Book Review: Masters of the Air by Donald L. Miller
Donald Miller’s Masters of the Air is the authoritative historical account of The Mighty Eighth, relating the historical context, the strategic aims of civilian and military leaders, the trials and tribulations experienced by the men who fought in the skies, and, most importantly, the fears, emotions, courage, and sacrifices of individual airmen.
While I had settled on highlighting the stories of the Red Cross Girls for my heroines, I wasn’t wedded to any branch of the service for my fictional heroes until I picked up MOTA. Miller brought to life – and with such intensity and authenticity – the experiences of the USAAF crews in a way that left me with no doubts whatsoever about how my heroes would serve. Miller’s page-turning narrative painted such vivid mental images of the life of the WW2 bomber boys that I had no trouble calling to mind and evoking in my writing the experiences and emotions of my heroes and their valiant crews. I’m writing this review years after having read MOTA, with the aid of the extensive notes I took, but it left a lasting impression on me and on my writing. My memories of the 10-day National WW2 Museum “Masters of the Air” tour led by Dr. Miller that I took in 2016 also inform this review.
The sanctity of the crew, a point Miller underscored so often in MOTA, defined Jack’s experiences in the 305th Bombing Group of the 8th Air Force in my first novel, Courage to be Counted. Survival required the full effort and emotional commitment of the crew, a commitment each man made to the crew as a unit and to each individual within it. Survival statistics aside, Miller cuts to the humanity within each bomber: “Cold figures fail to convey the unimaginable trauma inside the bombers that went down or inside battle-damaged planes like Royal Flush that flew out of Germany with crewmen holding the hands of butchered friends who feared they would not make it back in time for doctors to save them. There were no medics at 25,000 feet, no men wearing Red Cross brassards to rush to the aid of shot-up comrades. Fliers who knew almost nothing about first aid had to take care of each other and themselves.”
The airmen of the Mighty Eighth could count on only themselves and their crew once airborne. As the casualties mounted, crews replicated the bonds they held so vital in the sky on the ground as well. Abandoning the normal strictures of rank, the men closed in on themselves, forming a rigid, unbreakable circle of brotherhood, a circle that included few, if any, other crewmen or base personnel.
While Miller’s narrative expertly weaves historical strategic military and political context with the chaos, fear, and valor inside individual bombers in the air, he also excelled at depicting the life of the airmen on base and the bonds they formed with nearby English villagers, particularly the children. He also shines a spotlight on the disparity in treatment of the African-American construction battalions and other servicemen stationed in England --- while these soldiers were welcomed into English pubs and homes, they faced discrimination, hostility, and even violence from American military forces and commanders.
Miller also devotes considerable attention to the morality questions raised by the bombing raids, giving balanced weight to the perspectives of the crewmen and strategists at the time and the questions we ask today. While some airmen recorded a crisis of faith or at least wrestled with their consciences on some level, many more had no compunction about taking the war to the German people, believing as so many military strategists of the time did, that the greater the pain and losses inflicted on the Germans, the sooner they would admit defeat. Miller also drives home the new end-of-war danger the bomber boys faced: the likelihood that, Geneva Convention niceties or no, downed Allied fliers stood a significant chance they would be lynched or tortured by enraged German civilians.
Clocking in at over 500 pages, reading MOTA is an investment, but one well worth your time. The propulsive narrative draws the reader in and keeps them on the edge of their seats, and in my case, haunted by stirred emotions far beyond turning the last page.