Masters of the Air photo of an air crew returning from a bombing mission in World War II

Written by Todd DePastino

It’s not “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” by Joe Rosenthal or “V-J Day in Times Square” by Alfred Eisenstaedt.

But the photograph of an air crew returning from a bombing mission in World War II has become an icon of sorts since author Don Miller put it on the cover his book, Masters of the Air, and Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks started using it to publicize their nine-part series on Apple TV+.

The photo presents an absorbing tableaux. The men appear nonchalant–one with a dangling cigarette–though they’re laden with harnesses and bulky sacks of gear.

There’s a trademark flipped hat brim, some leather flying helmets, goggles on one man’s head. The flight suits look oversized, as do the boots. Back to the left, a ground crewman looks at the camera. And off to the right, under the B-17’s wing, another soldier sneaks a peak.

Who are these men? When was it taken?

The answer is a bit of a mystery. It’s also a minor point of contention, as at least two different WWII Bomb Group Associations—the 306th and the 303rd—claim it as their own.

Steve Snyder, President of the 306th Association and author of Shot Down: The True Story of pilot Howard Snyder and the crew of the B-17 Susan Ruth, first alerted me to the photo’s provenance in an email:

We have been able to verify that the photo is the 306th Bomb Group, 367 Bomb Squadron. John Stolz is front and center with crew and aircraft #42-31428. However, only about half the men were from Stoltz’s crew. The rest were replacements from other crews. The photo was taken upon their return from the February 4, 1944 mission to Frankfurt.

We posted Steve’s information about the photo on our blog. Steve even provided a page from the post-mission interrogation report:

WWII post-mission interrogation report

A few days after we publishedthe post, I received a message Mark Noble, who’d read it on Facebook. He offered a correction.

The photo, he said, wasn’t of a 306th Bomb Group crew. The men were from the 303rd Bomb Group out of RAF Molesworth, England.

The leather-helmeted person front and center wasn’t pilot John Stolz, he explained, but Neal W. Noble, Mark’s father and a radio operator with the 303rd.

Mark shared the story: decades ago, when Mark was a child, his sister bought his dad a book published in 1965 called Flying Fortress: The Illustrated Biography of the B-17s and the Men Who Flew Them by Edward Jablonski.

Late one night, Mark’s father stayed up leafing through the book. He turned to page 307, and there, on the upper right, he saw it: a photo titled “Mission’s End.”

Masters of the Air photo in book with caption Mission's End

“That’s me!”

Neal was so excited he woke up his wife and daughter up to show them.

The photograph means a great deal to Mark, especially because his father died in 1975 when Mark was only 11 years old. Mark never got a chance to talk with his father about his World War II service.

About the photo, Mark explained:

My father flew with 303rd pilot Morton C. Perkins’ crew that day as a replacement for their regular radio operator, Gerard Little. It was the only mission Little ever missed. If you check the 303rd BG’s excellent website (, you will find the photo with an explanation of who is in it. You’ll also find a photo of Perkins’ original crew.

Sure enough, 303rd BG’s website provides a full roster of those in the photo:

Photo used in series Masters of the Air with names of air men

Courtesy 303rd BG

Note the date above: April 17, 1945. So, the photo wasn’t taken in February 1944, as Steve Snyder said. The men had just returned from a mission to Dresden in the last weeks of the war.

The 303rd BG’s account makes sense and also explains one anomaly in the photo: only eight air crew members appear in it. (Seven appear fully, plus one left leg, second from the right.)

B-17s normally flew with 10 crew members. Where were the missing two?

Mark explained that flying with fewer than 10 men was common in the 303rd. His father flew with only nine men until February 1945. After that, the Group eliminated the waist gunner, and his crew dropped to eight.

Mark also said the crewmen in the photo were cobbled together from three different crews, all from the 358th Bomb Squadron. They normally didn’t all fly together.

It wasn’t just Mark’s father who identified the 303rd BG airmen in the Masters photo. So did Lt. Col. Harry D. Gobrecht, a 303rd BG pilot in WWII, past president of the association, and author of Might in Flight: Daily Diary of the Eighth Air Force’s Hell’s Angels 303rd Bombardment Group.

The late Colonel Gobrecht was known for his meticulous research. He labeled everyone in the Masters photo and featured it in the 303rd’s official archive.

After receiving all this information from Mark Noble, I connected him with Steve Snyder and let Steve know about the 303rd’s claim.

In response, Steve did what any diligent researcher challenged by counter-facts would do: he called for backup.

Within days, I heard from the formidable Sue Fox Moyer, who serves with Steve on the Board of Directors of the 306th BG and administers the association’s Facebook page.

Sue’s dad, Kenneth Fox, flew with the 306th and was seriously wounded on the second Schweinfurt mission in October 1943.

Simply put, Sue is one of those smart, tenacious history nerds who helps keep the past alive for all of us.

Sue, like Steve, told me that two family members in the 306th BG community had confirmed the identities of relatives in the Masters photo.

Dan Giusti recognized his great-uncle, Bombardier Steve Tanella, second from the right. And Carol Shade has always known that her father, Waist Gunner Floyd Shade, is the Airman striding toward the camera, front and center.

Sue sent separate photos of Shade and Tanella so we could do a comparison with the Masters photo.

Closeups of Floyd Shade and Steve Tanella

Without the benefit of facial recognition software, I’d say they are both excellent matches.

Now, let’s compare the same Masters photo with the faces of the men Mark Noble and Harry Gobrecht credited with flying the mission.

Front and center, Mark’s father, Radio Operator Neal W. Noble. Second from the right, Pilot Morton C. Perkins.

Closeups of Neal W. Noble and Morton C. Perkins

Plausible, but not as good a match as Shade and Tanella.

Sue also noticed some contradicting evidence about the aircraft in the background of the Masters photo.

Harry Gobrecht and the 303rd BG Association website identifies the plane as B17G #43-38258, nicknamed “Forget Me Not Olly.”

A separate photo of “Forget Me Not Olly” clearly shows nose art.

Forget Me Not Olly nose art on WWII bomber

Courtesy 303rd BG

The plane in the Masters photo doesn’t have any nose art.

“Granted,” Sue said, “there could have been damage and nose art removed.”

More likely, the pristine-looking aircraft in the Masters photo was not “Forget Me Not Olly,” but B-17G #42-31428, which had been delivered to the 306th BG at RAF Thurleigh in East Anglia just two weeks prior to the February 4, 1944 mission to Frankfurt.

This aircraft, Sue added, was shot down east of Cologne just 18 days after the Frankfurt mission and the Masters photo, killing nine of the 10 crew members.

Another piece of evidence Sue presented was the memory of George G. Roberts, a former 306th BG Radio Operator who flew with Steve Tanella and John Stolz and, unprompted, recognized the two men in the Masters photo immediately.

But the most definitive evidence that the Masters photo is of the 306th BG crew that flew the mission to Frankfurt on February 4, 1944, is the photograph’s publication history.

Floyd Shade’s daughter Carol found the photo in her dad’s old copy of The Official Guide To The Army Air Force which was published in May 1944.

Here is how the photo appears on pages 68-69 in The Official Guide:

Masters of the Air photo in book

If the photo was published in 1944, it could not have been taken after the the 303rd’s April 17, 1945 mission to Dresden.

This evidence appears to close the case. This minor icon of the Air War in Europe can be claimed by the 306th BG as part of its history.

Except, as Mark Noble tells me, folks from the 92nd BG Association claim the photo is theirs, taken after a mission on February 24, 1944. Also, the 381st BG Association has identified the Masters photo as their crew, not the 306th’s, taken after the Frankfort mission on February 4.

The whole story of the Masters photo confirms that history, among other things, is one long argument.

The Masters of the Air photograph debate, of course, pales in comparison to the decades of controversy that raged about the “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” photo taken on February 23, 1945, by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal.

In the desperate attempt to identify the men in the picture, the Marine Corps hastily presented six Marines as the ones who raised the flag. It turned out that only three of them were, in fact, in the photograph.

When confronted with its mistake, the Marine Corps stonewalled until, 71 years after the fact, it finally issued a statement that expresses well how the photo transcends the particulars of its creation:

Our history is important to us, and we have a responsibility to ensure it’s right . . . but to Marines it’s not about the individuals and never has been. Simply stated, our fighting spirit is captured in that frame, and it remains a symbol of the tremendous accomplishments of our Corps — what they did together and what they represent remains most important. That doesn’t change.

The same can be said for our Masters of the Air photograph.

The names of the individuals, the numbers of the Bomb Groups. They mean something important to some people. But what’s captured in the frame—the spirit, devotion, sacrifice—will always mean more and endure far longer.