Surviving Veteran Remembers as ‘Masters of the Air’ Launches Friday


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STAMFORD – Mike Boccuzzi never mentioned the Royal Flush.

He spoke generally about the Bloody Hundredth, just not the Royal Flush.

Now Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are telling the story in an epic TV series.

But when Boccuzzi had the chance to tell it one day while bartending at the Knights of Columbus hall on Shippan Avenue, he declined.

“He didn’t say anything,” said author and historian Tony Pavia, who interviewed Boccuzzi on that day in the early 199os for a book he was writing about Stamford’s World War II veterans. “He probably wasn’t ready to recall the horror.” 

Spielberg and Hanks have been bringing World War II stories to TV since 2001, when they produced the series “Band of Brothers,” followed by another, “The Pacific,” in 2010.

Their third series, “Masters of the Air,” is based on the book “Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany,” by Donald L. Miller. It begins with two episodes that will stream Friday night on Apple TV, and continues with seven more episodes through March 15. 

It’s the story of the 100th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force, known as the Bloody Hundredth.

Boccuzzi was a gunner and radio operator on a B-17 called Rosie’s Riveters. In 1943, when he began flying combat missions, U.S. airmen were new at bombing raids.  

Flying behind the lines

“They didn’t have much experience,” Pavia said. “A lot of them had only four or five months of training.”

But the German Luftwaffe had high-tech aircraft, expert pilots, and rockets specially designed to attack U.S. bombers, some with cannons and machine guns under their wings, according to Historic Wings, an online magazine for aviators.

The Luftwaffe had sophisticated flak crews and radar for aiming shell bursts at American bombers, pelting them with shrapnel, Historic Wings reports.

Still, the American bombers headed straight into German territory, knocking out munitions factories, railroads, landing fields, boat building docks, supply depots, and airplane assembly lines.

A full tour for a bomber crew was 25 missions, but the military estimated that most would be shot down after 12 to 15 missions. “The odds of surviving were worsening as the 8th Air Force began to select targets deeper and deeper into Germany,” author Thomas Van Hare wrote in Historic Wings.

That’s what was happening in 1943. That June, the 100th Bomb Group attacked submarine yards at Bremen, Germany, losing three planes and 30 men. In August, they attacked an aircraft factory in Regensburg, Germany, losing nine crews. For that, they earned their first Distinguished Unit Citation.

The 100th went deep into Germany on two raids in early October 1943, losing a significant number of aircraft. But the horrors of the Oct. 10 mission to Munster, Germany, were unimaginable.

The crew of Rosie’s Riveters, piloted by Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal and Winifred “Pappy” Lewis, had just joined the 100th Bomb Group as replacements. Their plane was grounded for repairs, so on Oct. 10 the Rosie’s Riveters crew boarded another plane, the Royal Flush, at their base at Thorpe Abbotts, England, along with crews from other squadrons.

High in the sky, the Royal Flush was at the rear of the formation, a dangerous position, with no fighter planes for protection.

‘We counted 176 holes’

“At that time, we didn’t have flying escorts,” Boccuzzi, then in his 70s, told Pavia for his book, “An American Town Goes to War.” “Once you got over the English Channel, you were all alone.”

Boccuzzi remembered the mission to Bremen, Germany.

“Our number two engine was shot out, the number four engine was out, and we had a hole eight feet in diameter in our right wing,” Boccuzzi, who was a sergeant, told Pavia. “Later we counted 176 holes in the plane.”

Everything was precarious, Boccuzzi said.

“We had to wear an electric flying suit because it could get to 60 degrees below zero in the B-17. You had a heated suit that plugged into the airplane,” he said. “We had no helmets or anything. Parachutes? … With all the stuff we had on, we couldn’t be bothered with a ‘chute.”

Boccuzzi flew 25 missions over Germany from October 1943 to March 1944, in four different airplanes, he told Pavia. Their B-17s kept getting destroyed.

He alluded to the Royal Flush.

“On one mission, we came back all alone,” Boccuzzi said. “One by one the planes went down, until it was just us.”

‘Things flying in the air’

The raid on Munster, Germany, is known as one of the worst disasters in the history of the mighty 8th Air Force.

That day the 100th Bomb Group deployed 21 planes. Seven were disabled and returned to base. Of the 14 remaining, 13 were destroyed, members of their 10-man crews killed, missing or captured when they parachuted out. 

Only the Royal Flush returned, trailing thick black smoke, missing two of its four engines, a big hole in the fuselage.

“Think about it,” Pavia said. “They flew in formation just feet apart from each other at high speed, with things flying in the air all around them. Planes on fire, wings and tails flying off, men falling thousands of feet. They saw all that. They would fly for hours, anticipating horror, then they get over the target and hell breaks loose.”

Boccuzzi told Pavia he stayed in the Royal Flush after it landed.

“I couldn’t move a muscle,” Boccuzzi recalled. “The other guys just left me alone. They didn’t make a big deal of it.”

‘I saw a kid’s face’

With a huge cast, “Masters of the Air” documents the stories of the 100th Bomb Group. Boccuzzi, who grew up on Mission Street on Stamford’s West Side, is played by actor Riley Neldam. He is featured in Episode four, airing Feb. 9; Episode five, airing Feb. 16; Episode six, airing Feb. 23, and Episode seven, which airs March 1.

Pavia said he heard about “Masters of the Air” but didn’t think Boccuzzi was in it because he didn’t know the Rosie’s Riveters crew ended up on the Royal Flush. 

But Colleen Harkey, executive director of the Stamford Veterans Park Partnership, which chronicles the histories of city veterans, said she figured it out.

“I did some digging. I know the veterans are very humble and don’t speak about things,” Harkey said. “They are reluctant to share their stories because they experienced horrible things. That’s why I’m so excited to see this series. I think we all have to understand that our freedom has been sustained because of the things veterans did.”

She is working with veterans’ groups to organize watch parties so that, once a number of the episodes are streaming, people can watch them together, Harkey said.

Boccuzzi, who died about 20 years ago, was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses and five Air Medals. The 100th Bomb Group left him with a lifelong image, he told Pavia.

Right after the raid on Munster, he shot down his first German plane, Boccuzzi said. 

“As he came toward us in a sloop, I hit him. He came in so close that he took the antenna right off our ship,” Boccuzzi said. “I swear to this day that I saw a kid’s face as the plane was going down. He was so young. I can visualize that today like it was yesterday.”

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.