The Incredible Story Of John Egan, The World War 2 Pilot Who Gave The ‘Bloody 100th’ Bomb Group Its Personality

Published January 17, 2024
Updated January 30, 2024

As one of the 100th Bomb Group’s “Masters of the Air,” Major John C. Egan not only flew the most dangerous missions alongside his men, but he also hand wrote personal letters to the families of men who got shot down.

John Egan

100th Photo ArchivesThe 100th Bomb Group lost so many members that at 27, Major John Egan was considered one of its “ancients” and a mentor figure to the replacement crew members.

John C. Egan was small, just 140 pounds. He was young, just 27. But among the men of the “Bloody 100th” Bomb Group during World War II, Egan was seen as one of the “ancients” — and someone who gave the group its personality.

A commander, Egan was known for flying with his men during the toughest missions. He was known for writing handwritten letters to the families of men who went down during combat. He was also known for his drinking, his white fleece-lined flying jacket, and his loyalty to the 100th Bomb Group.

John Egan’s story, and the story of his fellow 100th Bomb Group airmen Major Gale Cleven, Major Harry Crosby, Major Robert Rosenthal, will be told in the upcoming Apple TV+ miniseries Masters of the Air.

Flight School And A Fateful Friendship

Born on Sept. 9, 1915, in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, John C. Egan entered the Army Air Corps relatively early in March 1940, just six months after World War II had begun with the Nazi invasion of Poland. While in flying school in Texas, Egan struck up a fateful friendship with his roommate Gale Cleven, with whom he would later serve in the 100th.

Egan even gave Cleven his nickname, Buck, based on someone with that name he’d known back in Wisconsin. In an interview with the 100th Bomb Group Foundation, Cleven recalled that Egan would introduce him as “my friend Buck.”

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.

Curiously, Egan would also be called Buck. This led some men of the 100th to refer to Egan and Cleven as “the two Buckys.” And in the spring of 1943, the two Buckys soon shipped off to Europe to fight in the war.

John Egan As The ‘Personality’ Of The 100th Bomb Group

In Europe, John Egan got a first-hand look at the brutality of war. Assigned to the “Bloody 100th” Bomb Group, so nicknamed for the many losses it incurred during the war, he flew in the doomed Regensburg Raid in August of 1943, in which the 100th lost 90 men. (In total, 60 bombers and nearly 600 men were lost.)

“I carried two rosaries, two good luck medals, and a $2 bill off of which I had chewed a corner for each of my missions,” Egan said, in explanation of how he’d survived. “I also wore my sweater backwards and my good luck jacket.”

John Egan At Thorpe Abbotts

100th Photo ArchivesJohn Egan served as a role model to the replacement crews that poured in as the 100th suffered high casualty rates.

Miller writes in his book that replacement crews came with such frequency that the men of the 100th sometimes didn’t get to know each other. In one instance, a replacement crewman arrived in time for dinner but was lost over Germany the next day. No one had ever learned his name. He simply became known as “the man who came to dinner.”

But for the replacement crews, John Egan and Gale Cleven made a strong and comforting first impression.

“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],” navigator Harry 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.”

They admired Egan, a recognizable figure at Thorpe Abbotts bomber base with his thin mustache, trademark white fleece-lined flying jacket, habit of speaking in idioms, and easy camaraderie. Miller writes that Egan would tell the replacement crews, “I can out-drink any of you children.” Indeed, when he wasn’t scheduled to fly, Egan would hang out in bars with local laborers into the wee hours of the morning.

But Egan was also a good leader. He flew with his men on the most dangerous missions and sat down to write personalized letters to their families if they went down in battle.

“These were not file letters,” Sgt. Saul Levitt recalled to Miller. “It was the Major’s idea they should be written in long-hand to indicate a personal touch, and there are no copies of these letters. He never said anything much about that. The letters were between him and the families involved.”

John Egan In A Plane

100th Photo ArchivesJohn Egan flew the most dangerous missions with his men and wrote to their families when they were lost in battle.

Then, in October 1943, John Egan learned that one of the men who disappeared over Germany was his good friend — Gale Cleven.

Major Egan Volunteers To Avenge Buck

John Egan was in London on his very first leave when he picked up a newspaper and saw the news: “Eighth Air Force Loses 30 Fortresses Over Bremen.” As Miller writes, he ran to the phone, called back to the base, and asked in code what had happened. When he was told that Cleven had gone down, Egan immediately volunteered himself for a mission the next day.

As he told a fellow airman, “We are going to get the bastards that got Buck.”

The mission was to bomb the German city of Münster. Though some of the men had reservations about the civilian casualties, Egan wasn’t among them.

“I find [sic] myself on my feet, cheering,” he later admitted. “Others, who had lost close friends in [previous]… raids joined in the cheering ’cause here is a chance to kill Germans, the spawners of race hatred and minority oppression. It was a dream mission to avenge the death of a buddy.”

B 17 Of 100th Bombardment Group

United States Army Air ForcePilots of the 100th flew B-17s like this one.

But the bombing mission would be a disaster for the 100th Bomb Group. As their 13 planes tried to return home, 200 German planes appeared from nowhere and opened fire. Just one pilot, Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal, was able to make it back to base. The others didn’t.

Egan was shot down and taken prisoner. But when he arrived at Stalag Luft III, a Luftwaffe-run prisoner-of-war camp, he encountered a familiar face: his friend Cleven, who’d been there for three days.

“What the hell took you so long?” Cleven called as he watched the prisoners arrive at camp. Egan shouted back: “That’s what I get for being sentimental!”

How John Egan Survived A German POW Camp

John Egan and Gale Cleven were together for 18 months in the POW camp. Though they were initially held apart, Egan and Cleven were eventually made roommates — just like they’d been back in flight school. They had to contend with cruel guards, cold nights, and flea-infested beds, but the two managed to keep up their sense of humor. This was true even when Egan, Cleven, and the rest were forced on a frigid march to Moosburg.

“The bunks were so infested with bugs they could have moved by themselves,” Cleven later recalled of a camp they stopped at during the march. “Now come night time this building was damp and cold 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 he was on the lower bunk and I was on the upper bunk on metal springs and one blanket and the building getting awfully cold. John says to me, ‘Buck, can I climb up into your bunk’ and my reply was ‘John, I think there are strange things going on in this camp!’

Stalag Luft Iii

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

In the end, Cleven was able to escape during the march. Egan also survived. Eighteen months after they’d first been captured, the two Buckys were alive to see the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945.

A Short Post-War Life

After the end of the war, John Egan returned to the United States. He married Josephine Pitz, a Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP), and had two daughters. Later, Egan returned to war to fight in Korea.

John Egan And Wife

Egan FamilyJohn and Josephine Egan in 1945.

But his post-war life was tragically short-lived. In 1961, John Egan died of a heart attack at the age of 45. He’s remembered today as one of the airmen who gave the 100th Bomb Group its “personality.” And a new Apple TV+ miniseries, Masters of the Air, will soon share Egan’s story with a larger audience.

Masters of the Air is a salute to the brave men of the 8th Air Force, who, through their courage and brotherhood, helped defeat Nazi Germany in World War II,” Gary Goetzman, who produced the show alongside Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, said in a statement. “Tom and Steven have always wanted to visualize cinematically what our author Don Miller has called this ‘singular event in the history of warfare.'”

After reading about John Egan, look through these facts about World War II that reveal its devastation. Or discover the story of ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill, the sword-wielding British commando who became a WWII legend.

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.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "The Incredible Story Of John Egan, The World War 2 Pilot Who Gave The ‘Bloody 100th’ Bomb Group Its Personality.", January 17, 2024, Accessed June 13, 2024.