Real-Life Gale Cleven “Buck” In ‘Masters Of The Air’: How Did Cleven Escape From The German Camp?


We were introduced to Gale Cleven in the first episode of Masters of the Air, and we got to know, through his friend John Egan, how he got the nickname Buck. Gale didn’t like the name that much, but he loved his friend, and very soon, the entire unit addressed him as Buck. Gale, as shown in the series, was a calm and composed man, and he was respected in his unit because of his judiciousness. People knew that he was not a man who made impulsive decisions, and he could absorb all the pressure and not get paranoid when he was put in a life-or-death situation. Buck was a part of the 100th Bomb Group, and all those aforementioned qualities were put to good use when he piloted the flying fortress, aka the B-17, in German airspace. Buck said that he wanted to fly a fighter jet, but he changed his mind the moment he saw the B-17, and he flew on it the first time. Buck’s valor, his friendship with John Egan, his quintessential American air force pilot demeanor, and his sensitive and bias-free perspective made sure that he was not only one of the most respected soldiers but also one who was loved by all. So, let’s find out if Buck’s character is based on a real-life person and if the makers have taken any sort of creative liberties in terms of his portrayal in the Apple TV+ miniseries.

Who Was Gale Cleven?

Gale Cleven’s character is inspired by a real-life person, and though the makers might have taken some creative liberties while writing the screenplay, the ethos of Buck’s personality has been kept intact. In general, whatever momentous incidents have been shown in the series did happen in real life. Before Buck was selected for the Air Force, he joined the Army Air Corps in the year 1940. Buck was a college dropout, as in between his studies, it struck him that he wanted to become a fighter pilot and help his nation’s cause. The US never intended to be a part of World War II, and it was only after the “Pearl Harbour” incident that their stance changed, and the American government sent its soldiers to European soil. Soon, Gale joined the 100th Bomb Group, and he was a part of many key missions that wreaked havoc on the German forces. It is true that Buck met his friend, John Egan, aka Bucky, during his training in the academy, and after that, they were inseparable. Gale really valued Egan as a friend, and though he never stated that very explicitly, he always looked out for him, and he felt good that he had someone like him who always had his back. 

What happened during the Regensburg Raid? 

It is true that the 100th bomb group was given the task of dropping bombs at the Messerschmitt factory, but the catch was that they were not supposed to come back to their air base but instead fly towards northern Africa and land there. The aim was to destroy the German factory where aircrafts were produced, and the American bomb groups were able to accomplish that feat. However, the American forces lost approximately nine B-17s that day, and even Cleven’s plane got hit several times. There was a moment when it felt like the Cleven wouldn’t be able to make it to Africa, and they would have to eject from their plane and land on German territory. But Cleven had a lot of faith in his abilities, and according to his calculations, he was quite sure that he would be able to reach Africa. We saw in the series that Egan had already reached the destination, and he waited there restlessly, hoping that his friend would come back alive. The sight of Cleven’s B-17 in the air made Egan ecstatic, and he went running on the airstrip to receive his friend. Gale Cleven knew that he had made a near escape, and that was why he was grateful for the fact that he had reached his destination alive. 

How Did Cleven escape from the German camp? 

In Masters of the Air, it was shown that after the Bremen raid on October 8th, Buck’s plane did not return to the airbase. At that movement, Egan was not in the camp, as he was given a few days of leave since he was a part of consecutive missions before that. Egan knew that his friend hadn’t come back, and he rushed to his station to learn more about it. Meanwhile, Cleven was held captive in Luftwaffe-controlled Stalag Luft III until 1944. Egan and Cleven were once again reunited after the former was caught on German soil and sent to the same prisoner camp. Cleven knew that they couldn’t stay there forever, as the fear of being persecuted in one of those Nazi concentration camps kept them awake at night. When later Egan joined Cleven, both of them made a plan to escape from the camp. Cleven knew that he had to be very cautious about everything since failure was never an option. He knew that he could be shot the moment he was caught by the German forces. Before Cleven could make the blueprint for his escape plan, the German forces decided to evacuate the camp, and they forced all the POWs to march toward the western front as, from the other end, the Allied powers had almost reached the German border. During the march, Cleven seized the opportunity, and he was able to escape from there. Cleven didn’t want to leave his fate in the hands of those German soldiers. Egan, though, was left behind, as he was caught by the Germans before he could escape. Luckily, Egan and Cleven were reunited once again after the German forces surrendered. 

Gale Cleven married the love of his life, Marjorie Spencer, but that happiness was short-lived, as she passed away eight years later, in 1953. Gale went to complete his studies, and he served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. He took his last breath on November 17, 2006. Cleven was 97 years old at the time.

Cleven felt as if he had reached home when he flew his B-17 once again to drop food packets for the Dutch. His soul was satiated when he saw the smiles on the faces of those people who were waiting eagerly for the “yanks” to arrive. At the beginning of the series, Egan asked Gale Cleven what kind of man didn’t drink, didn’t have fun, and did not seize the opportunity to dance with a girl. But deep down, Egan knew that Cleven was one of those rare breeds who were there for their own people unconditionally. 

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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