The World War II Stories Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg Should Tackle After Masters of the Air, According to a Historian

The eagerly awaited miniseries Masters of the Air, debuting on Apple TV+ on Jan. 26, caps off a long-term collaboration between Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg to dramatize real-life World War II history for American audiences. The multi-part drama focuses on the extraordinary missions the U.S. Army Air Forces’ “Bloody Hundredth” Bomb Group flew over Nazi Germany and serves as a companion piece for two other Hanks-Spielberg productions: Band of Brothers (2001), which follows the incredible journey of the 101st Airborne’s “Easy Company” paratroopers, from their D-Day drop zones to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest retreat, and The Pacific (2010), which traces the 1st Marine Division’s island-hopping slog through the sands and swamps of the South Pacific.

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These shows present visceral portraits of actual soldiers who endured some of the fiercest fighting and highest casualty rates encountered by U.S. troops during the war. Through the same kind of immersive combat realism shown in the opening sequences of Saving Private Ryan, they remind viewers of the horrors fascism can wreak upon the world and leave them in awe that any of these servicemen made it through their ordeals alive.

This trilogy also represents the culmination of a distinctive era of myth and memory making about the “Good War” fought by the “Greatest Generation,” which began in earnest in the 1980s and 1990s when Americans flocked to nationalistic celebrations of U.S. combat troops’ role in the Allied victory—both to honor an aging population of veterans and to find a war to be proud of in the wake of Vietnam.

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But it’s worth reflecting on the historical perspective that is lost when such remembrance focuses exclusively on frontline troops. It took so much more than U.S. battlefield heroism to win this war. Indeed, only an estimated 16% of the U.S. Army ever saw ground combat. Those GIs were the tip of the spear and mobilized only in the final chapters of a sprawling and complex global crisis. Their efforts were deeply intertwined with, and dependent upon, the work and resources of others around the globe.

Long before GIs began storming beaches, U.S. service personnel fanned out across the continents, fortifying defense outposts, forging transportation routes, and collaborating with allies. More than 120,000 U.S. servicemen were posted to wartime China (none of them in combat units), and another 200,000 served in India. At its peak, 111,000 soldiers, along with military advisers, engineers, and others, staffed the so-called Caribbean Sea Frontier, a major thoroughfare for troop and cargo transports. Thousands more manned an air ferry route that stretched from Brazil to West Africa, Sudan, and Egypt.

Who ended up where was far from simply a matter of grit and bravery—as illustrated by the experiences of Black Americans, who were over-represented in racially segregated manual labor battalions and routinely passed over for combat roles. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that Black soldiers should serve in all theaters, but as soon as recruiting began, demands poured in from those seeking to keep Black soldiers out of their jurisdictions, including overseas allies.

Prime Minister John Curtin, citing his country’s White Australia policy, only begrudgingly allowed Black troops to serve in remote areas of the Northern Territory and Queensland—and those deployed were discouraged from traveling to Sydney, even while on leave. British officials made similar demands that as few Black troops as possible be sent to the United Kingdom and its Caribbean colonies. When they arrived nonetheless, the U.S. military’s Jim Crow policies followed, squandering precious time, talent, and resources. Chiang Kai-shek proved most successful at keeping Black GIs out of his territory. By the spring of 1945, less than a dozen of them—truck drivers—were allowed into China, and still with orders not to venture east of Kunming.

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Black troops were sent instead, disproportionately, to some of the most dangerous hardship postings the U.S. military had: to garrison the malaria-ridden Roberts Field airport in Liberia; to build the Ledo Road, India’s overland lifeline to China across steep, unsurveyed terrain; and to work the supply line connecting the Soviet Union and Iran in heat that reached 140 degrees.

So far the Hanks-Spielberg productions have avoided the entire topic of American race relations. (The Pacific, although based on the memoirs of E. B. Sledge and Robert Leckie which both documented the incident, does not, for example, let viewers know that the first thing victorious Marines raised on Okinawa was a Confederate flag). Masters of the Air, in welcome contrast, includes a subplot about the Tuskegee Airmen, the U.S. military’s first Black pilots. But it’s important to remember the odds working against such service.

American war stories are also often misleading about the contributions and sacrifices non-Americans made during the conflict—both Allied armed forces and civilians, many of whom were colonial subjects of Britain, France, the Netherlands, and the United States. Civilians in fact furnished the vast majority of the 60 million or more people who died during World War II.

Yet Band of Brothers’ Normandy scenes never reveal that Americans were a minority among the multinational forces that landed—or that Soviet troops’ brutal faceoff with the Wehrmacht bought them the time they needed to get there. Likewise they give little hint of the toll the war took on the province’s French inhabitants, some 20,000 of whom lost their lives during that campaign alone. Houses and villages are for the most part pictured abandoned. Blink and you will miss the seconds-long shot of a small family hiding, unharmed, in a shed.

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The Pacific similarly zeroes in so tightly on U.S. Marines that it discounts the diverse coalitions and cooperation it took to wage that offensive drive toward Tokyo. It makes no mention of the New Guinea campaign, in which American, Australian, Dutch, and Indigenous people together repelled a Japanese incursion that threatened mainland Australia. It characterizes Guam, Wake, and the Philippines as far away, unknown lands, not the formal U.S. territories that they were, where more than 16 million Asian and Pacific Islanders had been living under U.S. colonial and Commonwealth rule for roughly half a century, and where as many as a million U.S. nationals would lose their lives.

How Hollywood portrays World War II matters, because the conflict continues to hold such a special place in the stories Americans tell themselves about who they are and who they want to be.  It continues to shape public assumptions about how wars work—or ought to work.

Given the challenges of the 21st century—resurgent racism, globe-wide threats to democracy, and environmental perils that will require collective solutions—we need talented filmmakers like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg to pivot to a new era of World War II storytelling more attuned to the war’s vast landscapes, the complex political dimensions of Americans’ involvement, and the critical part international cooperation and sacrifice played in the Allied victory.

Brooke L. Blower is Associate Professor of History at Boston University. Her most recent book is Americans in a World at War: Intimate Histories from the Crash of Pan Am’s Yankee Clipper (2023).

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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