WW2 drama Masters of the Air, the much-awaited successor to Band of Brothers and The Pacific, is the story of the American bomber boys of the 'Bloody Hundredth' who came to England in 1943 to fight Nazi Germany.


One of their most charismatic leaders – played in the show by Callum Turner, who recently starred in The Boys in the Boat – was Major John C Egan, an expert pilot whose party-boy antics were tempered by a deep-held sense of responsibility to his fellow airmen.

But how does the real John Egan measure up to his counterpart in Masters of the Air?

Who was the real John Egan?

John Clarence Egan was everything you might expect of the charming, swaggering American pilots of the Second World War. Moustachioed and sporting a distinctive fleece-lined flying jacket, he cut a dashing figure – and was popular with his men and pub landlords alike.

Nicknamed ‘Bucky’, he served with the US Eighth Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group – the so-called ‘Bloody Hundredth’ – and flew B-17 Flying Fortresses on bombing runs over occupied Europe.

The Wisconsin-born Egan had signed up as a flying cadet in the Army Air Corps at the age of 24 in March 1940, before the US entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

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The next 18 months were spent at training bases across the country, mostly alongside his close friend, Gale Cleven, who Egan unimaginatively dubbed as ‘Buck’. The two Buckys formed a deep friendship and rose through the ranks together.

By August 1942, Egan was a captain and operations officer of the Hundredth, and in May 1943, now a major, he was selected for the advance party to England.

While waiting for his bomb group to arrive at their English base of Thorpe Abbotts, Norfolk, he became the first man of the Hundredth on a combat mission. It was not an auspicious start: he went missing and ended up at the wrong station.

What did John Egan do during the Second World War?

In June 1943, Major Egan took command of the 418th bomb squadron in the Hundredth. He would fly a dozen missions, usually as co-pilot, and in between could be found in the pub singing songs with the locals. His big personality and easy manner meant he (and Buck Cleven) became instantly liked and respected by new crews.

And replacements came in fast. Within a few months, Egan was already an experienced veteran surrounded by fresh faces as the Hundredth suffered huge losses in several missions, including the raid on Regensburg, Germany on 17 August 1943.

The aim was to take out a factory where Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters were made, while a second force destroyed a ball-bearing works in Schweinfurt, but the Hundredth had the vulnerable position at the tail of the formation.

Nine of their 22 B-17s were lost. “We were under fighter attack for three and a half hours,” Egan recalled. “No one turned back, although some of us thought we were as good as dead.”

Further disasters followed in October 1943, resulting in 200 men missing or killed and only three of the original 140 officers still flying. This sealed a new nickname for the bomb group, ‘the Bloody Hundredth’.

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On 8 October, Buck Cleven was shot down during a raid on Bremen (one of seven planes lost) and on hearing the news, Egan demanded to join the next-possible mission.

Two days later, on 10 October, Egan took off to bomb the city of Munster; a choice of target that caused some upset as it was a civilian area rather than military or industrial, but for Egan it was a chance to avenge his friend, whose fate was unknown.

Before reaching Munster, however, the bombers were under heavy and sustained attack from hundreds of German fighters. Of the 13 B-17s sent by the Hundredth that day, 12 were shot down – among them Egan’s plane, M’lle Zig Zag.

John Egan as a prisoner of war

Egan was captured and ended up at Stalag Luft III, site of the famous Great Escape of March 1944. When he arrived at the prisoner of war camp, he saw a friendly face: Buck Cleven, smiling and saying, “What the hell took you so long?!”

For over a year, the pair made do the best they could alongside hundreds of American officers. But by January 1945 news started emerging of Allied advances on both sides and the POWs began collecting supplies and preparing for the camp to be evacuated.

When that finally came, they had to march in freezing conditions, and under threat by their German guards, for five days and nights to get to Moosburg. Not everyone survived, although Cleven did manage to escape.

What happened to John Egan after the war?

When liberated, Egan returned to the US and stayed in the Air Force, requesting he be sent to the Pacific theatre, where fighting continued.

He went on to serve in the Korean War, before attending the National War College in Washington DC and graduating from Georgetown University. He ended his flying career with the rank of colonel.

On Boxing Day 1946, Egan married a fellow flyer, Josephine Pitz, who served as a Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP). They later had two daughters.

How did John Egan die?

Egan died at the age of just 45 in 1961 after suffering a heart attack. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honours.

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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 John Egan 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.