‘Masters of the Air’ Lead Harry Crosby Was an Anti-War Leader

Anthony Boyle portrayed Harry Crosby in the hit Apple TV series "Masters of the AIr"

In the hit Apple TV series “Masters of the Air,” about the brutal losses faced by the 8th Air Force, 100th Bomb Group, in Europe, Anthony Boyle plays the lead character Harry Crosby, who narrates the show. 

The series is based partially on Crosby’s book “A Wing and a Prayer: The “Bloody 100th” Bomb Group of the US Eighth Air Force in Action Over Europe in World War II.” 

When Crosby arrived in 1943, nearly one-third of all airmen were being killed, and another one-third were captured. Crosby, the group’s navigator, flew on 32 combat missions and was one of the few original members who arrived in 1943 and would be active in the unit in 1945. 

Crosby died in 2010 at the age of 91, but the new Apple TV series has generated renewed interest in his writing and his book. 

At the end of the series, Crosby and his wife are mentioned as having become teachers and serving on the board of the local PTA at the schools his children attend. 

However, the show’s closing credits do not mention that the war hero later played a prominent role in the fight against the war in Vietnam. 

In 1970, Harry Crosby helped to mastermind the primary defeat of Phil Pilbin, a 28-year incumbent on the House Armed Services Committee, and the election of Father Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest and Dean of Boston College Law School. Drinan became a leading national voice against the war in Vietnam. 

“He had no sort of childish glorification of it at all,” his son Jeff Crosby, retired president of IUE-CWA Local 201 at GE in Lynn, Mass, of his father in a Memorial Day interview for Payday Report. 

“He said, how many people who were on the receiving end of the bombing might have become tradespeople or, you know, professors or scientists or who knows what, and he always had mixed feelings about that, he always regretted it,” says Crosby. 

However, Jeff says his father was proud of his service in the 100th Bomb Group. 

“He thought it was necessary to defeat fascism, and he would do it all again,” says Jeff Crosby. 

After the war, Harry Crosby got involved in a variety of community and civil rights causes. As a World War Two veteran, Jeff says his father, Harry, supported the civil rights movement in the 1960s. In the late 1960s, he even let Jeff attend a North Carolina Freedom School, encouraging him to be civically engaged. 

Crosby’s Anti-Vietnam War Activism

During the Vietnam War, Harry Crosby helped mastermind the Father Drinan campaign. In 1970, the campaign toppled a prominent House Armed Services Committee member. The loss demonstrated how unpopular the war had become among the Democratic Party’s more mainstream base.  

However, according to Crosby’s son, Jeff, his Dad was not always so anti-war. 

“He was tough. He was smart and argued with me all the time, you know, particularly about the war in Vietnam as it developed,” says Crosby. 

After Crosby, as a 16-year-old, got involved in the 1967 Vietnam Summer, going door-to-door to talk to people about the need to end the Vietnam War, he says that he and his father began to argue intensely about the war. 

“It was hard for him to contemplate the notion that his country was on the wrong side of something like that,” says Crosby. “I remember very clearly a conversation we had sitting on the stairs of our home, and he said ‘I just don’t understand how you can think you know more than Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara,'” who also served in the 8th Air Force during World War Two. 

However, he said that his father began to read more about the Vietnam War and engage a variety of voices on Vietnam. 

“He was a smart person, he was rigorous. He would read opinions other than his own. He wasn’t blind, he wasn’t myopic,” says Jeff of his father, Harry Crosby. 

Crosby says that around 1968, his Dad began to shift against the war in Vietnam and then immediately got involved in working against it. 

“When he changed as a citizen, as someone who benefited from being in this country and had a responsibility to make the world as good as it could be, he got involved and he and my mom, both were very active,” says Crosby. “And they got a crew together with many others at the time to decide upon who was the best candidate to challenge the incumbent.” 

Eventually, they recruited a Jesuit priest, Father Robert Drinan, the Dean of the Boston College Law School, to run against Phil Philbin, a 28-year incumbent who sat on the House Armed Services committee.

“They worked hard, and my mom became the office manager for Father Drinan when he won the election,” says Crosby. 

Drinan narrowly beat Philbin. As a Congressman, Drinan became a leading anti-war voice.  In 1973, Drinan went on to introduce the articles of impeachment against President Nixon for the illegal bombing of Cambodia.

Crosby says his Dad was always proud of his contribution to helping change the national conversation on the war. 

“He thought that was one of the highlights of his life, that he had made that kind of contribution,” says Crosby. 

Civil Rights Activism Shaped by World War Two Experiences

Harry Crosby grew up in the small town of Oskaloosa, Iowa, and attended the University of Iowa.  Before World War Two, Jeff says that his father had even been skeptical of FDR’s New Deal, but after the war, he was able to go to Stanford for his PhD for free on the GI Bill and saw social investment differently. 

During World War Two, Harry Crosby, while stationed in England, formed friendships with people from a variety of races and regions. Jeff Crosby also felt that his father’s close relationship with Robert “Rosie”  Rosenthal, a main character in Masters of the Air, helped his father become an activist later in life on civil rights issues. 

Rosenthal was a Jewish B-17 pilot who was shot down twice and volunteered for an extra tour of duty beyond the required 25 combat missions. Rosenthal’s 52 combat missions were the most of any pilot in the 100th Bomb Group. After the war, Rosenthal would serve as a prosecutor at Nuremberg. 

“My dad used to say Rosie always reminded us, just by his life, and by his work, he reminded us about what this war was about,” says Crosby.

Rosenthal was often asked if being Jewish was why he volunteered to fly 27 additional missions after meeting the 25 combat missions required to be transferred home. 

“Everything I’ve done or hope to do is because I hate persecution. A human being has to look out for other human beings or there’s no civilization”, Rosenthal told Donald L. Miller in the book “Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany” (2006).

After the war, Crosby says that his Dad, Harry, fought against antisemitism and for civil rights, partly inspired by his wartime experiences. 

“He was very powerfully against antisemitism. There were some tensions between the older neighbors and Jews who were moving into the neighborhood, he was always welcoming,” says Crosby. 

After being elected to Newton City Council in 1970,  Harry Crosby fought against housing discrimination and for building low-income housing in the affluent, heavily white community. 

“He fought for fair housing in the city. He fought to open that up, that was a long, long standing effort that he was involved in,” says Jeff Crosby. 

As a trade unionist involved in anti-war and civil rights organizing, Jeff says his father continues to inspire him.  With his Dad getting so much attention in the hit Apple TV series Masters of the AIr, he thinks of a closing passage in his Dad’s book A Wing and a Prayer

“Was it a good war? Did we have to fight it? Studs Terkel, when he writes about “the last good war,” says that it was, and we did,” wrote Harry Crosby, referring to oral historian Studs Terkel’s 1985 Pulitzer-winning book The Good War,

However, Crosby said that while he thought the war was necessary, he had doubts about the lives lost. 

“I have learned to live with ambiguity,” Crosby writes. “I remember the cities we destroyed, and the German poets and inventors we stilled, but I remember the time we went to the edge when we put our lives on the line, for a cause that we believed to be just. I remember my friends, those who made it through and those who did not, I remember the tragedies, and the horror, but I remember the laughter.” 

He closes his book by telling the story of a girl in Nazi-occupied Holland who feared the sounds of the American bombers overhead. Her father assured her that the sounds of the bombers were “the sounds of angels.” 

“Was it worth it? Those years? Those lives? That destruction? I still don’t know,” concludes Crosby. “But I do know that I, too, heard the angels.” 

Jeff Crosby believes that those days spent fighting alongside so many who died trying to defeat fascism likely inspired his father later in his life to get involved in the fight against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. 

“It was a deeply held belief that he had as an activist and always felt responsible for leaving this world better than he found it.,” says his son Jeff. 

You can find a copy of Crosby’s 1993 classic “A Wing and a Prayer: The “Bloody 100th” Bomb Group of the US Eighth Air Force in Action Over Europe in World War II” here. 

About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]