DM: In warfare the violence must be not be excessive, beyond what is necessary to achieve a military victory. It must be proportionate to the military objective and not, as in the fire bombing of Dresden, disproportionate. There an entire city was obliterated although the main target was a rail yard. The indiscriminate bombing of women and children in World War II by both the Axis and the Allies led, finally, to the establishment of international codes, rules of war that outlaw the deliberate targeting of non-combatants. They will always be breached, but it is important that they are there, as ethical guideposts.

But toward the end of the war, in its impatience to force a speedy surrender, the Eighth Air Force resorted, for a brief period, to terror bombing. Terror bombing—using shock and awe tactics, to smash civilian morale in hopes that the people rise up against their government—was morally wrong and it didn’t work.

This is a lesson that has not been assimilated by modern air forces, including our own, as witnessed by “shock and awe” type campaigns in Vietnam and Iraq.

What made the story of the air war over German doubly interesting to me is that the moral questions it brings up are eternal, questions about ends and means, good and evil. What kind of behavior is morally justifiable to bring down a morally repugnant regime? When is force proportionate, and when is it disproportionate? Does the achievement of good, i.e. the eradication of evil, justify the killing of innocents? There are no easy answers but since we live in a world at war it is important to re-examine the gray areas, as well as subjects that aren’t often addressed.

Q: What else can we learn from the history terror bombing, especially when it’s so close to home today?

DM: In a recent essay in Time magazine, the noted historian Niall Ferguson says that 9/11 was the beginning of a “new style” war “because the enemy chose as its targets not masses of troops or military installation, as in traditional war, but U.S. civilians—ordinary people going about their business on planes, in tower blocks in government offices.”

But this “new style” war actually began in World War II. In that war 60 million people were killed; most of them were non-combatants—women, children, and the elderly, and hundreds of thousands of them died in bombing raids conducted against cities far behind the front lines. As Churchill told the people of England during the darkest days of The Blitz; “This is a new form of warfare and you are the targets. This is a war of the unknown soldiers.”

Masters of the Air takes the reader to the face of battle and shows war from the warrior’s point of view. It also takes you into the bomb shelters of Berlin, Hamburg, and Dresden and shows how war felt to distressed mothers and their children.

This is not for shock effect. If we’re going to continue to fight wars we need to know how appallingly destructive they can be, so we can avoid them unless our cause is absolutely right.

There is another lesson here. Since both sides in World War II conducted terror bombing, bombing aimed at civilians, and since this is the main weapon of the twenty-first century terrorist, a study of the world’s first bomber war provides an opportunity to scrutinize this method of warfare, its effectiveness as well as its morality. The objective of terror bombing is to break the will and spirit of its victims to the point where they are ready to give up the fight.  World War II shows clearly that terror bombing rarely accomplishes this.

Q: How did the accomplishments of the Eighth Air Force change the way wars are fought? The Eighth Air Force was really inventing a new kind of war, utilizing new equipment and technologies as they never had been used before. Do you think there are any corollaries for what the military is encountering today in Iraq?

DM: Today there is a heavy American reliance on airpower. It is seen as a quick way to achieve military objectives, especially pacification. It was airpower that kept Saddam contained before the present war broke out, and airpower was effective in the first Gulf War, as well as in the Balkans.

Wars fought from the sky, where America enjoys complete supremacy, are less costly in blood and treasure than ground wars; and with smart weapons, they can cut down on civilian casualties. That’s the theory, anyway. In Vietnam, bombing did not work. We bombed North Vietnam as if it was Germany, an industrial nation with a network of heavily populated cities, and this failed.

Victories achieved through airpower can also be illusionary. Boots on the ground are necessary to defeat insurgencies, as Americans are finding out in Iraq and the Israelis are discovering in southern Lebanon. Airpower is too often a quick, and ineffective, “fix,” appealing, as it was in the 1930s, to the American people, who do not like to fight long wars and sustain heavy casualties.


Q: Ultimately, did the strategic bombing of Germany and its occupied territories work?

DM: One of the longest-standing myths about World War II is that strategic bombing did not work. It didn’t win the war by itself, but the war could not have been won without it. Terror bombing, as I have said, did not work, but strategic bombing, the bombing of vital economic targets, did. The Allies could not have carried out the Normandy invasion without air supremacy over the English Channel and the Normandy beaches. And after D-Day, Allied bombers knocked out Germany’s entire transportation system and killed its synthetic oil industry. Bombing shortened the war, denying German armies the weapons and ammunition to conduct a final suicidal defense inside German borders. If Germany had been able to do that, it would have been the first nation to become the victim of an atomic attack.

Q: Who were the “Writing 69th” and what part did they play in publicizing the exploits of the Eighth Air Force?

DM: They were a group of courageous young reporters, among them Andy Rooney and Walter Cronkite, who covered the Eighth Force and flew with the men on combat missions. Yet though they flew with the boys, they were not what we’d call “imbedded” correspondents. They had more journalistic independence than embedded reporters, even though they operated under rules of wartime censorship. They covered the stories they wanted to cover and were permitted to freely interview the air crews when they returned from missions. Then they returned to London, wrote their copy, and argued face to face with censors about what to leave in and what to leave out. And their stories have fidelity, because the only thing that was stricken was information about operations that might aid the enemy.

One of the Flying 69th was the academy-award winning Hollywood director William Wyler, who produced the finest wartime documentary about the Eighth Air Force, Memphis Belle. Yes, it’s propaganda but it’s also a film of power and authenticity, one that brought home to American audiences the terror and peril of air combat.


Q: Who were some of the famous men of the day who joined the Eighth Air Force? Why do you think this particular part of the war effort attracted them?

DM: The two most prominent Hollywood movie stars of the day, Jimmy Stewart, and Clarke Gable, the “King of Hollywood,” were members of the Eighth Air Force. Gable flew with the boys and did a film about air gunners; and Stewart was one of the most decorated combat commanders in the war. Then there is the famed orchestra leader Glenn Miller, whose Army Air Force band toured the English bases of the Eighth and who was killed in an air accident over the English Channel. And, of course, a host of men who later became famous were with the Eighth Air Force, among them the football coach Tom Landry, the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and the test pilot Chuck Yeager, the hero of the book and film The Right Stuff.


Q: One little-written-of part of the story you tell involves the POW hunger marches that many of the captured airman endured. What did this “pageant of misery” entail?

DM: In the final months of the war in Europe, the Nazis moved tens of thousands of Allied airmen, including over 30,000 Americans, from prison camps in the path of the Red Army’s advance to camps in western German. The men had no idea where they being taken and Hitler, at one point, planned to use them as hostages to seek a separate peace with the Western Allies. There was even talk inside the Reich of assassinating them, as payback for Dresden.

These men put on forced marches, through brutal winter weather, and hundreds of men died of exposure and hunger. The airmen were on the ground, witnessing the damage they had done, but they found it hard to sympathize with victims who now attacked them physically and spit into the faces, because they witnessed starving, hollow-eyed Jews being marched to new death camps in the west, along the same roads they were traveling.


Q: You touch upon racial prejudice in what was then a wholly segregated military. How did Jim Crow rear his ugly head vis-à-vis the Eighth Air Force?

DM: African-Americans were the only ethnic group excluded from bomber crews. The head of the 8th Air Force, General Hap Arnold was a racist, and felt that having blacks on crews, many of them serving over white men, would be perilous to discipline. Blacks served in the Eighth, but they were relegated to ground duty, building air bases and hauling bombs on trucks.  They were not even permitted to work on crews that repaired the bombers.

Blacks were quartered in segregated facilities and were forced to eat and drink in separate bars and restaurants. There were even Black and White nights, when only airmen of a certain color where allowed off base, on leave.

Inevitably, there was racial violence, including a full-scale racial riot between black and white troops in a small town in eastern England called Bamber Bridge. Five men were shot, one of them—a black man—fatally.

Black GIs, however, got along well with the English people, even though Britain was a racially homogeneous country with not more than 8,000 black residents.  Black American airmen found it liberating to be a country where there were no Jim Crow laws, except those instituted by the U.S. Army.


Q: You focus throughout Masters of the Air on the story of Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal, inspirational leader of the Bloody Hundredth. Why?

DM: Rosenthal, still alive at age 88, is the lead character of the book. As a young Jewish law student, he had watched with growing alarm the newsreels of Hitler’s early campaigns against the Jews. He enlisted in the Air Force on Pearl Harbor Monday, determined to fly and fight until either he or Hitler was dead. A quiet, self-effacing star athlete at Brooklyn College, he flew 52 combat missions and was shot down three times, the last time behind Russian lines. On one of his first missions, his was the only plane from the Hundredth to survive the bombing of Munster. After the war, he became a prosecuting attorney at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. At the Trials, he interrogated Generals Goering and Keitel, and the experience of seeing justice catch up with these monsters brought his war to a morally satisfying end.