'Masters of the Air' series features character based on WWII aviator from North Dakota

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Mar. 2—Editor's note: The following story about individuals featured on the Apple TV+ show "Masters of the Air" and may contain spoilers about the program.

Take a good look at Harry Crosby's picture.

With a grin that makes his eyes smile and wisps of gray hair poking out from under his cap, Crosby looks very much like the college English professor he was.

But the photo tells another story. Crosby's cap is a United States Army Air Force service cap and he's wearing a bomber jacket as he holds a book featuring tales of his heroic days in World War II.

This was no ordinary English professor.

During the war, Harry Crosby was a highly decorated navigator with the infamous 100th Bomb Group, sometimes called "The Bloody 100th" — not for the kills they made, but the dangers they faced.

According to the 100th Bomb Group Foundation, 77% of the original 100th Bomb Group became casualties of war (either killed, wounded or taken prisoner of war.).

Crosby, who was born in New England, North Dakota, is a featured character in the Tom Hanks/Steven Speilberg/Gary Goldstein epic mini-series "Masters of the Air."

Crosby is played by Irish actor Anthony Boyle who also narrates some of the episodes of the Apple+ show.

He provides the first line of the series, setting the scene for American flyers newly arrived in England, a country already weary of the fight.

"Most of us had never traveled far from home, let alone flown in an airplane," he says. "We came from every corner of the country with a common purpose: to bring the war to Hitler's doorstep."

The mini-series has been met with largely positive reviews, including this Critic's Consensus from Rotten Tomatoes: Soaring high with its immaculate production design and acutely well-observed characters, "Masters of the Air"can stand proud alongside its sibling series "Band of Brothers" and "The Pacific."

With a $250 million budget and the talents and backing of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, who were behind "Band of Brothers" and "The Pacific," "Masters of the Air" was set up to be a spectacular display of aviation special effects involving the B-17 bombers, sometimes known as "The Flying Fortress." The show is also an interesting study into the often reluctant heroes who served as crew members — one of them the son of a North Dakota farmer.

Harry Herbert Crosby was born on April 18, 1919, in New England, North Dakota. He was the son of Guy and Eva Crosby. The young couple married in 1915, and lived in a small cottage on the C.W. Herstein farm in New England. Guy was a farm laborer and Eva had been teaching in what was known as the Iowa Settlement just outside of town.

Eva gave birth to daughter Elizabeth in 1917 and Harry two years later. By 1930, the family moved to Des Moines, Iowa, where Guy became a salesman. A few years later, they were off to Oskaloosa, Iowa.

According to his obituary, Harry played clarinet at Oskaloosa High and started, in his words, "a floperoo" of a dance band called Harry Crosby and the Maroon Melodies.

He was a graduate student at the University of Iowa when Pearl Harbor broke out.

By 1942, he joined the war effort as a cadet, trained as a navigator, and arrived in England in June of 1943 with the 100th Bomb Group (Heavy) of the Eighth Air Force.

Crosby was promoted to group navigator and became responsible for assembling as many as 2,000 warplanes from various bases in England, leading them to their targets and safely home again.

According to the 100th Bomb Group Foundation (which provided most of the photos for this story), Crosby went overseas with Lt John Brady's crew flying "Skipper," but became most well known as the navigator of "Just-A-Snappin" piloted by 1st Lt. Everett E.Blakely.

In the first episode of "Masters of the Air," Crosby is seen navigating for Brady's crew. But he was so airsick he became disoriented and accidentally led the crew over occupied France. They were met by anti-aircraft fire but made it safely back to base in England.

Crosby must have eventually gotten a handle on the motion sickness. He served a full tour of 25 missions. But remained in England for seven more years and served until the end of hostilities on May 9, 1945. He left the service with the rank of lieutenant colonel and many medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, and Croix de Guerre.

In 1965, author Edward Jablonski wrote about the 100th Bomb Group in his book "Flying Fortress." He described Crosby as having "a brilliant mathematical turn of mind," and as "sensitive, mercurial and romantic."

Jablonski elaborates by saying that Crosby was "in fact, responsible for one of the strangest decisions ever made during the Second World War."

Seemingly, Crosby agreed when he talked about the decision later in his life.

The story started on Aug. 12, 1943, when the 100th was dispatched to the Ruhr region to bomb various military targets in the industrial heartland of Germany.

Crosby said, "In those days we were given a primary target, a secondary target, and a series of targets called targets of opportunity."

He remembers the primary target that day was the industrial city of Gelsenkirchen. But the weather was not cooperating. Clouds prevented them from seeing Gelsenkirchen and heavy cloud cover also hovered over their secondary and third choices, Bochum and Recklinghausen.

"Therefore, our bombardier James R. Douglass began a run on Bonn, which was listed as a target of opportunity," Crosby said.

But Crosby would have none of it.

He later explained that the previous night, after he had been given a pre-briefing, he returned to his quarters and put on Beethoven's Third and Fifth Symphonies.

"As I played the records I rather idly read the inscription on the inside cover of the album. I noticed without paying much attention that Beethoven had been born in and had gone to school in Bonn," he said.

The next day, 25,000 feet in the air it dawned on him that the buildings he saw below him must have been the University of Bonn.

"I grabbed Douglass by the shoulder and said we would not go to Bonn. Over the intercom someone asked me why not and, after giving the pilot a new heading, I explained that this was where Beethoven went to school," Crosby said.

Crosby said the discussion was tense for a moment, but nobody on the crew objected, so instead they bombed a marshaling yard in Cologne, also listed as a target of opportunity.

But once they got back on the ground all was not fine. Crosby recalled later being met by a very unhappy colonel.

"Old Iron Pants Lemay said, 'Why didn't you bomb on that run?'" Crosby said. "Chick Harding (the command pilot) told him 'My navigator said Americans don't bomb college towns,' and Lemay said, 'Oh, (expletive)!' Harding said, 'Do you want to talk to him?' Lemay said, 'No, keep that navigator out of my sight.'"

While his military superior wasn't happy with him, years later his boss at Boston University approved.

"What Harry did over Bonn, Germany, was not to unnecessarily bomb civilian locations where children would be destroyed," said President John Silber. "He is a great man, a gentle man and a gentleman."

Perhaps, refusing to bomb a college town provided a clue about how Crosby would spend the rest of his life. Academia was calling. Following the war, he completed his master's degree at the University of Iowa and went on to earn a doctorate at Stanford University.

For more than 30 years, he taught in the field of English composition, American literature and rhetoric at the University of Iowa and Boston University. During his time in Boston, he authored and co-authored eight books on college writing.

He also helped develop the curriculum for the Air Force Academy and served as the director of the Writing Center at Harvard.

According to his obituary, he was also active in public life, working for Rep. Barney Frank's first congressional campaign and was an early and long supporter of Michael Dukakis' political career. Crosby served on the Newton Board of Aldermen from 1970 — 73, during which he was particularly pleased to support the development of both the Newton Arts Center and low-income housing.

In retirement, he wrote two more textbooks, and in 1993, Harper Collins published a memoir of his time in the 100th, "A Wing and a Prayer." His book, along with Donald L. Miller's "Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany" inspired the mini-series. It's probably also one reason producers chose to have Crosby's character narrate some of the action since it came from his first-hand account.

Crosby died in Maine on July 28, 2010, at the age of 91. His first wife died of cancer in 1980. He was survived by his second wife and four children.

Family members said in the assisted living facility where he lived his last few years, Crosby was known as "Mr. Wonderful" because when asked how he was he always replied with a hearty "Wonderful!"

While he hardly saw wonderful things during his time in the air, the stories from his book and now the mini-series are providing valuable lessons

into the horrors of war and the heroics of a one-time North Dakota farm boy.