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'The Cold Blue' Tells the Previously Lost Stories of Brave WWII Airmen
June 6, 2019  | By David Hinckley

Whether or not you’re a fan of the new Catch-22 miniseries, HBO’s The Cold Blue is something you ought to check out.

Premiering Thursday at 8 p.m. ET, The Cold Blue is a documentary on the real-life World War II bombing missions that Catch-22’s Captain John Yossarian is trying so desperately to avoid.

Watching The Cold Blue reinforces every scintilla of Yossarian’s concern, through cameras in the air and the words of the real-life airmen who shared his fear and still went up in those planes, day after day and year after year.

The documentary, arriving at HBO on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, springs from the classic “lost footage” gambit.

In the summer of 1943, A-list Hollywood director William Wyler traveled to England to film the U.S. airmen flying hundreds of thousands of bombing missions over Nazi Germany.

Wyler’s mission, like those of other Hollywood stars, was to produce a film that would boost home front morale and sell lots of war bonds.

Wyler focused on the crew of the Memphis Belle, a plane notable for surviving 25 missions. Statistically, that was a minor miracle, and Wyler’s film turned the crew into wartime celebrities. Forty-seven years later, their story was adapted and dressed up a little for a full Hollywood movie.

After the war, Wyler’s footage was tucked away in storage. Decades later, filmmaker Erik Nelson discovered it and convinced billionaire Paul Allen to underwrite a restoration that included brightening its color.

Nelson built The Cold Blue primarily on a curated selection of Wyler’s outtakes – thus broadening Wyler’s original focus to incorporate more of the whole 8th Air Force, the military unit that flew those missions.

It’s an impressive story as well as a somber one.

The outfit eventually employed 135,000 pilots flying more than 3 million missions. Exactly 12,731 B17s were built, and about 5,000 were lost. The death toll for pilots and crew in the 8th Air Force exceeded the World War II death toll for the Marine Corps.

Nelson also interviews a handful of surviving 8th Air Force vets whose stories are remarkably similar.

Yes, they were young and thought they were invincible. That said, everyone was scared to death every time they flew.

The temperature at flying altitude in the unheated cabins could drop to 40 below. If you got fresh eggs instead of powdered eggs for breakfast, it meant you had a mission that day. The real-life commanders, while not as caricatured as the ones in Catch-22, did raise the number of missions a pilot had to fly before his duty was considered complete.

Then there was the mission shift. Until some point in 1944, bombers targeted military-related installations. After that, it was carpet-bombing – drop explosives on anything down there.

The toll, by what must be considered a rough estimate, was around 300,000 German civilian deaths. The upside, by Allied military estimate, is that it shortened the war by a year, thus preventing that year’s worth of other deaths.

A fascinating short segment late in the film takes us through a bombed German city in the immediate aftermath of Germany’s surrender. It looks like battleground Middle East cities today. No buildings, just rubble. A barefoot mother hauls a child and a small stack of firewood past the rubble in what looks like the child’s play wagon. The Allies estimated that the bombing left 7.5 million Germans homeless.

Surviving U.S. pilots say, to a man, that they never gave a second’s thought to what was on the ground. Fly there, avoid the 40,000 German guns firing on them, drop the payload, get home safe. That was plenty to think about.

The Cold Blue raises a whole lot of questions and issues beyond the missions and the bravery of the men who flew them.

In the end, though, its summation is rather simple. “We had to get rid of Hitler,” says a pilot. “So we did it.”

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