What Happened to Gale “Buck” Cleven in Real Life? How Did He Die?

In Apple TV+’s war drama, ‘Masters of the Air,’ Austin Butler takes the lead in the role of Major Gale “Buck” Cleven. Respected by all for his cool and calm demeanor and his ability to boost morale even when things seem to be completely out of hand, Major Cleven is the beating heart of the story. While the show sheds a spotlight on all characters, giving everyone the screen time they are due, Gale Cleven is one of the central protagonists it keeps returning to. In his defense, Cleven did have quite a journey, worthy of being put at the center of a TV show. At the end of the fourth episode, things seem to be rather uncertain for him, but there is much more left to be explored in his story. What happened to him in real life? SPOILERS AHEAD

Gale Cleven Became a Prisoner of War

Major Gale Cleven’s plane, which was a B-17 named “Our Baby,” was shot down on October 8, 1943, during “Black Week” when he and the team were on the raid of Bremen. Like a lot of his men, Cleven landed on the enemy territory, and he knew what this meant. He later described the situation, revealing that he had landed right on the doorstep of a family’s farmhouse. An American soldier flying out of the sky and crashing into their house was not taken well by the German family, and the officer soon found himself on the floor with a pitchfork aimed at his chest.

Image Credit: 100th Bomb Group Foundation

Cleven was found by the German authorities and, with his pilot, who had also landed in the same area, he was taken to a Luftwaffe station somewhere near Osnabruck. Here, Cleven discovered a lot of men from his team, who had also jumped from the plane to save themselves from dying in the crash, only to land in the hands of the Nazis. They all were interrogated there and were moved to Stalag Luft III in Sagan on October 23, 1943. He would stay there for 18 months.

One of the things that everyone knew about Cleven was his deep friendship with Major John Egan. The duo were best of friends and were often seen together at the base. So, it didn’t come as much surprise to the people around him when, a couple of days later, Egan, too, ended up in the same prison camp as him. Turns out that his mission had a similar fate to Cleven’s and Egan and his team ended up following the same path as his best friend. Reportedly, when Cleven first saw Egan at the prison camp, he said: “what the hell took you so long?”

Cleven spent the rest of the war in the prison camp. As the Allied powers gained momentum and the German forces started to disperse, things began to change in the prison camp as well. One day, all the prisoners were ordered to march out of the camp, evacuating the whole thing at once to make their way to Moosburg’s Stalag VIIA. The weather was extremely cold at the time, and many men didn’t survive the journey.

When Cleven saw his window, he jumped at it and ran away from his captors. He arrived at Thorpe Abbots Air Base twelve days later. Because he was a prisoner of war, he wasn’t sent back in rotation. For his service, he was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star, and a Bronze Star.

Gale Cleven Enjoyed a Long, Happy Life

Image Credit: 100th Bomb Group Foundation

When the Second World War ended, Major Gale Cleven stayed with the Air Force and went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam. Following that, he briefly worked at the Pentagon, and by the time he was ready to retire, he had been promoted to the rank of Colonel.

Apart from serving his country, Cleven was also focused on his education and got his MBA from Harvard Business School during his service years. He also got a doctorate in Physics, which got him a job at Hughes Aircraft. Shortly after, he left that to accept the job offer from Webber College in Florida, where Cleven helped turn things around by fixing the college’s reputation and management, completely reviving the institution.

Cleven was married to his childhood sweetheart, Marge, who met an untimely death. He later married a woman named Lee, with whom he shared a happy and content life. His retirement took him to Sheridan, Wyoming, where he remained till the age of 87. He died on November 17, 2006, at the Sugarland Ridge Retirement Centre. He is laid to rest at Santa Fe National Cemetery in New Mexico.

Read More: How is Masters of the Air Connected to Band of Brothers and The Pacific? Is It a Sequel?