Soaring above the land and sea in B-17 Flying Fortresses, thousands of American servicemen risked their lives to help bring to an end to the national embodiment of perhaps the most evil ideology the world has ever known.
During World War II, director William Wyler and three cinematographers compiled more than a dozen hours of footage for his film, “The Memphis Belle: A Story Of A Flying Fortress.” The documentary served as an up-close look at the lives of B-17 pilots, navigators, radio operators, gunners, and bombardiers during their time in the skies above Germany.
Recently, 15 hours of footage from Wyler’s documentary were unearthed in the National Archives, and restored for the documentary feature, “The Cold Blue.” For the film, director Erik Nelson and his team compiled the restored footage, and interviewed nine former flyers about their experiences in the war.
The men interviewed are:
Navigator John Ketzner, 98; Radio Operator/Gunner Al Villagran, 95; Pilot VG Alexander, 97; Fligh Engineer/Top Turret Gunner William Toombs, 95; Bombardier/Tail Gunner Paul “Bud” Haedike, 93; Waist Gunner John Doyle, 94; Ball Turret Gunner Robert Rowland, 94; Co-Pilot Glenn Harrison, 99; and Bombardier Morton Kimmel, 96.
Near the beginning of the film, one of the men states: “Anybody who says they weren’t afraid, they were full of crap, because you were always afraid of what was going to happen next.”
The film is broken into titled segments, each exploring moments recalled by the servicemen. In “Fresh Eggs,” they speak about the rarity of a breakfast with real eggs, and the ominous meaning behind it:
You could get two over easy, and this was a treat, but we knew after a while that when you got fresh eggs, it meant you were gonna have a real tough mission.
Prior to these dangerous missions, the chaplain would provide communion and take confessions, says one serviceman.
In “Cold Air,” the men speak about the frightening chill at 25,000 feet in the air with no pressure or climate control. One recalls that “on a warm day, it would be 20 below.”
The freezing temperatures, the way the men chatted over the intercoms even though they were told not to, the painting of goofy logos on the planes, the superstitions, even the powdered eggs — these circumstances bonded these men in a way few could ever understand. They were “family in the air.”
In a particularly shocking recollection, one serviceman talks about how his colleague was killed following the downing of his B-17:
If you didn’t have your chute on and get out there in less than 30 seconds, you’re gone. You’re gone. And 7 out of 11 out of my crew got out alive. And one of them, when he got on the ground, they pitchforked him to death. How can you kill a human like that?
The end of the film shows the nine former servicemen watching the restored footage and offering resonant final thoughts:
“You kind of grew up ten years when you went into that thing, and when I came back home, I didn’t feel like the same man anymore.”
“God’s been good to me.”
“I do not profess myself to be a hero.”
“The Cold Blue,” for all its stunningly and painstakingly restored footage, would not have the same impact were it not for the stories told by the men who were actually there. Between the beautifully clear and colored imagery and the often sobering recollections of brotherhood, fear, relief, and sadness, this is a must-watch film for history buffs, as well as anyone who wants to get a glimpse of World War II as it was seen by those fighting it.
“The Cold Blue” will premier nationwide in a one-night Fathom theatrical event on Thursday, May 23.