In this second instalment of our “Bloody Hundredth” blog, we focus on some of the most well known personalities within the 100th, all of whom feature in the forthcoming Apple TV+ series Masters of the Air.
Colonel Neil “Chick” Harding
Colonel Neil “Chick” Harding, (played by James Murray in MotA) was a West Point graduate and the school’s football coach before the war. A veteran of the interwar public relations flights to South America proving the efficacy of airpower, Harding was a seasoned aviator who emulated much of the attitude of the 100th. Short, round, and affable, he was a popular figure. With a distinct penchant for alcohol, he was no disciplinarian, and often viewed fistfights and emotional outbursts as a way to release the strain of combat. Understanding the human element of war, he was fond of saying his men were made of “flesh and brain” and exhibited an appreciation for his crew’s mental and emotional well-being. Given this disposition and concern, he was widely respected by the command and saw it through some of its darkest days.
Major John “Bucky” Egan and Major Gale “Buck” Cleven
Two of the squadron commanders, Majors John “Bucky” Egan (played by Callum Turner) of the 418th Bomb Squadron (BS) and Gale “Buck” Cleven (played by Austin Butler) of the 350th, exuded the dash and audacity often associated with aviators. Their skills as pilots were matched by their personalities. Both were described as “debonair”; with white scarves and a Hollywood swagger, they were frequently the centre of attention at the Silver Wings officers club. Larger than life, other pilots idolised them as both served as the “heart and soul” of the Group. As later described by navigator Harry Crosby in his book “A Wing and a Prayer”, Egan and Cleven were “….Air Corps raunch, their hats cocked on the back of their heads, ...both wearing white scarves, the souls of romanticism....they hated discipline”.
Major John “Bucky” Egan
“Bucky” Egan was the epitome of the devil-may-care wartime bomber pilot, wearing his hat askew, often sporting a moustache. "He could turn on the charm and turn it off whenever he liked” and was often seen on base wearing a fez he'd procured while on the Regensburg Shuttle mission to Africa. Egan had started out a Flying Cadet at Randolph Field Texas and in his trademark B-3 sheepskin flight jacket, flew on numerous combat missions with the 100th, usually in the co-pilot's seat.
Major Gale “Buck” Cleven
Gale “Buck” Cleven wasn't just popular with his comrades, he was also well liked by the locals, regularly frequenting the pub in Dickleburgh, where he drank and sang songs in the bar with the villagers. When then-Brigadier General Curtis LeMay, Commander of the 3rd Air Division, came for an inspection of the 350th, Cleven was absent. When LeMay inquired as to the squadron commander’s whereabouts, the senior enlisted airmen reported that Cleven had “taken to the woods.” Cleven was in fact holed up in his favourite pub. The character and antics of Egan and Cleven, combined with Harding’s style of command, set the tone for the 100th during the early days of combat.
Major Harry Crosby
The aforementioned Major Harry Crosby (played by Anthony Boyle) was a self described “romantic at heart” and well known at Thorpe Abbotts for listening to classical music. Crosby was the lead navigator for a mission over the Ruhr Valley, but when the primary target was obscured by clouds, unable to drop their bombs, the formation proceeded to the next target available, the city of Bonn. At 25,000 feet, as the formation lined up at the initial point for the bomb run, Crosby realised it was where Beethoven had attended school. With this epiphany, he called over the plane’s intercom, “…we can’t bomb Bonn!” As a result, 63 B-17s flew over the target with bomb bay doors open and none of them dropping their payloads. He then provided a new heading and set course for the marshalling yards in Cologne. When General Curtis LeMay, Commander of the 3rd Air Division, was informed of Crosby’s action, Col. Harding asked the General if he wanted to talk to the tender-hearted navigator. LeMay replied, “No, for Christ’s sake, keep him out of my sight!”
1st Lt Owen “Cowboy” Roane with Mo
1st Lt Owen “Cowboy” Roane was another standout character in the 100th. After a shuttle mission went awry, the squadron landed in Africa, where the unit found spartan accommodation and eventually pieced itself back together for the return home. Before departure, Roane, flying in a B-17 named Laden Maden, acquired a miniature donkey and decided to make the animal a mascot. He smuggled the mule aboard and wrapped it in blankets to keep it warm while at altitude. Upon approach to the airfield at Thorpe Abbotts, Roane radioed, “I’m coming in with a frozen ass!” Upon landing, the bomber was met by ambulances thinking the crew had frostbite injuries. Opening the plane’s hatch, the only frozen passenger was a tiny African ass named “Mohammed” (Mo for short)! This was a serious breach of British customs and agricultural law, and host nation officials did not find it a laughing matter. Despite the legal wrangling, the matter was finally settled when the donkey eventually succumbed to the vagaries of English weather.
Lt Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal
Possibly the most famous of the 100th personnel was Lt Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal (played by Nate Mann). Described as a reflective and scholarly man, at 25, “Rosie” was older than most of the pilots and had trained as a lawyer at a large Manhattan law firm before enlisting. More importantly, he was Jewish and, clearly understanding the Nazi threat, he saw his service as a moral obligation. Rosenthal joined the 100th Bomb Group in August 1943, and on his third mission, was the only pilot to safely return to base following the Munster raid on 10 October 1943.
He later said, “In a situation like that you don’t think about dying. You focus on what you have to do to save the plane and crew…. You’re frightened, but there’s a difference between fear and panic. Panic paralyses, fear energises…. Truthfully, the only fear I ever experienced in the war was fear that I would let my crew down.”
Rosenthal was shot down in France in September 1944, but evaded capture and returned to duty. He was also shot down over Berlin in February 1945 and was picked up by the Red Army. He again returned to duty, flying one further mission. In total, Rosenthal flew 52 combat missions, earning sixteen awards.
After the war and still searching for justice, Rosenthal returned to Europe in 1946 to work on the US prosecution team during the Nuremberg trials.
In the third instalment of our tribute to the “Bloody Hundredth” I take a visit to Thorpe Abbotts on the 80th anniversary of “Black Week” and have the honour of meeting one of the last surviving members of the 100th, Major John “Lucky” Luckadoo.