Spielberg-Hanks TV Series "Masters Of The Air" Based On Casper World War II Pilot

Maj. Gale “Buck” Cleven of Casper is the main character of a true-life Apple TV series, which debuted earlier this year, titled "Masters of the Air" produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks that also features another Casper pilot.

DK
Dale Killingbeck

April 21, 20249 min read

Masters of Air both guys 4 21 24
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Their names were prominent in the social pages of Casper newspapers as young men in the 1930s.

A decade later they were making headlines as German prisoners of war, and now nearly 80 years later they’ve returned to the spotlight for new generations of Wyomingites to learn about their exploits as young World War II pilots featured in the new Apple TV series “Masters of the Air," which premiered earlier this year.

But before becoming part of the script of the nine-part series produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, Maj. Gale “Buck” Cleven and Lt. George Niethammer earned the right to be remembered through their services as part of the Greatest Generation that liberated the world from evil.

Both willingly set aside their dreams and potential futures to fly bombers into the deadly German-ruled skies over Europe.

One returned home. The other did not.

Wyoming Beginnings

Cleven was born in Lemmon, South Dakota, on Dec. 17, 1918, just over a month after the Armistice ended World War I. His family moved to Midwest, Wyoming, where his father worked in the oil field.

He attended Midwest High School, and in the Midwest News column in the Casper Tribune-Herald on Sept. 21, 1936, is mentioned as “among the Midwest boys who attended the Casper-Billings football game” and later as “spending the weekend with the Andersons in Casper.”

Niethammer would have been one of the players Cleven watched on that prep football field.

Cleven graduated from Midwest High as its valedictorian in 1937 and was chosen as a second alternate candidate for the military academy at West Point. When that didn’t happen, he enrolled in the University of Wyoming for the next three years. He then enrolled in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1940, and in March 1941 received his wings as a pilot.

Cleven’s skills as an aerial ace led to his appointment as an instructor at MacDill Field in Florida, which he would do until April 1943.

The Spielberg-Hanks project centers on the World War II experience of Cleven, from his deployment to the European Theatre to being taken as a POW and is ultimate escape. The Casper boys come together in the final episode when he and Niethammer are put in the same POW camp.

  • Masters of Air Niethammer Missing 4 21 24
    (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • Masters of Air Cleven Comes Through Raid 4 21 24
    (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • Masters of Air Screenshot 2024 04 19 at 2 43 18 PM 4 21 24
    (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • George Niethammer was an athlete who played several sports. He was the center on the Natrona County High School basketball team.
    George Niethammer was an athlete who played several sports. He was the center on the Natrona County High School basketball team. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • George Niethammer was a leader from a young age. He was president of his junior and senior class at Natrona County High School.
    George Niethammer was a leader from a young age. He was president of his junior and senior class at Natrona County High School. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • Maj. Gale "Buck" Cleven, who graduated as the valedictorian of Midwest High School, flew B-17 bombers over Europe and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery on a mission in August 1943.
    Maj. Gale "Buck" Cleven, who graduated as the valedictorian of Midwest High School, flew B-17 bombers over Europe and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery on a mission in August 1943. (Courtesy American Air Museum)
  • Maj. Gale "Buck" Cleven, who graduated as the valedictorian of Midwest High School, flew B-17 bombers over Europe and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery on a mission in August 1943.
    Maj. Gale "Buck" Cleven, who graduated as the valedictorian of Midwest High School, flew B-17 bombers over Europe and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery on a mission in August 1943. (Courtesy American Air Museum)

Natural Leaders

The Natrona County High School yearbooks at the Natrona County Library contain smiling photos of a young Niethammer in his junior and senior years.

He was the son of the Victor Niethammer, president of the Casper Packing Co., and his name was in the newspaper Sept. 14, 1931, at age 12 for a birthday celebration held in his honor.

Niethammer was a natural leader. He was president of his junior and senior classes, played basketball and football, ran track, and has a listed ambition in the yearbook to become a “stockman.”

When he arrived at the University of Wyoming in 1937, he was chosen president of his freshman class, and the next year garnered votes to lead the class again. Niethammer joined the Wyoming National Guard in 1940 and was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington. He became a cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps in March 1941 and gained his commission and wings in June 1943.

The trajectory of both men, who undoubtably knew each other, would send them over the skies of Europe.

Cleven had been promoted to major and was given command of the 350th Bomb Squadron at Boise, Idaho. After preparation for assignment overseas at Kearny Air Force Base, the squadron was sent to Thorpe Abbott in England as part of the 100th Bomb Group.

Cleven took part in the raid on German ball bearing factories Aug. 17, 1943, that sent planes from England, over Germany, and then on to Africa.

Dozens of bombers were shot down after waves of German fighters and flak. The American Air Museum reports that Cleven’s plane had suffered several hits, one of his crew members was dead, and when another shell ripped off the nose, his co-pilot prepared to bail out when Cleven told him to stay put. He landed the plane in Africa.

Distinguished Flying Cross

A few months later, a report about the mission was published in the Odessa American newspaper in Odessa, Texas, praising Cleven’s skills on the mission where “59 Fortresses were lost.”

“He is described as an earth product of the oil fields, a man who once told his crewman who displeased him that, ‘I am going to put you so far behind bars that they will have to take a slingshot to feed you,’” the newspaper reported. “Major Egen, who made the raid, declared that when he lost the wing men protecting his ship, Cleven and a pilot named Veal moved up to protect him although each had an engine knocked out.

“Before reaching the target Cleven’s radio operator was killed, the pilot wounded.”

For his actions, Cleven was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Ditch Over Water

Meanwhile, Niethammer was assigned to the 738th Bomber Squadron. He flew a B-24 and became part of the 454th Bomb Group based in Italy.

The Casper Tribune-Herald on April 21, 1944, reported information about Niethammer’s second flight in a letter to friends. Portions of the letter were published in the newspaper.

“Remember a few months back, how anxious I was to get into combat,” he wrote. “I really got ‘baptized in fire’ in short order. I was only with the group three days and went on my first mission. Heavy flak, no fighters, but one of the longest raids they’d been on.”

On his second flight, Niethammer’s commander flew with him, and he said the flak got heavy. Then German fighters arrived and started pouring bullets into the formation. Niethammer’s plane was in the vulnerable rear position called “Tail End Charlie.”

“They poured lead into us for half an hour. Between the flak and fighters, we lost all our rudder controls, two big holes on the right wing, lost once aileron control, three trim tabs and three engines,” he wrote. “We got over the Adriatic Sea and had to come down for a forced landing.”

Niethammer survived the crash, though he wrote that the plane was completely submerged before he found his way out and was able to inflate a life raft. He spent four hours in the raft before being rescued.

Both men would be shot down in subsequent missions and end up in the same prisoner of war camp.

Prisoners Of War

Cleven was shot down on his 22nd mission while flying over Bremen, Germany. He was taken prisoner and put in Stalag Luft III POW Camp.

A story in the University of Wyoming Branding Iron on June 15, 1944, reported that Niethammer’s parents reported information that he was “missing in action” over Yugoslavia.

“At the time he was reported missing he had completed about 20 missions over enemy territory,” the paper reported.

On July 13, 1944, the Casper Tribune-Herald reported word had reached Niethammer’s parents that he was a prisoner of war.

He too, would be placed in Stalag Luft III POW Camp.

An article in the Casper Star-Tribune “30 Years Ago” column Jan. 21, 1975, reported this:

“A Wyoming Christmas party was planned by Casper and Wyoming men who are prisoners of war in Germany’s Stalag Luft 3 prison camp, it was learned from Lt. George Niethammer in his first communication with his parents since he was taken prisoners in June 1944. Among the Casper boys in the camp are Thad Walker, Don Esterline, Jimmy Lintz, Gale Cleven …”

  • Casper's Lt. George Niethammer, left (played by Josh Dylan) and Maj. Gale "Buck" Cleven (played by Austin Butler) are reunited as prisoners of war in "Masters of the Air."
    Casper's Lt. George Niethammer, left (played by Josh Dylan) and Maj. Gale "Buck" Cleven (played by Austin Butler) are reunited as prisoners of war in "Masters of the Air." (From Masters of the Air)
  • Austin Butler as Maj. Gale "Buck" Cleven, right, in Apple TV's "Masters of the Air."
    Austin Butler as Maj. Gale "Buck" Cleven, right, in Apple TV's "Masters of the Air." (From Masters of the Air)
  • An Allied bomber squadron is attacked.
    An Allied bomber squadron is attacked. (From Masters of the Air)
  • Josh Dylan as Lt. George Neithammer in "Masters of the Air."
    Josh Dylan as Lt. George Neithammer in "Masters of the Air." (From Masters of the Air)
  • Maj. Gale "Buck" Cleven in "Masters of the Air."
    Maj. Gale "Buck" Cleven in "Masters of the Air." (From Masters of the Air)

One Made It Home, The Other Didn’t

As the allies closed in on the Germans in early 1945, POWs were moved. Cleven would escape in January during a POW move to Moosburg. He made it to England and Thorpe Abbotts field 12 days later.

Lintz, who was liberated by allies at Moosburg, told the Casper Tribune-Herald that he had seen Niethammer before the move.

“We were moved to Moosburg, we got pretty well scattered,” he said. “The different bunches would straggle along as slowly as possible in the home the Allies would overtake them. Some men would even drop out and hide, so my not seeing George there doesn’t mean anything.”

But at the end of the war, there was no information provided by the Germans on the fate of Niethammer.

On Oct. 11, 1949, the Casper Tribune-Herald carried a story that the U.S. War Department had contacted his mother to inform her they found his grave. He had been last seen April 7, 1945, at a small church in Berching, Germany, and was thought to have tried an escape.

“It was on this last march that he was last seen and to date no word had ever been received with definite information concerning what may have become of him,” the newspaper reported.

Niethammer’s body was buried in France, but Highland Park Cemetery has a gravestone honoring his memory that reads: "George F. Niethammer, Lost in World War II, September 12, 1919 - April 1945.”

After Service

Cleven stayed in the service and would also serve in Korea and Vietnam. He would go on to earn degrees from Harvard University and George Washington University.

The Casper Morning Star on Feb. 20, 1962, reported his visit with a Casper family that hosted him as an 18-year-old.

“Dr. and Mrs. Gale W. Cleven were recent guests of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Anderson while on their way home to California,” the newspaper reported. “Dr. Cleven, an Air Force colonel, will assume research duties in the development of space probes and satellite systems.”

Cleven retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1964. Cleven went on to serve as president of a small college in Florida. He died in Sheridan, Wyoming, at a retirement center Nov. 17, 2006.

Cleven is the main character of the series, built around his service and experiences flying in the war, while Niethammer comes in during the last episode when the Casper-area men find each other as prisoners of war. All nine episodes are streaming on Apple TV.

Dale Killingbeck can be reached at dale@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Dale Killingbeck

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