Meet Gale Cleven, The Brave ‘Bloody 100th’ Pilot Who Survived Being Shot Down And Imprisoned In A Nazi POW Camp

Published January 24, 2024
Updated January 31, 2024

As dramatized in the TV miniseries “Masters of the Air,” Gale “Buck” Cleven was one of the most revered leaders of America’s 100th Bomb Group during World War II.

Gale Cleven

100th Photo ArchivesGale Cleven, known as “Buck,” survived 18 months in a POW camp during World War II.

When Gale Cleven was shot down over Germany in October 1943, he went spinning through the sky toward a tiny farmhouse. Trying to avoid hitting the house, he yanked on his parachute strap — and sailed straight through an open door into the kitchen. As the family screamed hysterically, Cleven tried to explain that he was a good guy. And that’s just one of the incredible things he survived during the war.

A pilot with the 100th Bomb Group, Cleven — known as Buck or Bucky — was beloved by his fellow soldiers, who admired his leadership and camaraderie. Cleven was especially close with his old flight school roommate, John Egan, with whom he’d survive 18 months in a POW camp.

His story, and the story of men in the 100th Bomb group like Major Robert Rosenthal and Major Harry Crosby, will be told in the Apple TV+ miniseries, Masters of the Air.

From Wyoming To World War II

Born on December 27, 1919, Gale Cleven grew up in Wyoming, where he learned a lot about living under tough conditions. The 100th Bomb Group Foundation reports that Cleven became an able shot as a hunter and that he worked dangerous jobs at local oilfields, where others were maimed and killed.

In 1940, he left his studies at the University of Wyoming to become a bomber pilot. While in flight school, he struck up a fateful friendship with John Egan, who dubbed Cleven “Buck” after someone Egan had known back at home.

John Egan And Gale Cleven

100th Photo ArchivesJohn Egan and Gale Cleven, who were known as the “two Buckys.”

“I never liked it, but I’ve been Buck ever since,” Cleven later remarked, according to Donald L. Miller’s 2006 book, Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany.

In the spring of 1943, Gale Cleven and John Egan shipped off to war. They’d serve as part of the 100th Bomb Group, a regiment that was soon called the “Bloody 100th” because of the casualties it suffered.

Inside Buck Cleven’s Heroics During The Regensburg-Schweinfurt Mission

Gale Cleven quickly made an impression at the Thorpe Abbotts bomber base, especially after the disastrous Regensburg-Schweinfurt mission in August 1943.

As Miller writes, it was a “double strike” mission against the industrial powerhouses of Regensburg and Schweinfurt. But it went horribly wrong for the Allies. Sixty bombers and nearly 600 men were lost during the raid, including 90 men in the Bloody 100th alone.

And Cleven was almost one of them.

Gale Cleven In His Plane

100th Photo ArchivesGale Cleven became a hero after the Regensburg-Schweinfurt mission but shrugged off any official accolades.

As the Saturday Evening Post later reported, six shells punctured Cleven’s aircraft, killing the radio operator and catching the engine on fire.

“Confronted with structure damage, partial loss of control, fire in the air, and serious injuries to personnel, and faced with fresh waves of fighters still rising to the attack, [Cleven] was justified in abandoning ship,” the paper reported. But Cleven stayed steady. “His words were heard over the interphone and had a magical effect on the crew. They stuck to their guns. The B-17 kept on.”

Cleven returned to base a hero but waved off any attempt to decorate him as such. Awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, Cleven failed to go to London to pick it up. “Medal, hell, I needed an aspirin,” he said, according to Miller. “So I remain undecorated.”

Gale Cleven And The 100th Bomb Group

The high rate of casualties among the 100th meant that new men were arriving all the time. And it didn’t take long for Cleven and Egan to be seen as some of the “ancients.” Many of the new recruits, like navigator Harry Crosby, looked up to them.

“Enlisted men adored them… Bucky Cleven and Bucky Egan are like what their men saw in the movie I Wanted Wings [a 1941 film about Army Air Corps pilots],” Crosby wrote in his book A Wing and a Prayer: The “Bloody 100th” Bomb Group of the U.S. Eighth Air Force in Action over Europe in World War II. “The men wanted leaders like that.”

Gale Cleven Shaking Hands

100th Photo ArchivesGale Cleven was greatly admired among the men of the 100th.

Another airman described Cleven as tough-looking, but noted that he had “a heart as big as Texas and was all for his men.” Miller writes that the 24-year-old was “extravagantly alive and was easily the best storyteller on the base.”

So the men of the 100th were devastated when Gale Cleven failed to return from an October 1943 mission over Bremen.

How Gale Cleven Survived Being Shot Out Of The Sky

Though no one knew it at the time, Gale Cleven hadn’t perished when his plane was shot down on Oct. 8 during the Bremen raid. After three Luftwaffe fighters destroyed his plane, Cleven ordered his men to jump and then put on a parachute and jumped himself from about 2,000 feet. He went spinning down toward the German countryside and, despite his best efforts to avoid a farmhouse, flew straight into its kitchen through an open door.

As the family screamed, the German farmer pressed a pitchfork into Cleven’s chest. “In my pitiful high school German, I tried to convince him I was a good guy,” Cleven recalled to Miller. “He wasn’t buying it.”

As Egan heard the news back in England — and swore to avenge his friend by flying in a mission the next day — Cleven was taken prisoner by the Nazis. After the Germans interrogated him, Cleven was sent to Stalag Luft III, a Luftwaffe-run prisoner of war camp.

Men At Stalag Luft

100th Photo ArchivesA group of men imprisoned at Stalag Luft III. Gale Cleven is believed to be standing in the back row.

Three days later, Cleven was watching new prisoners arrive when he spotted a familiar face: his friend Egan, who had been shot down during his mission of revenge over Münster. In fact, just one of the 13 planes during that mission — piloted by Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal — managed to make it back to base. The others had been shot down.

“What the hell took you so Long?” Cleven called out. Egan shouted back: “That’s what I get for being sentimental!”

How The Two Buckys Survived A POW Camp

In a strange twist of fate, the two flight school roommates were eventually made roommates again. They survived a grim 18 months at Stalag Luft III together, where Cleven was able to keep up a sense of humor even as he, Egan, and the rest were forced to evacuate the camp and march to Moosburg in January 1945.

“During the forced March to Mooseburg from Stalag Luft III, we came to a rest in a building used by Polish and Russian Slave labor. The straw mattress on the bunks were so infested with bugs they could have moved by themselves,” Cleven recalled, according to the 100th Bomb Foundation.

Stalag Luft Iii

American Air Museum in BritainStalag Luft III as seen from the air. September 1944.

“We burned the straw mattresses and then washed down the concrete building with cold water. Now come night time this building was cold and damp and we only had one blanket each and had to sleep on cold springs. Well that night, John Egan came up to me and said: ‘Buck, I think there are some strange things going on in this camp,’ to which I replied he was crazy.”

Cleven continued: “Later that night, John was sleeping on the lower bunk and I was on the upper bunk, both freezing our butts off on metal springs and one blanket and John says to me, ‘Buck, can I climb up into your bunk to keep warm’ and my reply was ‘John, I think there are strange things going on in this camp!'”

In the end, Gale Cleven was able to escape during the march. He made his way back to Thorpe Abbotts in 12 days. Egan was also able to survive. And by May 1945, the war in Europe ended with the German surrender.

An Airman’s Life After The War

Though World War II was over, Gale Cleven remained in the Air Force. The American Air Museum in Britain reports that he went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam, and even briefly worked at the Pentagon before retiring in 1955 with the rank of Colonel.

Outside of war, Cleven also married his wartime girlfriend, Marjorie, and returned to his studies. He earned degrees from Harvard and George Washington University, and spent the last years of his life living in North Dakota and Wyoming. Cleven died in 2006 at the age of 87. He’d outlived his best friend, Egan, by 45 years, as Egan had died of a heart attack in 1961.

But now both of their stories will get a new life with the Apple TV+ miniseries Masters of the Air, which will follow the men of the 100th Bomb Group. It will pay special attention to Gale Cleven and John Egan, whom Harry Crosby once described as the two men who “gave the 100th its personality.”

After reading about Gale Cleven of the 100th Bomb Group, look through these stunning and heart-wrenching photos of the liberation of Auschwitz. Or, discover the story of the Night Witches, the all-female Soviet WWII squadron.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
Citation copied
Cite This Article
Fraga, Kaleena. "Meet Gale Cleven, The Brave ‘Bloody 100th’ Pilot Who Survived Being Shot Down And Imprisoned In A Nazi POW Camp.", January 24, 2024, Accessed June 23, 2024.