A Higher Call
Knights of the sky
By Steven Martinovich
It is common among those remaining few still capable of romanticizing war to argue that the advent of mechanized war dehumanized the activity, stripping it of its nobility. They doubtless prefer the glorious age of knights who wielded swords that turned men into chopped up sides of meat or the days of cavalry charges into cannon fire that tore men and animals apart. Through time, however, there has been a general understanding amongst soldiers of all sides that there was a code – unwritten, open to interpretation and flexible through time, but a generally understood code nonetheless.
In December 1943 over the skies of Europe that code was honoured by the pilot of a Luftwaffe fighter plane that came across a damaged B-17 bomber. It was an encounter so remarkable that the German pilot didn't speak of it for decades and the U.S. 8th Air Force classified it as "Top Secret." That event forms centerpiece of A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II, the story of German ace Franz Stigler and bomber pilot Charlie Brown and his crew.
A Higher Call opens with a young Stigler, a child that his mother hoped would become a priest while himself was fascinated with flight. Following his dreams Stigler becomes a pilot for Lufthansa before joining the Luftwaffe as a trainer and eventually a premier fighter pilot. He sees service in North Africa as part of Erwin Rommel's doomed fight against the British before returning to Europe to meet the clouds of Allied bombers and fighters that are beginning to threaten Germany. Stigler notches dozens of kills during the war making him one of Germany's deadliest pilots.
On the other side of the Atlantic 2nd Lt. Charlie Brown trains with his crew in the United States in preparation to become a bomber pilot in Europe. Born in humble circumstances and lying about his age, Brown goes on to command a B-17 named Ye Olde Pub and quickly learns that the life of a bomber crew is in no less danger than those of the fighter pilots. Swarms of German fighter planes with experienced pilots attack the massive bomber formations and their fighter escorts in the hopes of halting the destruction of German cities.
The paths of the two men cross on December 20, 1943. The Pub is returning from a bombing mission over Bremen, Germany and has suffered massive damage. Much of its tail has been shot away, giant holes in the fuselage reveal the dead and dying crew huddling inside, the nose has a massive hole that acts as a drag on the plane, and several dead engines. With no escort and the rest of the bombers long gone, Brown attempts to nurse the plane back to England. With little warning a Messerschmitt 109, piloted by Stigler, pulls up on its battered tail. Guns jammed, the B-17 can't defend itself from the death that now follows them. Stigler lines up his guns and prepares to fire.
It is not revealing anything to write here that Stigler does not fire. Governed by a code of conduct that pilots at the time tried to adhere to, Stigler cannot bring himself to fire at the wounded enemy in front of him. Instead, he escorts them over German anti-air guns and into the English Channel before returning back home. With that brief encounter neither sees each other again until Brown, haunted by the encounter, tries to find the man who spared his plane.
There is no glory in war – it is in Clausewitz's cold calculus the continuation of foreign policy through violence. It is meant to destroy, both men and materiel, and impose domination of one over the other. Yet occasionally in war the better angels of our nature manage to shine through and A Higher Call illustrates that even at our most inhumane we are capable of moments of humanity. Led by a mad man bent on world destruction, Stigler imposed sanity in one small corner of the war.
Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made America a weary nation, potentially mirroring its post-Vietnam torpor. Many continue to question whether the sacrifice was worth it – and no answer will be forthcoming for decades. A Higher Call offers no answers to war beyond its recounting of the meeting of two men in the sky one day seven decades ago but it does teach us that even during our darkest days two enemies can met and possibly part – if not as friends at least respecting each other's common humanity.
Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.
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