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The Cold Blue: A Tense and Heartbreaking Tribute to America’s Army Airmen

The Cold Blue: A Tense and Heartbreaking Tribute to America’s Army Airmen

It’s worth it to make yourself sit through this in honor of those who died for us.

The 8th Army Airforce

Of all the branches of the military, the Army Airforce had an especially dangerous job. Leaving aside even the common flight risks of mid-air collisions and frostbite from flying in non-pressurized aircraft five miles in the air, the 8th Army Airforce dealt with unique horrors.

Over Germany, B-17 bombers couldn’t be accompanied by escort fighters due to a lack of fuel range, leaving them particularly vulnerable to Luftwaffe raids during their bombing runs near the targets. Even when they weren’t being raided they were subject to constant anti-aircraft bombardment from 88mm howitzers that shredded the planes.

As a result, the Army Airforce suffered the highest casualty rates of any branch of the army with 75% of airmen dying before their 25th mission. Of the more than 12,000 B-17 bombers built in World War II, more than 5,000 of them were lost. This casualty rate was higher than the substantial losses the Marines suffered in the Pacific theater.

The Cold Blue

It’s a tangible loss that is captured beautifully in The Cold Blue. This new documentary was released by HBO, seemingly to coincide with the release of George Clooney’s adaptation of Catch 22 on Hulu releasing this month. Functionally it’s very similar to last year’s They Shall Not Grow Old. In both that film and The Cold Blue, we’re treated to lost footage of the World Wars never before seen as it’s been transferred to high definition, restored, colorized and treated to Hollywood quality sound design and music composition.

If Cold Blue has any specific advantages over its predecessor it comes from its pedigree. For one, They Shall Not Grow Old never had the ability to depict any of the actual brutal warfighting of World War I because the photographers never rolled camera during combat. The Cold Blue doesn’t have this disadvantage. It’s a movie about men working in cramped, cold hulks of metal being shipped over Nazi Occupied Europe. We see these conditions and we see the bombs hitting the ground. We see the hallowed out European cities below. It feels gritty and uncomfortable.

A Unique Experience in Documentary Filmmaking

Additionally, The Cold Blue has a unique advantage in the history of war documentaries. It was filmed by William Wyler. Wyler was one of Old Hollywood’s greatest studio directors, responsible for Oscar-winning films like Best Years of Our Lives and Roman Holiday. With his masterful hand behind the cameras, we receive some of the most amazing shot color films of war I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, this footage came at great cost as one of Wyler’s cinematographers was a victim during one of their missions.

If The Cold Blue fails at all it’s in it’s extremely indulgent and self-congratulating epilogue sequence which basically just celebrates how great the film is by letting all the veterans they recorded talk about how much they enjoyed the preceding film. The movie is great and all but maybe it’s below you to make a point of making a 95-year-old veteran relive his war trauma and break down in tears. Also, it’s cool you got a famous British folk guitarist to record your soundtrack but 10 minutes of the epilogue dedicated to him is a bit much compared to the five-minute segment you dedicated to one of the veterans dying in a plane crash after the film’s production.

My Personal Connection to the Film

All things considered, the body text of The Cold Blue is an astounding achievement. It captures the dread, claustrophobia and human loss that the 8th Airforce was forced to grapple with at the height of World War II. For me personally, it resonates in a very deep way because of my own family’s loss in the war.

Sitting in the corner of my late grandmother’s house is a small framed photograph of my great-uncle Lowell Collins. He sits forever dressed in his formal Army Airforce uniform, a young man lost to the ravages of the greatest war in human history. My great uncle Lowell died in the English Channel when his B-17 bomber was damaged during a bombing run over Europe.

I never knew my great uncle but I knew my grandmother and she never stopped missing her brother. His photo remains as a testament to the loss his family experienced in his absence, just as millions of other Americans did grappling with the loss of hundreds of thousands of young men who died to liberate Europe from totalitarianism.

The Cold Blue is a unique film for me in that I was able to sit in the chair my uncle once sat in. It’s painful and tense to imagine what he went through but it’s worth it to make yourself sit through this in honor of those who died for us.

The Cold Blue was released on  May 23rd as a one-night-only Fathom Events screening but will be released on HBO on June 6th. 



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This also puts it into a completely different perspective. When I was building tube audio gear, Terman’s “Radio Engineer’s Handbook” was my bible.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a fantastic movie. It’s a bit of a gut-punch, but it was clear-eyed about some of the challenges returning servicemen faced after the war ended. The Air Corps Captain returning to a lower-class existence and maintaining his dignity; the alcoholic, philandering sergeant returning to his upper-class banker life yet still standing strong for his brethren; the solidly middle-class Sailor returning with a horrific disfigurement but retaining his dignity.

It deserved every accolade it got. It’s still watchable today.

Duke Powell | May 27, 2019 at 1:16 pm

My father’s brother was a B 17 navigator in the 8th Army Air Force. His crew had participated in more bombing runs than was normal. On his last mission, the ship was so shot up that they ditched in the English Channel. Fortunately, everyone survived.

My father tells me that the 8th was so decimated that the Army decided to send them to Florida for discharge. Uncle Bob neglected to write home and the family thought him dead due to headlines that read, “8th Army Air Force Wiped Out.”

My father was so upset that he quit high school and enlisted in the Navy. He sailed around the Pacific for the last year of the war on the Battleship Maryland shelling Japanese held islands.

Both made it home safely.

    alaskabob in reply to Duke Powell. | May 27, 2019 at 1:41 pm

    A good friend (now past) was shot down on his 25th mission, spent a year in a POW camp and finally died from that year’s imprisonment decades later. The personal battles never end with last engagement.

constant anti-aircraft bombardment from 88mm howitzers

Howitzers?! The 88s were dedicated, high-velocity AAA and anti-tank pieces, and nothing like “howitzers”.

inspectorudy | May 27, 2019 at 2:53 pm

As horrendous as being a crew member on a B-17 was, one thing to keep in mind is that the B-17 shot down more German fighters than any other airplane in WWII. Even though they were sitting ducks, those brave bastards fought to the target and on their way home! The whole time wearing a cheap oxygen mask and heated flight suits! The men who flew this bomber must never be forgotten and the courage required EVERY MISSION was unbelievable knowing what was waiting for them!

LukeHandCool | May 27, 2019 at 3:00 pm

Thank you for the heads up on this documentary. And thank you to the commenters here for the heroic deeds and sacrifices of your relatives and loved ones.

The following is a link to an amazing story with a 5-minute long video that is a must watch. It’s the true story of a German ace fighter pilot who tries to escort a badly crippled B-17 to safety, risking his own life. Decades later the B-17 pilot searches for the German fighter pilot who not only spared the crippled plane’s crew, but who tried to help save them, and finds him. They meet and they are interviewed together. A touching story of a rare display of humanity in the air war over Europe.

riverlife_callie | May 27, 2019 at 3:07 pm

My father was in the USAAF in WWII, stationed at various locations in the South Pacific. He was a radio operator/tail gunner. He seldom talked about all he saw, but it affected him for life. God bless you, Dad.

Imagine one of those planes having as its 10-man crew pelosi, cortez, tlaib, obama, stilwell, obama, biden, hillary clinton, feinstein and CNN’s brian seltzer?

Would it even get off the ground? And if it did, would it turn around and bomb American targets?

Bitterlyclinging | May 27, 2019 at 4:44 pm

When Herman Goering spotted the first P-51 Mustangs in the air over Berlin accompanying the B-17s, he knew the war was lost.

DwightGreen | May 27, 2019 at 5:16 pm

I saw “The Cold Blue” thanks to my oldest son (15), who is into all things WWII. I highly recommend it to others when it’s available on HBO. A few quick notes, if you don’t mind. I got a different sense from some of the items you mentioned, but that’s just my mileage.

I was surprised how much overlap there was in footage with Wyler’s movie “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress.” If anyone wants to watch Belle, it’s available on several subscription services right now. The focus was different since the earlier movie highlighted the 25th mission of the Memphis Belle, while the newer movie was on the US 8th Air Force in general. Obviously there was going to be some overlap…I was just surprised how much. The improvement over the ’44 movie’s footage was the remastered video and the overlay of actual veterans comments, even if some of the narration was exactly the same.

I thought the extras on the screening night were fine. The opening at the theater, which I don’t think will be shown with the HBO airing (but I could be wrong), was from a 1944 German newsreel. I wish we could see more of these to contrast and compare with the newsreels from the US/UK side, although I’m not sure if many from the German side are available.

I didn’t get the feeling of self-congratulations or indulgence in the “making of” short, more of a “look what we were able to access and do” attitude. I love Richard Thompson, so I was fine with the time they gave to him for his soundtrack, which I thought well done and not intrusive, something that could have been easy to do.

I didn’t get the sense that they were trying to make a veteran relive his war trauma at all in showing him the movie. Yes, he broke down, but so did my dad (a Merchant Marine during WWII) when he was watching “Master and Commander” when they recited the Lord’s Prayer when burying a body at sea—that was a part of him no matter how much he tried to cover it up. In “The Cold Blue”‘s case, here’s a man that made himself available, helping on a movie to make people aware of what he went through during the war. He recorded his memories to share with everyone, even though it was obviously a traumatic experience. It made me appreciate his (and others’) contribution that much more since it came at no small price to them recalling and reliving what happened 60 years ago. Should they have included it? A tough call, but I’m glad they did.

While Memphis Belle talks about bringing men together from all walks of life from around the country, Cold Blue shows how these men became a family. And not just the flight crew, but the ground crew that worked with them, too, and the work that they put in.

I was not aware that there were more deaths in the US 8th Air Force (~28K) than in the Marines over WWII.

OK, I ran on much longer than I intended. Thanks for posting on it Tyler.

texansamurai | May 27, 2019 at 5:54 pm

my father fought in the skies over europe–two tours–both in ’17s–he spoke very little of the war, only the rare comment such as ” we did what had to be done.” –he was forever impressed with the courage of not only his crewmen, but his squadron mates and the mechanical/support personnel involved in the whole operation–he was impressed by the courage of the brits, especially as the raf had been engaged for a couple of years or so before we became involved–it was the canadian airmen, though, that impressed him the most–” they gave us and the brits a real lesson in what brass balls meant. “–the canadians lost more than 30,000 men in the airwar over europe

to them all, a humble thanks as we acknowledge a debt of honor we can never repay


My best friends father was a B17 8th AAF pilot. I remember him telling me some of the things they did on their days off. As he put it, we didn’t really have much care, we were all certain we weren’t coming home.

He made it home, spent a career as a civil engineer and kept flying as a private pilot.

My dad was a USCG senior chief radioman.

Zut Zut.

If you know anything about the Coast Guard then you know that Coasties, when part of the Navy during time of war, get the s*** end of the stick. They coxswained a large number of assault craft hitting the beach.

Infantry and Marines might hit the beach once in a day. The coxswain would several times a day.

Not to take anything away from the men of the 8th Air Force.

As if I could.

“Memphis Belle: The Story Of A Flying Fortress (1944)”

    Arminius in reply to Arminius. | May 27, 2019 at 8:32 pm

    Submariners suffered a higher casualty rate.

    by Colonel Charles A Jones USMCR
    Article and three images copied from HERE
    USN pub: Undersea Warfare Magazine”

    If you are interested, and find yourself on Oahu, you can go to the submarine chapel on Ford Island.

The Argonaut’s bell still rings. The Argonaut remains on patrol.

I’m actually amazed. Seriously? Priests are child molesters?

Christ almighty. And I mean it in every sense of the term.

One of my drinking buddies was a radioman aboard a C-47 in the European theater.

You might be detecting a theme.

My Monsignor captured 11 NORKs at the point of his .45.

My dad left college to attend USAAF flight school in Texas. One of his classmates was Tom Landry, who apparently became a football coach of some note. Dad became a B-24 pilot in the South Pacific. On August 6, 1945, while leading a mission over southern Japan, he witnessed the mushroom cloud from Hiroshima. After the war, he was recalled and flew 187 sorties in the Berlin Airlift.

The first mr. creeper was a member of the United States Army Air CORPS, not “Air Force” and he would correct anyone who made that mistake.

buckeyeminuteman | May 28, 2019 at 12:39 pm

I just spent some time with the Memphis Belle this weekend. After decades of restoration, she’s finally showcased in all her glory at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH. I read all about her history, her crew members, the missions she flew, and her war bond tour. Very moving to see the literal combat aircraft you read about as a child. And not 500 feet away is the display about the Doolittle Raiders and the silver goblets dedicated to each crew member who flew her. The last Raider passed earlier this year. Being a modern-day Airman I really appreciate the failures and the non-stop work that led to the successes of the Airmen within the Greatest Generation. Every time I think my deployments or TDYs are hard, I think about those guys in WWII. Thanks to them, we’ve never had it so good.

    Arminius in reply to buckeyeminuteman. | May 28, 2019 at 5:52 pm

    Every cruise was a pleasure cruise because I stood on the shoulders of giants.

    After the example my elder brothers in arms set for the world nobody would come out to fight the USN.

    My dad sailed in the gun boat Mendota and the WHEC (formerly fleet tug USS) Cherokee.

    The Navy renamed the class after Cherokee when the Japanese sank the Navajo.

    The Navajo was a heroic ship. She did all you could ask of a tug boat when the Japanese sank the cruiser Chicago. She turned the cruiser bow on to the threat so she could bring her guns to bear.

    “Still unable to relight her boilers and make her own way by daybreak on January 30th, the tow of Chicago was passed from the Louisville to a the Fleet Tug USS Navajo (AT-64) as the majority of the Cruisers and Destroyers of Chicago’s task force withdrew from the area. Still bound for Espiritu Santo with an escort of six Destroyers and a small flight of fighter aircraft from the USS Enterprise (CV-6) providing air cover, the Chicago was quickly reconnoitered by Japanese scout aircraft and by 1600hrs the first formation of what would become eleven Japanese torpedo bombers were sighted on the horizon. Using manual means to operate her anti-aircraft weaponry, Chicago’s gunners added their fire to the ensuing melee, and though eight of the attacking bombers were shot down by the combination of anti-aircraft fire or the fighter cover, the large and immobile Cruiser presented an easy target for the experienced Japanese pilots and by the time the last aircraft withdrew the Chicago had taken a further four torpedoes along her entire Starboard length.

    Down heavily by the Stern and with uncontrollable flooding from being torpedoed six times in two days claiming multiple areas of the ship, Chicago’s Captain ordered the ship abandoned before she gave out. Remaining afloat for barely 20 minutes after the order was passed, Chicago rolled onto her Starboard side and sank by the Stern at this location, mysteriously firing off a single round from one of her eight inch main guns before disappearing below the waves. Of her crew of 1,156, 62 perished in the attacks and 1,094 were picked up by the escorting Destroyer force.

    USS Chicago earned her third and final Battle Star for her role in the Battle of Rennel Island.”

    It’s almost funny. People ask me if I had a nice Memorial Day. Nooo. I like to think, though, that I have some of that tug boat Sailor DNA flowing in me. And given the amount of time my dad spent in Cherokee I have more Native American blood in me than Elizabeth Warren.

LukeHandCool | May 28, 2019 at 4:25 pm

If you watch one documentary the rest of your life, I’d recommend Ken Burns’ “The War.”

The best documentary on WWII I’ve ever seen. The group of veterans and their relatives from whom you hear stories throughout the series are fantastic, natural storytellers. It is absolutely a must watch. I think I’ll watch it again this week.

Mendota was also a High Endurance Cutter.

How my dad didn’t end up a red smear on a white hull I’ll never know.

“Coast Guard vs Giant Waves!”

The subs would always leave port without their bells because the bells would make noise. Last thing you wanted in a sub.

The submarines that remain on eternal patrol left their bells at Pearl Harbor.

I love how Reagan couldn’t pronounce Benavidez.

I’m a decent shot. I had good teachers.

I knew Gunny Carlos Hathcock personally.

The Japanese Navy was less nasty than the Japanese Army. Which wasn’t really a high bar to cross.

Saburo Sakai was a big fan of the US military.

Probably the finest ace the Japanese produced. He didn’t keep track of the Americans he shot down. As he said, when you are losing a war, what’s the point?

I think it’s important to recognize decency.

“Bf 109 pilot Franz Stigler and B-17 pilot Charlie Brown’s first meeting”

I went to the one-night-only screening. It reminded me how much the WWII Eighth Air Force was to my family. My father was a B-17 pilot, two of his brothers also flew in B-17s, one as a bombardier and one as a navigator. All of them survived. My mother’s brother was also a B-17 navigator, killed by flak over France. The Air Corps sent the flak fragment that killed him to his mother, who gave it to me. My mother’s sister’s husband trained pilots in Texas. One of my uncles rejoined the Air Force after the end of the war, and worked for the NSA, retiring as a LTC. The restored and improved color films give a much more vivid impression than the old, blurry, black-and-white films.