This is a review I wrote more than five years ago, in January 2013. It was one of the best books by a first-time author I have ever read, and for some odd reason, I awakened this morning with this book on my mind. When I wrote the review, it received exactly one view, one like on WordPress, though it fared somewhat better on Amazon and GoodReads. But then, that was 2013 when this blog had only about 30 followers! So, I decided today would be a good day to re-run this review in hopes that somebody will be intrigued enough to read the book! (Plus, we all need a little break from all things trumpian.)
Every now and then I cross paths with a book that strikes a chord somewhere deep within me, a book that shares my waking hours and my sleep. This is one of those books, as was Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. Coincidentally, both tell a true story from World War II … Unbroken tells of Louis Zamperini who survived to tell about his adventures as a US pilot in the Pacific, subsequent capture and imprisonment by the Japanese. A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II tells of two pilots, one German and one American who meet high in the skies over Germany on December 20th, 1943. Both of these books will stay with me, I am sure, for a lifetime. A Higher Call grabbed me and simply won’t let go.
December 20, 1943, in the skies over Bremen, Germany. Charlie Brown is the pilot of a B17 bomber, just finishing a raid on an aircraft production facility. His plane has been hit multiple times by German flak. It was missing a rudder and had sustained serious damage to its hydraulic and electrical systems, not to mention that only one engine out of four was functioning at peak, one crew member was dead and several others seriously injured, and now Charlie faces flying through enemy flak to get north of Germany over the North Sea and back to Great Britain, a feat beyond all imaginings. Suddenly from behind he spots a German fighter plane and Charlie knows he and his crew have no chance to survive if the fighter shoots so much as a rock launched from a slingshot at their plane. This edge-of-the-seat action enhances, but does not dominate the story. The pilot in the German Bf109 is Franz Stigler, a man who joined the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) to avenge his brother’s death. One look at the B17 and Stigler knew it didn’t stand a chance. He remembered the words of his former leader and mentor, Gustav Roedel, who had once told Franz, “You score victories, not kills … you shoot at a machine not a man”, and decided in less time than it took the thought to form that he not only couldn’t shoot down that crippled bomber but that he would do everything he could to save the men inside. There were two dangers to this, but Stigler barely registered them. The first, of course, was that the bomber would fire on him first and knock him out of the sky (he didn’t know that the bomber’s guns were frozen, all but the turret gun whose range was so limited that he was never really in any danger from that). But the other, perhaps greater danger was that if the German command ever found out that he had the chance to dispatch this bomber and didn’t, he could be court-martialed and sentenced to death. On Stigler’s mind at that moment in time, however, was how he could keep the crew on this bomber from either being sent to a fiery death by German flak or an icy death in the North Sea. Ultimately, he led them through the German flak and left them over the North Sea with a salute and a prayer that they could stay safe. And it is in this one episode that Franz Stigler became a hero in my book. He would go on to fight some 487 missions in the war and is now in history books as a German flying ace, but for me it was that one act of human kindness, of human compassion, that made him a hero.
Though the book centers around the heroic acts of Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler in the air over Germany that day, the event itself actually occupies less than 4% (15 pages out of 368) of the book. Had I realized this in the beginning, I might never have bought the book and that would have been my loss. The bulk of the book follows Stigler’s career and rise as a flying ace throughout the war and it is from this that I, who have nursed a hatred of all things pertaining to the German military almost since my birth, came to realize that not every soldier in Germany was a Nazi and not every soldier in Germany lacked a heart. The Luftwaffe, or German Air Force, in this book is shown to be no less human than any man in the USAF or any other branch of the Allied military. Overwhelmingly, the Luftwaffe were NOT members of the Nazi Party and did NOT support Hitler and his programs. They were simply there to do their jobs and defend their nation and its people. In fact, most were not aware of Hitler’s “Final Solution” (the extermination of Jews) and the death camps until near the end of the war. For the most part Germans, including the Luftwaffe, were as afraid of the SS (Gestapo) as were we.
Many years after the end of the war, both Brown and Stigler wondered what had become of one another. Neither knew the other’s name, yet neither had forgotten that strange encounter in the skies over Germany. Eventually they would have their reunion and become brothers not of shared blood, but of shared life. Notably, though more than seventy years had passed since the end of WWII, once this story became public, Franz Stigler began receiving hate mail, presumably from Germans who felt that he should have blown Charlie and his crew out of the sky. I guess hatred is in no danger of becoming extinct any time soon.
This is Adam Makos’ first published book, though he has been editor of the military magazine Valor, for some fifteen years, and frankly I was intrigued when I read a synopsis of the storyline, but was not expecting great writing from this first-time author. I was wrong. The writing is as seamless and spell-binding as almost any I have read. This is a heart-warming, yet edge-of-the-seat true story that reads like a novel and leaves the reader wanting much more. Sadly, both Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler died in 2008. However there are photos and video clips of their reunion some 50 years later on the author’s website. If you read no other non-fiction book this year, do yourself a favor and read this one. It will stay in your mind and in your heart for a good long time, maybe forever.