A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-torn Skies of World War II, revolves around an incident during WW-II where a German Luftwaffe pilot escorted a damaged B–17F bomber out of Germany. The German pilot, Franz Stigler, was an ace who was tired of the killing, even as he was forced to keep fighting. There was a code of honor in the Luftwaffe. A code that was at odds with the Nazi Party. (An interesting side note: the soldiers in the Luftwaffe were prevented from joining the Nazi Party and this branch of German military was full of men who where uncomfortable with the Nazi Party. The exception was Goering, Hitler’s #2 man.) The book tells the story of Stigler, a Bavarian Catholic, who grew up wanting to be a pilot. Who flew for Lufthansa and then as a trainer when the war broke out. It was only when his brother August was killed flying his Ju–88 that Franz took up arms.
Makos fills in the the back story. By December 20, 1943 World War II becomes futile for Germany. The Luftwaffe pilots can see it. But they also see the Allied bombers indiscriminately attacking their friends, family, and countrymen. They had a duty to their country to defend it against American and British bombers. And yet the German Luftwaffe’s Code of Honor dictated they look at each battle as a Victory, not as a Kill. It was evil to kill a pilot, especially if they were dangling helplessly at the end of a parachute. The Luftwaffe pilots would also rescue downed allied pilots from the hands of civilians who wanted to kill bomber crews outright. Makos tells one story of a Luftwaffe officer rescuing hundreds of American POWs at Dachau death camp. American airmen who were days away from being executed. He insisted they be transferred to a regular POW camp.
The book also tells the story of the American pilot: Charlie Brown. Brown was a farm boy from West Virginia who was put in charge of a B–17F heavy bomber and the lives of his nine crew members. We follow Brown and his bomber crew, through training, to the 8th Air Force base in England, into the heart of German, and into the gun sights of Franz’s Me–109.
Stigler risked a firing squad by letting Brown and his B–17F crew escape. Stigler’s Higher Calling, demanded he hold his fire on a defenseless aircrew. (By this time the B–17F) had been chewed up by FW–190 canons and flak guns over the bomb zone. The bomber was barely flying. (see Air Force Cross citation below.) Stigler pointed to the ground; trying to force the crew to land in German. Then he pointed to Sweden once out to sea. Brown couldn’t figure out what Franz was indicating. Stigler refuse to fire on them. Makos finishes with an amazing story: how the heavily damaged B–17F got back to England.
Makos follows Franz Stigler through rest of the war and for a short time afterwards. I found Stigler’s service in JV–44 to be very fascinating. It was a combat group made up of the best pilots in German at the the time, possibly the best pilots of all time. But these pilots had lost faith with Hitler, Nazis, and the war. Goering wanted to have them all shot, but Hitler knew he couldn’t kill all these highly decorated Heroes of the Fatherland. Instead he let them fight, knowing they would all die together in combat. JV–44 collected the Me–262, the most advance fighter in WW-II, and the first operational jet fighter. It was a difficult aircraft to fly, but it was insanely fast when compared to the propeller driven fighters it was up against. The Me–262 ‘Swallow’ was too little, too late. Franz was lucky to survive with his life. But survive it did.
The story jumps 40+ years as both Brown and Stigler wonder what happened after their brief encounter. Both men put out feelers, but they had little information to go on. Finally a letter to a Luftwaffe veteran’s magazine got a nimble. Both men were excited to find each other. Stigler was concerned how he would be received. After all, Stigler was an enemy pilot who shot down at least fifty aircraft and crews. But enough time had gone by, and Stigler’s act of grace could not be ignored. The men bonded as brothers. They met with tears and hugs, as did Brown’s family and crew members when they met Stigler.
Adam Makos (with Larry Alexander) have written a compellingly book, full of stories that are hard to believe and yet that is the nature of war. Stories of heroism and compassion all mixed in with the waste and futility of war. The dehumanizing aspects of the Nazis with their all their brutality could not overcome Stigler’s humanity and courage and that is the story we’re left with.
Paintings And Photos
Paintings of the Encounter
- “In the Presence of My Enemy” shows Franz and Charlie at the start of their encounter.
- “The Guardian” shows Stigler’s Me–109 over the starboard side wing of Brown’s B–17F ‘Ye Olde Pub’.
- “A Higher Call” shows Stigler’s Me–109 over the port side wing of Brown’s B–17F ‘Ye Olde Pub’.
- Scroll down to to see “Return of the Pub” showing two P–47s escorting Brown’s B–17F home.
- “Outrun The Eagles” Stigler skimming the ground in his Me–262.
Photos of the only flying B–17F
Boeing built a lot more B–17G Bombers (they have a chin turret under the nose) About once a year, one flies in to our Fargo Air Museum, so I have lots of photos of this aircraft. There are very few flying German WWII aircraft, even fewer in North America. I do have a photo of a 3/4 scale model FW–190 and a full size fuselage of a Me–109 at the Fargo Air Museum.
Tour inside and around the outside of these B–17G Bombers.
* 2008 ‘Sentimental Journey’
* 2009 ‘Aluminum Overcast’
* 2010 ‘Yankee Lady’
* 2011 ‘Aluminum Overcast’
* 2013 ‘Sentimental Journey’
* 2014 ‘Nine O Nine’
* 2015 ‘Sentimental Journey’
Citation to accompany the award of The Air Force Cross to Charles L. Brown
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, takes pleasure in presenting the Air Force Cross to Second Lieutenant Charles L. Brown for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an armed enemy of the United States as a B–17 Pilot of the 527th Bombardment Squadron, 379th Bombardment Group (Heavy), EIGHTH Air Force, in action over Germany, 20 December 1943.
On this date while attacking a heavily defended target over occupied Germany, Lieutenant Brown’s aircraft sustained severe flak damage, including destruction of the Plexiglas nose, wing damage, and major damage to the number two and four engines. Lieutenant Brown provided invaluable instructions to the copilot and crew requiring the number two engine to be shut down. He then expertly managed to keep the number four engine producing partial power. This action enabled his crew to complete the improbable bombing run and bomb delivery on this important strategic target.
Immediately upon leaving the target, sever multiple engine damage prevented maintaining their position in formation. During this extreme duress, the demonstrated airmanship displayed by Lieutenant Brown could only be described as crucially pivotal to the aircraft’s survival and displayed by only more seasoned and experienced aviators during the War.
His violent, evasive tactics to counter the multiple enemy efforts to destroy their airplane directly contributed to his crew and his aircraft’s survival. Alone and outnumbered, the aircraft was mercilessly attacked by the enemy in which crew difficulties were compounded when discovered only three defensive guns were operational, the others frozen in the –75 degree Fahrenheit temperatures.
The result of this brief, but devastating aerial battle was one crew member dead; another critically wounded that would require amputation of his leg; serious damage of the third engine; the complete destruction of the aircraft’s left elevator and stabilizer; the inoperability of the bomber’s oxygen and communications systems; and the complete shredding of the rudder by enemy fire that produced a death roll of the plane as it spiraled helplessly out of control causing the entire crew to temporarily lose consciousness.
Miraculously, prior to ground impact, Lieutenant Brown and the copilot regained consciousness and managed to regain full flight control by pulling the heavily damaged aircraft out of its nose-dive.
Although managing to recover this aircraft from certain doom, the crew’s plight was further complicated when a lone German fighter witnessed the maneuver, now attempted to force the crippled aircraft to land. Displaying coolness, courage and airmanship of more senior pilots, he boldly rejected the enemy fighter’s attempts at a forced landing and directed the struggling aircraft to the North Sea.
While attempting this improbable, treacherous return to home station, Lieutenant Brown’s command and control was instrumental to the remaining crew’s survival. While in the cockpit, he provided the essential engine control, fuel management, and piloting skills necessary to the cockpit team during their hazardous, yet miraculous return of the aircraft’s perilous crossing of the North Sea back to home station in England. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of the enemy, Lieutenant Brown reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Army Air Corps.
General Orders: Department of the Air Force, Special Order G–094
Action Date: December 20, 1943
Service: Army Air Forces
Rank: Second Lieutenant
Battalion: 527th Bombardment Squadron
Regiment: 379th Bombardment Group (H)
Division: 8th Air Force
When An Enemy Was A Friend
Air Force Magazine/ January 1997
By John L. Frisbee, Contributing Editor
JV–44: The Galland Circus
By Robert Forsyth