Masters of the Air is a WW2 drama more than a decade in the making. The successor to Band of Brothers and The Pacific, this time around we follow the escapades of the 'Bloody Hundredth', an American bomb group deployed to East Anglia to join the fight against Nazi Germany.


Among the main characters are Gale Cleven (Austin Butler), one of the Hundredth's emotional leaders. An talented pilot with a magnetic drawl, he is portrayed as the more sensible foil to his best friend, John 'Bucky' Egan. But how true is this portrayal to that of the real Gale Cleven?

Who was the real Gale Cleven?

Gale Winston Cleven was an officer in the 100th Bomb Group of the US Eighth Air Force, and conducted bombing raids over occupied Europe in a B-17 Flying Fortress.

Described by his comrades as likeable, debonair and quick-witted – and often seen joking and drinking with his dear friend, John ‘Bucky’ Egan – he was an archetypal American pilot of the Second World War.

Born on 27 December 1918 in Lemmon, South Dakota, Cleven was only 21 when he signed up as a flying cadet in the Army Air Corps in March 1940.

He had grown up in Wyoming and looked like he might follow his father, who worked on the oilfields, but then left a maths degree at university for pilot training instead.

The US would not join the war until December 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, so many months were spent training stateside.

Thanks to Egan, Cleven picked up the nickname ‘Buck’, which he didn’t much like. But both Buckys got promoted to first lieutenant and instructor, then captain, then major. Cleven was given command of the 100th Bomb Group during early 1943, which crossed the Atlantic and set up base at Thorpe Abbotts, a RAF station in Norfolk.

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What did Gale Cleven do during the Second World War?

In June 1943, Cleven met up with Bucky Egan in England – the pair would be firm favourites among the men, especially young replacements – and took part in the 100th’s first combat mission. The B-17 heavy bomber flew at high altitudes and was crewed by ten men, from pilots to gunners. On 25 June, the 100th lost three planes in their first raid, on the well-defended submarine pens at Bremen.

Worse events were to come: costly raids from August to October earned the bomb group a reputation as ‘the Bloody Hundredth’. Even though their casualty figures were no higher than other units, new recruits would sob on hearing they were being posted there.

On 17 August, the Regensburg raid on two factories resulted in the unit losing nine out of 22 B-17s. With the 100th flying at the tail of the formation, they were easy targets for Germany’s own fighters.

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Cleven’s plane took several hits, killing one man and wrecking hydraulics and electrical systems, before a shell ripped through the nose and further strafing damaged the rudder and engines. The pilot, Norman Scott, ordered the crew to bail out, but Cleven countermanded the order, taking the controls and flying to the landing zone in North Africa. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery.

He would not be so fortunate on 8 October. During a raid on Bremen, fighters took out an engine and shredded the left wing of his plane, Our Baby. The crew had to bail out, and Cleven landed on a farm northeast of Osnabruck, literally bursting through the front door to be met by a terrified farmer and a pitchfork pointing at his chest.

Gale Cleven as a prisoner of war

For the remainder of the war, Cleven was a prisoner at Stalag Luft III, the camp that would witness the Great Escape in March 1944. Before long, he was joined by his friend Bucky Egan, who had to bail himself out two days after Bremen.

The Allies advanced in the winter of 1944, which the POWs heard about on illegal radios, and the camp was evacuated in January 1945. German guards led a march to Moosburg in brutal conditions.

One night, according to Cleven, was spent in a building “so infested with bugs that the bunks and straw mattresses were moving by themselves”. Yet at an opportune moment, he managed to escape and make it to friendly lines. A liberated Egan followed two months later.

What happened to Gale Cleven after the war?

In July 1945, Cleven married his childhood sweetheart Marjorie, with Egan as best man. She passed away suddenly in 1953, leaving Cleven with a broken heart.

Remaining in the Air Force, he served in Korea, Vietnam and at the Pentagon. He also went back to university to finish his maths degree, followed by a masters in geology, an MBA from Harvard Business School, and a doctorate in physics.

After retiring in 1955 as a colonel, he worked for an aircraft company before taking over management of the failing Webber College in Florida – transforming it into a successful business school.

How did Gale Cleven die?

Survived by his second wife Lee, Cleven died on 17 November 2006 at the age of 97.

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Masters of the Air. (Photo by Apple TV+)

Masters of the Air is available to stream on Apple TV+ from 26 January, with new episodes airing weekly until 25 March.


Find out more about Gale Cleven and the real Masters of the Air in an exclusive interview with Donald L Miller, author a non-fiction book of the same name on which show is based, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast


Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.