December 20, 1943, 4 days before Christmas:
a young American bomber pilot named Charlie Brown found himself somewhere over Germany, struggling to keep his plane aloft with just one of its four engines still working. They were returning from their first mission as a unit, the successful bombing of a German munitions factory. Of his crew members, one was dead and six wounded, and 2nd Lt. Brown was alone in his cockpit, the three unharmed men tending to the others. Brown’s B-17 had been attacked by 15 German planes and left for dead, and Brown himself had been knocked out in the assault, regaining consciousness in just enough time to pull the plane out of a near-fatal nose dive.
None of that was as shocking as the German pilot now suddenly to his right.
Brown thought he was hallucinating. He did that thing you see people do in movies: He closed his eyes and shook his head no. He looked, again, out the co-pilot’s window. Again, the lone German was still there, and now it was worse. He’d flown over to Brown’s left and was frantic: pointing, mouthing things that Brown couldn’t begin to comprehend, making these wild gestures, exaggerating his expressions like a cartoon character.
Brown, already in shock, was freshly shot through with fear. What was this guy up to?
He craned his neck and yelled back for his top gunner, screamed at him to get up in his turret and shoot this guy out of the sky. Before Brown’s gunner could squeeze off his first round, the German did something even weirder: He looked Brown in the eye and gave him a salute. Then he peeled away.
What just happened? That question would haunt Brown for more than 40 years, long after he married and left the service and resettled in Miami, long after he had expected the nightmares about the German to stop and just learned to live with them.
Yesterday saw the release of a brand new book by Adam Makos (with Larry Alexander), A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II , which gives a detailed account of not only this strange “Christmas Truce“-like encounter, but also tells the background story of Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler, and what happened to them after their famous aerial encounter (kept secret by the U.S. 8th Air Force for fear that American gunners might hesitate firing upon the enemy if the clemency shown Ye Olde Pub– Charlie Brown’s bomber- were known. Brown and his crew were denied the medals they earned and deserved and were told their mission never happened. On Stigler’s part, he kept his chivalrous act secret because to not do so would have seen him face a firing squad).
For the next few decades, Brown and Stigler would be “haunted” by memory of that day. They had unanswered questions for one another: Was the German 109 out of ammunition (Stigler’s fighter was fully fueled and armed)? Did Brown’s crew make it to England (Stigler thought it an impossible flight due to the condition of the B-17 and had motioned to Brown to head for Sweden and live out the remainder of the war)? It wouldn’t be until 1990 that Brown and Stigler miraculously found one another.
Prior to Brown and Stigler’s passing in 2008, Makos met with and interviewed both men extensively to tell their story. And as Charlie Brown puts it, “In this story, I’m just a character- Franz Stigler is the real hero.” Shocking for the author to hear, having grown up regarding WWII-era Germans as all goose-stepping Nazis, evil and irredeemable. But as much as anything else, this book is about Franz Stigler and the heroic decency and chivalry of the Luftwaffe aces that Stigler flew with. As the deeply pro-American Makos relates at the beginning of his book,
something began to puzzle me. I noticed that the aging American WWII pilots talked about their counterparts- the old German WWII pilots- with a strange kind of respect. They spoke of the German pilots’ bravery, decency, and this code of honor that they supposedly shared. Some American veterans even went back to Germany, to the places where they’d been shot down, to meet their old foes and shake hands.
Are you kidding? I thought. They were trying to kill you! They killed your friends. You’re supposed to never forget. But the veterans who flew against the Germans thought differently. For once, I thought the Greatest Generation was crazy.
After Brown and Stigler finally met 40 years after their encounter, and their story began making the rounds in news publications, Makos’ critical thoughts were echoed even more harshly by those who did perceive Stigler’s show of mercy to the enemy as an act of treason:
As news of Charlie and Franz’s reunion circulated, it made the headlines, Jagerblatt ran a story about Franz’s reunion with Charlie under the title “An Act of Chivalry in the Skies over Europe.” Franz began receiving phone calls from Germany that delivered the same message.
“Is this Franz Stigler?”
“You pigheaded asshole.” Click.
Others began, “Are you Franz Stigler, who didn’t shoot the B-17 down?”
-Pg 365, A Higher Call
Those critical of Stigler have a point: After all, his act of mercy toward an American bomber meant its surviving crew might have lived another day to drop more bombs upon German cities, killing men, women, and children.
And then there were those local Canadian callers (Stigler now living in Vancouver) who became shocked knowing that a former Luftwaffe ace was living amongst them:
“Is this Franz Stigler?”
“Go home, you Nazi bastard.” Click.
-Pg 366, A Higher Call
Many Germans were never part of the Nazi party movement. Stigler was among those opposed to its ideology. He fought neither to advance the interests of the Nazis nor really so much to defend Germany as it was to seek revenge for the death of his older brother, August, killed in the war.
What shaped Stigler’s moral character as a Luftwaffe pilot was his mentor, Roedel, who, unlike other hotshot aces, chose not to decorate his fighter with the number of enemy “kills”:
If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute,” Roedel said, “I will shoot you down myself.”
The words stung.
“You follow the rules of war for you, not for your enemy,” Roedel said. “You fight by rules to keep your humanity.”
-Pg 54, A Higher Call
Everyone knew it was JG-27’s policy to try and get a new pilot his first victory within ten missions. But for Franz, ten had come and gone.
“There’s no reason to apologize for never having killed a man,” Marseille said. He poured Franz a tall glass of cognac. “As soldiers, we must kill or be killed, but once a person enjoys killing, he is lost. After my first victory I felt terrible.”
“We only need to answer to God and our comrades,” Marseilles said.
-Pg 66-7, A Higher Call
Makos does an excellent job in weaving together the two narratives of Charlie Brown’s life experiences and that of Franz Stigler. He tracks significant moments in their lives. Central to their story, of course, is Chapter 15 and the dramatic and fateful crossing of paths.
Unbeknownst to Brown as he piloted the badly damaged Pub at the mercy of Stigler’s 109 is that:
1. Stigler was not one of the original Focke-Wulf 190s that had badly damaged the Pub, leaving it for dead. His 109 was recently refueled and armed with a fresh belt of 20mm cannon shells (Brown originally assumed that Stigler’s 109 might have spared firing upon him because it was out of ammo).
2. Stigler launched from the airbase as the Pub flew low and nearby, specifically to go after it. Stigler’s goal? To take the B-17 down from the skies and score the one more victory Stigler needed to be awarded the prestigious Knight’s Cross. So the German fighter ace had an extra incentive that day to take down an enemy plane.
Knocking the Pub from the skies would have been an easy victory-win for Stigler. But as he came closer, awed at the badly damaged bomber and marveling at how it could possibly still be flying, “In a rush of long-dormant emotions, Franz forgot he was a German fighter pilot.” [Pg. 201]
The Franz Stigler who went to Africa to avenge his brother’s death would have had an answer. He would have destroyed the bomber and killed its crew. But there, in the desert, and over ancient Sicily, the last of Europe’s Knights had taught Franz Stigler a new code. Their code said to fight with fearlessness and restraint, to celebrate victories not death, and to know when it was time to answer a higher call.
Franz gazed at the men in the waist tending one another’s wounds. He looked into the ashen face of the ball turret gunner. He thought about what his brother August would have done.
A gear clicked in Franz’s soul. He laid a hand over the pocket of his jacket and felt his rosary beads within. This will be no victory for me, Franz decided. I will not have this on my conscience for the rest of my life.
-Pg 202, A Higher Call
The importance of the Knight’s Cross took on a different significance for Franz Stigler after this experience:
He had seen the eyes of the wounded bomber crew, young men no different than the ones he had been killing for two years. He knew the Cross stood for bravery. But Franz now realized it also represented a man’s success at his most corrupted service to the world- his prowess at killing other men. Franz knew he could not stop fighting. The war would not let him. But never again would he celebrate his job as a fighter pilot, the role he head volunteered for. On December 20, 1943, he had given up on the Knight’s Cross for good.
-Pg 231, A Higher Call
The book follows the remainder of Stigler’s wartime service and traces the lives of Brown and Stigler post-war, leading up to the story of how they finally managed to track each other down.
Some might condemn Stigler’s show of mercy to the enemy as a betrayal to his countrymen, as it left Brown’s surviving bombing crew to live again to fight another day. But without showing our enemy mercy when they are left helpless and defenseless, what do we become? What does it say about us?
Stigler’s clemency allowed for good men to live and to father children and grandchildren. And it allowed him to keep his sense of honor and his humanity during a time of war when men can behave with great barbarism and ruthlessness toward his fellow man.
Stigler is as much a part of “The Greatest Generation” as men like Brown. In this crazy world, sometimes it is the case that good men find themselves fighting on opposite sides of the fence. And even as we fight one another, we should keep it alive somewhere in our minds and in our hearts that our enemy might not be so different from ourselves; and that in another era, we might even be friends and brothers:
In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter.
On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying.
The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me, as precious as my brother was.
This book would make a great Christmas gift (to yourself and others!). It is the most complete, definitive account of Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler’s story (I’ve seen previous accounts that have certain details wrong); and it is a highly entertaining, engrossing read. One of those page-turners that makes it difficult to set the book down to take a break.
If Hollywood ever gets a hold of a script, don’t be surprised to see a version of this true-life story make it to the big screen.