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A Higher Call: An Inspirational True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the WarTorn Skies of WWII

by Adam Makos with Larry Alexander, Berkley-Caliber, New York, N.Y., 2012, $26.95

From aviation’s formative years there has always been a feeling of fraternity among aviators. It manifested itself in a form of mutual chivalry during World War I, but as the airplane matured as a weapon, those sentiments were at odds with the practical realties of combat. By the middle of World War II, with bombers demolishing cities and killing thousands, aerial combat was fought in deadly earnest, with the elimination of the enemy a matter of duty and sparing his life a secondary consideration at best.

A Higher Call chronicles a remarkable exception to that rule. On December 20, 1943, a shot-up Boeing B-17F of the 379th Fighter Group, Eighth Air Force, limping back from a raid on Bremen on one good engine and two rough-running ones, its tail gunner dead, the Plexiglas nose blown open and one of the horizontal stabilizers torn off, was approaching the North Sea when a Messerschmitt Me-109G-6 caught up with it. Instead of finishing off the doomed bomber, however, Lieutenant Franz Stigler of II Gruppe, Jagdgeschwader 27, flew alongside, surveying the damage and wondering how the plane could still be flying. He saw crewmen inside tending to one another’s wounds. He also spotted a ball turret gunner with frozen guns who was wondering,“What are you waiting for?” Unknown to the Americans, Stigler’s thoughts of an earlier war he’d fought over North Africa inspired the answer: “This will be no victory for me. I will not have this on my conscience for the rest of my life.”

For almost 10 minutes Stigler flew in formation with the bomber. His presence protected the B-17 from German anti-aircraft gunners on the coast. Then, after a vain attempt at communication, he saluted the Americans and left them to whatever fate lay in store for them. Through his merciful act he had risked court-martial and death, and for decades thereafter Stigler wondered if it had been worth it. He also wondered what became of the bomber and crew.

Lieutenant Charlie Brown managed to beat the odds and brought his ship back to England. And in January 1990 he at last made contact with the German flier who could have killed him and his surviving crewmates, but chose not to.

Having met and interviewed both principal protagonists in this incident, Adam Makos, with the help of Larry Alexander, has woven an intriguing tale about two exceptional men from very different worlds, leading up to their rendezvous in 1943 and resuming separate courses until their reunion more than 46 years later. A Higher Call is a real page-turner even for those who aren’t aviation enthusiasts, but that added perspective will help knowledgeable readers understand this story’s inherent implausibility, as well as its underlying plausibility.


Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.