The quest by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg to bring World War II to television screens began in 2001 with the premiere of the thrilling HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers,” a story that was followed by the duo’s Marine Corps-centric follow-up “The Pacific” in 2010.
The pair’s much-anticipated third installment, “Masters of the Air,” debuts Friday on Apple TV+ and centers on the actions of the U.S. Army Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group, also known as the “Bloody 100th.”
As with the earlier series, “Masters of the Air” presents camaraderie as a primary driving force behind the Allied victory. The cast, as a result, had to not only work within the historical framework of the Bloody 100th’s actions, but also needed to step into the shoes of the larger-than-life pilots and crew members who took to the skies in B-17 bombers — oftentimes without fighter escorts — on some of the most hazardous missions the U.S. military has ever seen.
One such figure was that of 1st Lt. Harry Crosby, a navigator who began as an airsick and chronically nervous crew member before rising to the rank of major and completing a full 22 months deployed with the 100th.
“I just fell in love with Harry Crosby,” actor Anthony Boyle told Military Times. “I thought he was the most incredible, unique, bizarre human being that I’ve ever seen on screen. I just thought, ‘God, I’d love the play him. I would just love to spend a year with this person.’”
Crosby, who after the war went on to become a prolific writer and the eventual director of the Harvard University Writing Center, serves as the loose narrator throughout the series.
To prepare for the role, Boyle watched available footage of Crosby, who passed away in 2010, and was able to speak to his surviving family members.
“The last few jobs I’ve done have been real people,” Boyle said. “It’s interesting when there’s a limited amount about them. When I played Crosby, there was a book, some chatter about him and a video that I could go off.”
In the show, Crosby develops a close bond with highly decorated pilot Maj. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal, played by Nate Mann. The duo’s sharing of heartwarming support during some of the darkest moments in the 100th’s history is part and parcel for all three of the Spielberg-Hanks WWII series.
The bond that truly carries the show, however, is one between Maj. Gale “Buck” Cleven and Maj. John “Bucky” Egan, played by Austin Butler and Callum Turner, respectively. The duo’s on-screen chemistry is electric, with Butler’s portrayal of the buttoned-up Cleven often tempering the hot-headed, somewhat reckless Egan so perfectly depicted by Turner.
“We had two weeks of boot camp that started us off that really built camaraderie with about 120 of us,” Butler told Military Times. “We’ve learned a lot about each other through that process, going through the physical aspects of that, and also being in the classroom together.”
Cleven and Egan, who were roommates in flight school, were two of the 100th’s most experienced pilots. Both were shot down during separate missions in October 1943, however, and ultimately spent the rest of the conflict together as prisoners of war at the German POW camp Stalag Luft III.
“It was easy with Callum, because he’s one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met,” Butler added. “We became friends really quickly, and that helped with Cleven and Egan.”
The POW experience for Cleven and Egan, which was tensely portrayed on screen, would further solidify their lifelong friendship.
Egan stayed in and eventually served in the newly-formed U.S. Air Force, deploying later in the Korean War. Egan sadly died from a heart attack in 1961. He was just 45. Cleven also remained with the Air Force, serving in Korea and Vietnam before retiring as a colonel in 1955. He died in 2006.
Speaking with Military Times, show producer Gary Goetzman noted the importance of bringing the unbreakable bonds of World War II to the screen eight decades after they were forged.
“You have a story, and you have these great people you’re representing, and you try to give them great representation by your casting, by the settings, by the words, and you try to honor them — [that] is what we really tried to do,” he said.
For Goetzman, this particular portion of the Spielberg-Hanks WWII trilogy was all heart.
“It’s a big story,” Goetzman said. “These are the guys who tenderized the mainland in Europe so our troops could land. We didn’t know what we were doing; we were losing the war. We didn’t get over there until 1943, which is quite astounding.”
“Masters of the Air” premieres Jan. 26 on Apple TV+.
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digitial Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.
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