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The men of the Eighth Air Force craved fresh eggs for breakfast, a rare treat at their base in England during World War II. When they were served, though, the men blanched. Fresh eggs were set aside for those going on especially dangerous missions. You wanted fresh eggs, but you didn’t want fresh eggs.
The new documentary The Cold Blue is thick with such details, surprising and strange and funny but above all horrifying. The level of everyday heroism on offer almost surpasses our capacity to absorb it. The variety of ways by which men could get killed was vast. What men were expected to do was merely to throw themselves in a storm of lethal fire, go to bed, rise, and repeat.
Even the genesis of The Cold Blue is hard to reconcile with today’s sensibilities. In 1943, William Wyler was already among the most distinguished Hollywood directors, having made Wuthering Heights and Mrs. Miniver. (He would go on to make The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday, and Ben-Hur and remains the only person to direct three films to win the Best Picture Oscar.) Wyler, a Jew from Alsace-Lorraine who came to America in 1921, volunteered to join the Army in 1942, spending three years as a major and joining bombing missions over Europe to film the 45-minute documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. Wyler’s extraordinary footage was damaged under difficult conditions, but a team led by director Erik Nelson pored over 15 hours of celluloid Wyler and his team of three cinematographers shot. Nelson assembled The Cold Blue by combining restored footage shot by Wyler with new scenes and voiceover narration from veterans of those B-17 missions. The resulting document of courage is playing a single night in theaters (May 23) ahead of an HBO debut on June 6, the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Wyler’s cinematographer Harold Tannenbaum was among those killed during the unspeakably harrowing bombing runs, and Wyler himself suffered hearing loss in one hear while filming. Men from B-17 crews speak in Nelson’s film of watching planes flying in such close formation that occasionally two would collide, each of them crashing. Pilots had to remind their ten-man crews not to waste too much time gawping at crashing planes; there was work to do.
Unlike the British, who ordinarily flew at night, American bombers were told to carry out their runs in broad daylight, over heavily defended targets. Their planes were not pressurized or heated. “On a warm day, it would be 28 below. Sometimes it got 60 below,” recalls one veteran. One man’s hands froze to a plexiglass window and his fingers had to be amputated. Frostbite could set in within ten minutes.
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