A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II

  • Published

A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II by Adam Makos, with Larry Alexander. Berkley Caliber/Penguin Group, 2012, 400 pp.

Perhaps we all long for examples of chivalry in “modern” warfare. Extended standoff ranges, precision guided weapons, and remotely piloted vehicles have somehow extracted much of the human element of warfare, both for better and for worse. Better, in that personal risk to friendly combatants is greatly reduced; worse, in that combatants may become detached from the harsh reality of their task—the application of the most extreme violence on living and breathing targets. Adam Makos and Larry Alexander researched and narrated an incredible story of a brief moment of compassion at the peak of the battle for the skies over Europe. It is well worth reading.

Those who seek tales of aerial combat, especially ones covering the World War II era, will already be familiar with the road to war of 21-year-old 2nd Lt Charlie Brown, pilot of “Ye Olde Pub” on 20 December 1943. Somewhat atypically, Brown was not a product of the Civilian Pilot Training Program. He had served in the West Virginia National Guard late in high school and transferred to active duty upon graduation. He checked out the Army Air Corps and decided it suited him. Beyond that, his path to the left seat of a B-17 was typical. It is a testimony to the desperation of the times that such a junior officer was serving as pilot-in-command of a B-17 with a 10-man crew in combat. In 1943, the tide had not yet turned; attrition was high.

The story of Franz Stigler is perhaps more fascinating to an American reader. Stigler’s path to the cockpit of a Messerschmitt Bf 109, whether typical or not, is probably unfamiliar to other than German readers. As a teenager, he learned to fly gliders with his brother. He attended college until he enrolled in airline pilot’s school and then flew Ju 52 tri-motors for Lufthansa. Early on, he earned a reputation as “a pilot’s pilot.” At Lufthansa, he flew as an international route check pilot, developing routes from Germany to London, Rome, and Barcelona. His transition from Lufthansa to the Luftwaffe was something less than voluntary, but he answered the call of duty, first as a civilian instructor pilot, later as an enlisted pilot. Franz taught his older brother, August, how to fly powered aircraft. August went on to become a Ju 88 pilot and was killed during the Battle of Britain. Franz transitioned to fighters and to a combat unit. That inflection point not only put him into the cockpit of a Me 109; it ultimately led to 28 kills and 30 probables, a pioneering role in the cockpit of the Me 262, and the camaraderie of the Luftwaffe’s finest, including Adolf Galland. Along that trajectory, Franz Stigler encountered Charlie Brown and his crew in a badly damaged B-17 struggling to remain aloft over Northern Germany as they attempted to return to England after a mission to Bremen.

There would be no story if Stigler had not approached closely enough to see the shot-up B-17, its tail gunner dead, and with gaping holes in its fuselage that enabled Stigler to clearly see the helpless wounded. Such a close look was itself extremely dangerous; although most of the B-17’s defensive armament was damaged or destroyed, a single 50-caliber round from an operating gun could have been fatal. Just as fatal was the likely result of a charge of treason if he allowed the bomber to escape. Yet that is just what Stigler did. He could not bring himself to destroy a helpless adversary; he saluted and banked away. It is the stuff of myths and legends.

Yet that unlikely encounter in the sky over Germany is merely the core of the story. Stigler’s impressive exploits as a fighter pilot, his experience with the Me 262, his friendship with Adolf Galland, and his experience in a devastated postwar Germany are just as rich. The search by both Brown and Stigler to find each other long after the war and their eventual reunion is almost as incredible and genuinely heartwarming. This is rich human history, set in the most tumultuous period of the twentieth century. The story is also a catalyst for serious reflection to those who are or have been warriors—a call to examine our own personal and professional ethics. Was Franz Stigler a compassionate hero? Alternatively, was he a traitor to his nation and its citizens he swore to defend? What would we do, given similar circumstances? What should we do, given similar circumstances?

Makos and Alexander have written a treasure of a book. It is a page-turner the reader will not want to put down. I certainly could not. It not only tells a great story and describes the history vividly; it provides a tremendous opportunity to consider when and how—or if—warriors should temper duty with compassion.

LTC Thomas E. Ward II, PhD, USA, retired
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."