Two Unlikely College Roommates Are Finally Getting Recognition For Their Heroic Moves During WWII

During World War II, battles were fought via land, sea, and air. And the pilots who flew bombers in the face of overwhelming odds were some of the bravest combatants around. One of the most famous squadrons was the U.S. Air Force’s 100th Bombardment Group, which gained the unwanted nickname of the “Bloody 100th” due to its flyers’ high casualty rate. The unofficial leaders of this legendary outfit were two unlikely college roommates who shared the same nickname — and the same Devil-may-care brand of heroism!

John Egan and Gale Cleven become roomies

Long before they united as “the two Buckys” of the legendary 100th Bomb Group, John C. Egan and Gale Cleven were two ordinary Army Air Corps recruits who’d found themselves rooming together at their Texas flying school.

Egan was from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and he enlisted at only 24 years old in 1940. The 21-year-old Cleven left his studies at the University of Wyoming to join up that same year, and they got along like a house on fire from the very start.

The two Buckys

Egan was a real character, with a sharp wit and capacity for drinking that belied his slight 140-pound frame. It was he who bestowed the nickname “Buck” on Cleven, because he had a pal back home in Manitowoc named Buck who was the spitting image of him.

The Wyoming native would later admit in Donald L. Miller’s book Masters of the Air, “I never liked it, but I’ve been Buck ever since!” Oddly, Egan would also become known as Buck, and eventually they became immortalized as “the two Buckys.”

A new kind of war

Both men were assigned to the 100th — a bomb squadron — in 1942. According to Smithsonian’s Jeremy R. Kinney, their task as part of the Eighth Air Force division “was to take the war to the Germans in a way that had never been seen before in history.”

New technology had made air strikes a viable tactic to hurt the enemy. Yet aerial combat was also one of the most dangerous ways to wage war, with the U.S. Air Force (USAF) sustaining even more fatalities than the Marine Corps during WWII.

Many of these pilots had never flown before

In fact, aerial combat was so new, and the need for pilots was so all-consuming, that vast swathes of the airmen chosen for duty had never even flown before. Miller revealed, “Before enlisting, thousands of American fliers had never set foot in an airplane or fired a shot at anything more threatening than a squirrel.”

He added, “Bomber warfare was intermittent warfare. Bouts of inactivity and boredom were followed by short bursts of fury and fear, and men returned from sky fights to clean sheets, hot food, and adoring English girls.”

Far from the easy option

Miller continued, “A boy of 19 or 20 could be fighting for his life over Berlin at 11 o'clock in the morning and be at a London hotel with the date of his dreams at nine that evening.” Some misguided people thought aerial combat was preferable to fighting war traditionally, but it was simply a different kind of danger.

Miller wrote, “Sold to the American public as a quicker, more decisive way of winning than slogging it out on the ground, the air war became a slow, brutal battle of attrition.”

“Dashing, undisciplined, superb pilots”

In his memoir, navigator Harry H. Crosby said the two Buckys were “dashing, undisciplined, superb pilots, exactly what Hollywood expected them to be.” He continued, “Enlisted men adored them. Bucky Cleven and Bucky Egan are like what their men saw in the movie I Wanted Wings. The men wanted leaders like that.”

Egan, in particular, was like a real-life matinee idol for his men: his thin moustache, propensity for speechifying, and iconic flying jacket with white fleece lining made him instantly recognizable.

A rabble-rouser but a great leader, too

When he wasn’t on duty, Egan would often be found in local watering holes, drinking with his men and various other workers from the area. He would reportedly boast, “I can out-drink any of you children,” And more often than not, he proved it!

Thankfully, Egan wasn’t just a party animal — he was also a tremendous leader who cared deeply about his charges. For instance, he would always be in a cockpit right alongside his men, even in the most treacherous circumstances.

Above and beyond

Egan also went above and beyond for his men if they were shot down in battle. He wrote deeply personal letters to the families of his fallen comrades, rather than have them receive a standardized, typed military letter.

Sergeant Saul Levitt told Miller, “These were not file letters. 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.”

“A heart as big as Texas”

On the other hand, Cleven was a very different character, albeit one no less respected by his men. Miller explained, “When Egan was carousing, his best friend was usually in the sack. Major Gale W. Cleven’s pleasures were simple. He liked ice cream, cantaloupe, and English war movies, and he was loyal to a girl back home named Marge.”

One of the men described Cleven as someone who looked on the surface like a tough guy, but had “a heart as big as Texas.” Miller dubbed him “extravagantly alive” and “easily the best storyteller on the base.”

Inauspicious beginnings

Though the 100th would go on to cement a legendary reputation, its beginnings were an unmitigated disaster. In April 1943 a training exercise saw fighter planes crash from Las Vegas all the way to Tennessee. A navigator admitted, “We were all conceited and quite impossible. We were undertrained and not as good as we thought we were.”

Military history expert Frank Blazich revealed, “It was a train-wreck, to the point where they fired the commander and brought in other people, saying, ‘Look, get these guys together. We’ve got to get them overseas.’”

Thrown in at the deep end

After barely another month of training, the 100th was assigned to a base in Norfolk, England, and two weeks later they flew a bombing mission to Bremen, Germany. They targeted ball-bearing plants, aircraft factories, and U-boat docks with the goal of delivering a hammer-blow to the German war economy.

The strike would hamper the enemy’s ability to build more machines of war. While they were successful in their goal, though, the men came out of the mission painfully aware of just how unprepared they had really been for the terrifying reality of aerial combat.

“The most dangerous job in the war”

You see, at altitudes as high as 35,000 feet, the temperature neared -50°F. The looming threats of frostbite, mechanical failure, and adverse weather conditions were all omnipresent — and that’s before entertaining the possibility of being shot down by the enemy.

As Miller put it, “Every position in the plane was vulnerable; there were no foxholes in the sky. Along with German and American submarine crews and the Luftwaffe pilots they met in combat, American and British bomber boys had the most dangerous job in the war.”

The numbers make for uncomfortable reading

Miller continued, “In October 1943 fewer than one out of four Eighth Air Force crew-members could expect to complete his tour of duty: 25 combat missions. The statistics were discomforting: two-thirds of the men could expect to die in combat or be captured by the enemy.

He added, “[In total] 17 percent would either be wounded seriously, suffer a disabling mental breakdown, or die in a violent air accident over English soil. Only 14 percent of fliers assigned to Major Egan’s Bomb Group when it arrived in England in May 1943 made it to their 25th mission.”

Air medicine

Overall, aerial combat was “a new type of warfare… it gave birth to a new type of medicine — air medicine. Its pioneering psychiatrists and surgeons worked in hospitals and clinics not far from the bomber bases, places where men were sent when frostbite mauled their faces and fingers or when trauma and terror brought them down.”

The men of the 100th, such as the two Buckys, simply had to work through these traumas by convincing themselves they were fighting the good fight, and that all their sacrifices would be worth it in the end.

Cleven’s bravery earns him a commendation

As an example of how insanely dangerous these missions were, Cleven was actually awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions when an August 1943 raid on Bremen went sideways. He had been just 30 minutes away from reaching his target when his plane was struck by six shells.

The damage was devastating, as was the human cost — the radio operator died, and other members of his crew were badly injured. The electrical systems were shot, and engine controls were obliterated — and then one of its four engines exploded into flames.

“You sit there and take it!”

According to the 100th Bomb Group Foundation, “Faced with fresh waves of fighters still rising to the attack, Major Cleven had every justification for abandoning ship. His crew, some of them comparatively inexperienced youngsters, were preparing to bail out, since no other course appeared open.”

It added, “The co-pilot pleaded repeatedly with Major Cleven to abandon ship. Major Cleven's reply at this critical juncture, although the odds were overwhelmingly against him, was as follows: ‘You son of a bitch, you sit there and take it!’”

Courage in the face of hopeless odds

These rousing words hit home with the crew, and in the face of this adversity they stayed the course, flying on all the way to Bremen. In the end, they successfully bombed their target and were able to land safely at base in North Africa.

The USAF noted, “Major Cleven's actions were far above and beyond the call of duty and the skill, courage, and strength of will displayed by him as airplane- and squadron commander in the face of hopeless odds have seldom, if ever, been surpassed in the annals of the Army Air Forces.”

Egan and his good-luck $2 bill

Cleven didn’t even accept his Distinguished Cross medal. Instead he quipped, “Medal, Hell, I needed an aspirin! So, I remain undecorated.” Egan also flew on that fateful raid, though; and it was a day the 100th lost 90 good men.

When asked how he’d managed to emerge in one piece, Egan replied, “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. I also wore my sweater backwards and my good-luck jacket.”

“When we lost, we lost big”

Losing such large numbers on a mission was, unfortunately, quite common for the 100th — and it led to their dubious nickname “Bloody 100th.” Interestingly, another unit — the 91st Bombardment Group — lost more men in total, but the 100th’s designation stuck because, as Crosby put it, “When we lost, we lost big.”

As an illustration of this, the 100th flew 306 missions between 1943 and 1945 and lost 177 aircraft. Crucially, though, eight of the missions were so devastating they made up almost half their total wartime losses.

“The man who came to dinner”

During the summer of 1943 losses came so thick and fast that it was impossible to properly keep track. Miller revealed, “One replacement crewman arrived at Thorpe Abbotts in time for a late meal, went to bed in his new bunk, and was lost the next morning over Germany. No one got his name. He was thereafter known as ‘the man who came to dinner.’”

The men often didn’t even know if a colleague had been killed or captured by the enemy, as there would be no body to confirm either outcome. They just knew their friend hadn’t come home.

Black Week

October 1943 was a defining month for the war effort, and a particularly harrowing one for the two Buckys and the 100th. Over the course of seven days — dubbed “Black Week” — more than 1,000 bomber planes were sent into Germany to destroy industrial targets.

The Luftwaffe shot huge numbers of them out of the sky. By the end of the week, 1,500 men and 148 planes had been lost by the Eighth Air Force; Cleven himself was one of the first to go missing in action.

Egan vows vengeance

As Crosby eloquently put it in his memoir, “Bucky Cleven, the impervious, the invincible, was gone. If he couldn’t make it, who could? His good friend Bucky Egan didn’t talk much that night.”

Indeed, Egan was on leave in London at that time, and he only found out about the mission failing when he read about it in the newspaper. As soon as he found out Cleven hadn’t come home, though, he volunteered for a mission the very next day, saying, “We are going to get the… [people] that got Buck.”

“A chance to kill Germans”

This “revenge” mission was centred around an attack on Munster, but the target wasn’t an industrial outpost. Instead, the bombs would be aimed at the city center, which meant civilian casualties were highly likely. Some of the pilots felt uneasy about this, but Egan revealed, “I find myself on my feet, cheering.”

He revealed, “Others, who had lost close friends in raids joined in the cheering because 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.”

Dirty work

This reaction was a stark reminder of how war shapes the thinking of its combatants. It becomes about winning at all costs and fighting for your fallen comrades — even if that means doing things you otherwise would never consider.

Indeed, when the men had first joined the forces, commander Colonel Darr H. "Pappy" Alkire warned them, “Don’t get the notion that your job is going to be glorious or glamorous. You’ve got dirty work to do, and you might as well face the facts. You’re going to be baby-killers and women-killers.”

A disastrous mission

In the end, though, the mission was a horror-show. A fighter named Rodney Snow from the 95th Bombardment Group later described German fighter planes “concentrated in numbers such as we had not seen on any of my crew’s 20 previous missions.”

The 100th was battered particularly relentlessly by the Luftwaffe. In fact, only one of their 13 bombers made it back to base, and its shellshocked pilot Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal was hard to remark, “Are they all this rough?”

Nearly a quarter lost in one fell swoop

In his book Flying Fortress, Edward Jablonski noted that the Germans knew “if they were fortunate enough in knocking down enough planes, the effect upon morale would be devastating. The absence of 120 men would be noted; one-quarter of the 100th Group’s airmen were gone.”

It led to long-range strikes being called off for a few months before the Allies pivoted to a different tactic to try to win the war. Instead of bombing industrial plants and cities, they would concentrate on securing “air superiority” by attacking the Luftwaffe directly.

“What took you so long?”

Egan wound up a prisoner of war, sent to Stalag Luft III along with many of his comrades. In a stranger-than-fiction twist, though, a familiar voice called out, “What the Hell took you so long?” as he arrived.

Egan looked up to see his best pal Cleven — who had already been imprisoned there for three days — smiling at him! A relieved Egan reportedly chuckled, “That’s what I get for being sentimental!” before happily reuniting with his fellow Bucky.

What had happened to Cleven?

It turned out Cleven’s plane had been torn apart by the Luftwaffe on October 8, with three engines failing, a huge part of the left wing being cleaved off, and holes being punched through the nose and tail sections.

In desperation, he and his crew had jumped from the plane; Cleven was only able to open his parachute around 2,000 feet off the ground. As he hurtled downwards, he’d seen he was going to land close to a small farmhouse. But he couldn’t control his fall as well as he’d hoped.

Paying a farmer a chaotic visit

In the end, Cleven wound up landing in the farmhouse, not close to it. The embattled pilot was blown in through the open back door and smashed through furniture and a stove before coming to a halt in the kitchen.

The farmer had been in the kitchen with his daughter at the time and, after they both screamed in shock, he sprang into action and pressed a pitchfork into Cleven’s chest. Bucky later chuckled, “In my pitiful high-school German I tried to convince him I was a good guy. But he wasn't buying it!”

Prisoners of war

Over the course of the war, more than 35,000 air force personnel found themselves in German prisoner-of-war (POW) camps; incredibly, about 28,000 of that number were from the Eighth! One of them — Robert Wolff — once hilariously remarked that he’d “met more people from our group in that prison camp than I did when I was on active duty.”

According to Imperial War Museum’s Hattie Hearn, “There was this understanding between the prisoners and the prison guards that these men were fellow airmen, and they deserved to be treated with some respect.”

POW life was physically and emotionally draining

Despite this Hearn added, “The routine of POW life wore down the prisoners both physically and emotionally,” with Blazich adding, “It can be incredibly boring, because you go from very high-intensity work to essentially a very sedentary lifestyle.”

The men made the best of it, though, playing sports, teaching each other classes, and gardening. As Hearn put it, “They created their own little communities, and they rallied around each other and got through it. But at the same time, they were also suffering from malnutrition and missing home.”

Roommates again

The two Buckys endured 18 long months as POWS. After being kept apart initially, they eventually found themselves in a cell together, meaning they were roommates again, just like when they had been new recruits! The circumstances this time were markedly different, of course.

Military commanders who wanted to shape them into ace pilots had been replaced by prison guards, freezing-cold nights, and the ever-present ache of hunger. Cleven later quipped, “You could tell a new POW because all they talked about was women; long-time POWs talked about food.”

A brutal transfer

At one point, the two Buckys were part of a contingent of prisoners being transferred to the Stalag VII-A camp in Moosburg. This entailed a brutal march in the dead of winter, which Cleven described in intricate detail.

He revealed, “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. We burned the straw mattresses and then washed down the concrete building with cold water.”

“Strange things going on in this camp”

“Now come night-time this building was cold and damp,” continued Cleven, “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.’”

He added, “I replied he was crazy. 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.”

Using humor to make it through

What happened next, though, showcased how — even in the bleakest of circumstances — the two Buckys retained their sense of humor. Cleven revealed, “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!’”

Incredibly, sometime during the march to Moosburg, Cleven escaped the clutches of the guards, and he found his way back to home base in just 12 days. His pal Egan stayed in the camp until the war ended in May 1945.

Egan’s post-war career

With the war in Europe over, Egan was offered the chance to resume his life back in the States, but he initially resisted. In fact, he officially requested to be sent to the Pacific Theater if they needed pilots. This was declined, though, and he wound up settling back into home life.

He walked down the aisle with Josephine Pitz on Boxing Day, 1945, and, naturally, his best pal Cleven was there with his beloved Marge. Egan and Josephine subsequently welcomed two daughters; he earned a degree from Georgetown University in 1948 and was then promoted to Colonel in 1951.

A life cut short

Egan’s heroism carried into the Korean War, where he acted as commander of the 67th Reconnaissance Group. He flew a number of bombing missions here, and later became the Pacific Air Force’s director of operations in 1956.

For the last three years of his life, Egan was part of a classified project at The Pentagon whose nature is still shrouded in mystery. Sadly, though, he passed away from heart failure in 1961 at only 45 years old. Fittingly, Cleven attended his fellow Bucky’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Cleven’s post-war life

Cleven also continued answering the call of duty, fighting in Korea and Vietnam and rising to the rank of Colonel before retiring in 1955. On July 3, 1945, he’d married his best girl Marge — with Egan as best man, of course — and they were husband and wife for eight years.

Tragically, Marge passed away from a brain aneurysm in 1953. Cleven was dedicated to her for the rest of his days; even in his dotage, her photograph took pride of place on his mantlepiece.

Returning to his studies and teaching the next generation

Amazingly, Cleven would outlive Egan by 45 years. In his post-military years, he took the opportunity to return to education, finishing his math degree at the University of Wyoming before attaining an astrophysics degree from Georgetown in 1962.

From 1986 to 1988 he was president of Florida’s Webber College, and after steadying that institution’s financial position in those years, he even worked as a substitute teacher. Cleven died in 2006 at the age of 87 and his remains were buried in Santa Fe, New Mexico.