Donald L. Miller’s Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany will be the primary source for HBO’s newest World War II miniseries. An award-winning author and WWII expert, Miller is the chief historical consultant and is helping write the master script for the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg-produced series, also called Masters of the Air, which does not yet have an airdate.
Masters of the Air will show viewers a very different war than what they saw in HBO’s previous WWII miniseries, The Pacific (2010) and Band of Brothers (2001), for which Miller was a consultant and writer. Miller’s book has received numerous accolades, including Outstanding Book of the Year by World War II Magazine. With a deluge of material, both in print and on film, about the war, Masters of the Air brings to light a front unfamiliar to many—the dangerous and pivotal air war that made D-Day possible.
As in many of Miller’s projects, students played a key role in the production of Masters of the Air. Through Lafayette’s EXCEL Scholars undergraduate research program, Meredith Castor ’10, Jessica Cygler ’07, Marisa Floriani ’07, Emily Goldberg ’05, Miriam Habeeb ’04, Margarita Karasoulas ’08, and Alix Kenney ’06 assisted with locating photographs, fact checking, proofreading, and critiquing the book. Miller’s First-Year Seminar “A War Within A War” is built around the book and is one of his favorite classes to teach.
As Miller, John Henry MacCracken Professor of History, explains, the fliers of the Eighth Air Force only served six- or seven-month tours because the conditions were so horrific. Nearly 77 percent were injured, captured, or killed, leaving them with a one in four chance of making it out of the war intact. Miller scrupulously recreated the period in his book, and as chief historical consultant on the miniseries, he wants to ensure that that authenticity is reflected on screen.
It’s a challenge, Miller says, to bring the story to life in a compelling and historically accurate way when the topic is so large. After working with HBO on The Pacific, he’s confident the team will do the job well. During the war, there were dozens of American air groups and stations in London and the small towns northeast of the city, so the master script will most likely focus on one group and one station while also vividly portraying England as the nexus of the Allied assault. The series also will explore the prisoner of war experience. In 1943, almost every American prisoner of war was an airman, and the Eighth Air Force suffered more casualties than the entire Marine Corps did during the whole war.
Ironically, Miller says, the English are more familiar with the Eighth Air Force than most Americans. In fact, his English publisher changed the title of the book to Eighth Air Force: The American Bomber Crews in Britain for its release there. The inherent danger of being an airman is compelling. The planes were unpressurized, with open gun portals that allowed the wind to whip through the plane and temperatures of 65 degrees below zero. With a skin so thin that a screwdriver could poke a hole in it, the planes were vulnerable to constant flak as they neared their targets.
“I don’t think a lot of people know about the Eighth Air Force,” says Miller. “Many people don’t realize how incredibly dangerous it was. That’s what drew me to this subject, trying to visualize how I could have gotten into one of those planes. This was the first bomber war in the history of the world, and the Eighth was never stopped in 999 missions. It was an amazing mental feat. Going up there, these guys were playing Russian roulette—it was all luck. Freud said that was the worst kind of trauma a human could experience, having absolutely no control over your fate.”
Playtone, the production company owned by Hanks and Gary Goetzman that is producing Masters of the Air for HBO, first approached Miller about the new miniseries when he was working on the HBO documentary about the experiences of WWII veterans returning home from war. Miller was associate producer and on-camera expert for the film, which was packaged with the Band of Brothers/The Pacific Special Edition Gift Set and premiered at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Hanks and Goetzman were executive producers of the documentary.
He also worked as a writer and historical consultant with Hanks on Beyond all Boundaries, an IMAX film that is the signature attraction of the WWII Museum’s Soloman Victory Theater. Hanks was the film’s producer and narrator. A strong supporter of the museum, Miller was longtime chair of the Presidential Counselors, a board of international scholars, television executives, and heads of other major historical institutions, which shapes the direction of museum policy.
Miller is the author of eight books, three of which are on the war: Masters of the Air, D-Days in the Pacific (2005), and The Story of World War II (2001).
The Story of World War II inspired the 10-hour series WWII in HD that aired on the History Channel and was the most watched program of the network’s fall season. Miller was the writer and chief historical consultant for the series. The chapters on the Pacific theater from The Story of World War II also were adapted for an award-winning PBS American Experience television documentary, Victory in the Pacific, which was nominated for three Emmy Awards: Outstanding Historical Programming-Long Form; Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Writing; and Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Research.
Miller also appeared as an on-camera expert on the one-hour PBS American Experience documentary The Bombing of Germany, based in part on Masters of the Air, and he served as the production’s principal consultant. He is chief historical consultant and writer for The Pacific’s ambitious website and is historical consultant and on-camera expert on the DVD and Blu-Ray components of the series.
Miller has won six awards for excellence in teaching, five fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a number of prestigious book awards.