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Checkpoint Delta: Making an Air War Masterpiece for TV

Very often heading out to work on a movie or TV project puts me in mind of the regular deployments I made in the military. There’s the packing and checklists, rushing to get stuff done on the home front that might be ignored otherwise, and always the uncertainty about what you might encounter on a mission that you haven’t even considered in training or prep. That last one is a bitch and will bite you in the ass whether you’re wearing a uniform or reading a script.

Consider what my XO Mike Stokey and I faced prior to leaving for UK to work as Military Advisors on Masters of the Air (starting on Apple TV+ on 26 January). We were working from a familiar wheelhouse on previous WWII epics Band of Brothers and The Pacific as both of us are veterans of infantry combat. We prepped for those using the basic premise that if you’ve seen one war, in most ways you’ve seen ’em all. But in the third iteration of the Spielberg/Hanks WWII trilogy, we were being asked to approach the job from a whole new perspective.

Neither of us is an aviator, but we did have some anecdotal World War II stories that helped us. Mike’s Dad was a B-29 pilot and I had an uncle who was a reluctant tail-gunner on B-17s with the 8th Air Force. So we had some wild first-hand war stories to put us in a proper mindset. That and a metric ton of research in source material on the 8th Air Force, period USAAF training manuals, and various memoirs by bomber aircrewmen gave us a modicum of confidence as we headed for locations in UK where we’d spend nearly a year making what looks to be a true epic that would rate right up there with the first two efforts.

But like most of the deployments we made in uniform, the reality of what we were facing when we arrived in the objective area made us feel like we were on patrol with insufficient ammo. Never mind the arduous and frustrating COVID restrictions we had to deal with daily, the scope and scale of what was being done by crews working on the project was daunting. We worked alongside hundreds of expert filmmakers including prop people, historians galore, set designers, armorers and aviation experts who often seemed to be working at odds and they made us feel a bit puny by comparison. This was clearly no cheapo, slap-dash effort. These brilliant and dedicated folks actually built two full-scale B-17s that were period accurate down to the most minute detail and could do damn near everything except fly. One of them could even be taxied around on the ground like a remote controlled model car.

Augmented by people who knew a whole hell of a lot more than we did about B-17 Flying Fortresses, the 100th Bomber Group (Heavy), and their operating base at Thorpe-Abbots in wartime England, we decided to take a crawl, walk, run approach to training a cast of some 50 actors set to portray real characters from the “Bloody One Hundredth,” which would be the primary focus of most of the nine episodes planned. It was a matter of historical record that the folks who flew, maintained or supported the bomber campaign during the war, had to be basically trained soldiers before they became specialists in aviation of one sort or another.

Mike and I created a 12-day syllabus that all performers would attend. Unlike our previous infantry-oriented training efforts, we did not plan to keep our trainees with us in barracks every night. Demands on their time precluded that sort of full immersion intro to military life and we justified that departure from our SOP by noting that most aircrews flying bombing missions over Nazi-occupied Europe– assuming they survived–returned to a relatively placid environment with barracks, bars and some freedom of movement. This meant that our typical night and day training regimen would be shortened to daylight only…much like the US versus UK bombing strategy during the war.

We put the blitz on in the hours we had the cast, covering everything from wear and care of the USAAF uniform to Air Corps organization, chain of command, briefing procedures, typical mission experiences and even escapes from doomed bombers. We had our share of revelations. You might be surprised at how much fussing and molding is required to get the old Air Corps brimmed hat–called a “crusher” as we discovered for obvious reasons–to get that salty 50-mission shape. But uniforms were a relatively minor concern despite the layers of protective flight clothing worn by aircrews in high-altitude bombing missions.

The nut of the issue in training was trying to put a crew of young, mostly British and mostly inexperienced, actors into the proper mindset. None of them had even been born during World War II, so what we taught them about 1940s attitudes and perspectives was relatively foreign territory. It was hard to explain the sense of adventure that permeated aircrews in those days among young men who grew up on American farms or in small towns with a huge helping of pervasive patriotism sadly absent in the current generation of young men. When we labored to make them understand perspectives among the men they’d be portraying, we were often confronted with puzzled looks. Did people actually feel that way? Didn’t they balk at the restrictive nature of compulsory military service or question the dangerous missions they were ordered to fly? Of course, they did. They boarded those B-17s and flew off into enemy territory in spite of odds that they would get shot down and likely killed. The daily evidence was in the empty bunks and shot-up hulks that struggled back to English bases day after weary day. But they did it anyway. Because it was simply the right thing to do in a world at war.

The actors we trained, coached and motivated throughout the shooting schedule were for the most part brilliant–particularly Austin Butler, Calum Turner and Nate Mann–but the real stars are the Production Designers and the Visual Effects crews who created an environment that provides a rare insight into WWII history. In the midst of that realistic setting our cast of relatively unknown but completely dedicated actors thrived. They understood and effectively portrayed the attitudes that aircrews carried each day of the war when they crawled into those workhorse airplanes knowing the odds were against a safe return.

For our part as trainers and advisors, that was the trophy. Our cast understood and maintained the spirit of allied airmen through long, hard days of recreating life and times in the Bloody One Hundredth, just one of many air forces that helped the allies eventually become Masters of the Air in World War II. 

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