The Apple TV+ World War II miniseries, “Masters of the Air,” offers opportunity aplenty to reflect on life in America past and present. The limited series (nine episodes) recounts in detail events of the U.S. Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group — the so-called “Bloody 100th” — as its crews undertook one perilous mission after another inside German-occupied Europe.

Scene after scene depicts the airmen flying through heavy anti-aircraft fire while enduring fierce attacks by Luftwaffe fighter pilots. Planes and crew members were routinely ripped apart. Nearly every frame in the early going of the series features explosions and carnage and agony.

The fifth episode is particularly horrific. It recounts the Oct. 1943 raid on the city of Münster after which only one of the Hundredth’s 13 aircraft returned to base. The gigantic B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft were easy targets for the German fighter pilots and disaster was a near daily outcome. “The fighters were all over us,” one pilot recalled. “We wound up with 20-millimeter shells coming in the cockpit. You’re trying to stabilize the aircraft. I had my glasses knocked off. A shell blew up right in front of my face. It came in from behind me and I got the burst from the flash. I wound up with first- and second-degree burns. Shrapnel from the shells wound up in my leg and my sleeve was all shredded.”

Even so, he managed to complete his mission. As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have had the courage to do what the men of his generation did.

All told, from June 1943 to April 1945, the 100th Bomb Group flew 306 missions and 8,630 sorties with the harrowing loss of 732 airmen and 177 aircraft. An additional 923 men were taken as prisoners of war where yet more misery awaited them: rations were insufficient to sustain health; in the latter months of captivity hunger became a serious issue.

I had two recurring thoughts while viewing this series. The first was how fortunate I have been to be born when and where I was born, in Rumford, Maine, in the mid-1950s. In contrast to countless other human beings here and elsewhere, past and present, history has required so little of me, other than to follow my dreams and to pursue happiness. What other nation’s citizens get to presume such things?


I’m often anxious about my privilege. The only reprieve I find is in the proposition that “to whom much is given, much is expected.”

I joined the Peace Corps in 1985 and served two years in West Africa. I became a teacher in 1998 and sought to inform and inspire young people. I donate to charity, though I certainly could give more. I have picketed and protested injustice, and I have preached humanism my whole life. But it all feels insufficient, and I can’t help but feel that my contributions have been incommensurate with my privilege.

My second thought concerned how one of our country’s candidates for the presidency — Donald Trump — has repeatedly disparaged America’s fallen soldiers. In 2015, he famously objected to calling former senator and 2008 presidential nominee John McCain a war hero. As a reminder, McCain endured five years deprivation and torture as a POW in North Vietnam. Nonetheless, Trump scoffed at this: “I like people who weren’t captured, OK?”

Although eligible for military service, Trump himself did not serve in the Vietnam War. He received four student deferments and an additional medical deferment for bone spurs in his heels, thanks to a physician tenant of one of his father’s properties.

As president, Trump canceled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018, saying that “the helicopter couldn’t fly” and that the Secret Service wouldn’t drive him there. Neither claim was true. The Atlantic reports that Trump rejected the idea of the visit because he feared his hair would become “disheveled in the rain” — and because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead. “Why should I go to that cemetery?” he reportedly asked members of his staff. “It’s filled with losers.”

On the same trip, Trump called the more than 1,800 Marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood “suckers.” Those remarks, deplorable at the time, are all the more appalling to this writer after watching “Masters of the Air.” And they are a far cry from what most Americans expect to hear from their commander in chief.

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