War is awful. Everybody knows that, of course, but sometimes we forget.
I just finished Adam Makos’ A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II. All I can say is “wow.”
This is the story of two sworn enemies: American B-17 pilot Charlie Brown (seriously!) and German fighter ace Franz Stigler. As the book begins, we learn that Stigler is no Nazi. We meet him as a child who learns to love flying gliders. He’s a victim of circumstance: a Lufthansa pilot who was drafted into the war effort.
Early in the war, one of his squadron leaders asks him what he’ll do if he ever sees an allied pilot parachuting from a crippled plane. When Stigler didn’t have an answer, his commander said, “If you shoot him, I will shoot you.” Even in war, there is a higher call than the military. There is humanity.
Charlie Brown was a farm boy-turned-pilot who, on his first combat mission as pilot in command, found himself in the formation spot known as “purple heart corner.” It lived up to its name. German anti-aircraft fire and fighters tear his plane to pieces. His plane is badly damaged, barely flyable, with most of the crew injured or dead.
When Stigler finds the straggling B-17, he prepares for an easy kill—the kill that will certainly earn him the coveted Knight’s Cross. He’s fighting now to avenge the death of his brother and father in the war effort. This is a simple and easy kill, until Stigler notices that the wounded B-17 doesn’t fire back. As he closes in on his target, he realizes the extent of her damage. Through the gaping holes in the plane, he can see the crew huddled together providing medical care. He could see the destroyed tail gunner’s turret. His commander’s instruction to heed a higher call came to his mind. He was unable to destroy this B-17, as it was little more than a flying parachute at this point.
Stigler’s actions were high treason. He aided the enemy. Brown’s crew was confused and haunted by the actions of this strange German Me-109.
I won’t ruin any more of the story for you. There are plenty of surprises I haven’t spoiled. Here’s where the book shines: it reminds you of the awful human cost of war. It is a touching reminder that humanity, even in her darkest hour, has hope. This book is definitely worth your time.
What’s even neater is this: these two meet each other after the war, and video exists from that first meeting. I’m embedding it below!
(PS – I was able to download the audiobook for free thanks to the Tennessee READS Program!)