Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Higher Call by Adam Makos

Most of the time all you want from a book is entertainment or escape. And then there are times when a book surprises you with a perspective that you hadn't considered before. Such is the case with Adam Makos' A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II.

The essence of the story is rather simple and brief and is revealed in relatively few pages. A lone, heavily damaged B-17 bomber is limping back to England when it is discovered by an equally alone, but fully armed, Me 109. Rather than finish off the obviously crippled bomber, the German pilot flies in close formation with it and escorts the B-17 through AA gun emplacements until they're over water, breaking off with  salute when the B-17 can proceed unmolested back to England.

The book ponders the simple question, "Why?" The German pilot risked a firing squad should his failure to shoot down the bomber became known. Even the Allies slapped a "top secret" label on the incident fearing that other bomber crews would let other fighter pilots come right alongside for the kill shot.
John Shaw painted his impression of the encounter between the B-17 and the Me 109.
While a good portion of the book consists of the B-17 pilot's backstory (a man named Charlie Brown, believe it or not when you consider the doghouse pilot Snoopy), the vast majority of the book involves the story of the German pilot who turned out to be not just any pilot, but one of Germany's premier pilots who at the end of the war was piloting the jet-powered Me 262 as part of the country's most elite remaining squadron (Franz Stigler).

A Higher Call is a story of Stigler's faith, his professionalism, and his adherence to the pilot's code that led to that singular act of chivalry. Let's be clear, no one is whitewashing WWII here - B-17 crews dropped tons of bombs that killed thousands of people and Me 109 pilots shot down countless Allied aircraft killing their crews. Both men continued to perform their duties throughout their service during the war.

So it it splitting hairs to revel in this single act? The book makes it extremely clear throughout that Stigler and his associates were not Nazis (the political party) despite serving in the military under their direction. Stigler's immediate commanders and friends were on the verge of being arrested and shot by Goering, head of the German air force, for acts that bordered on treason (at least within the context of their regime). While Stigler retired to Canada, many of his comrades remained in Germany and eventually went on to great careers in the Luftwaffe when it was reformed during the Cold War (i.e. they became the good guys).

With so many killed during WWII, does this tale even matter? In what must have been like winning the lottery, 45 years after the fact the two pilots did in fact meet. Their airborne encounter had made lasting impressions on both of them and when the two men finally met there were tears, an embrace and true brotherhood as they filled in the blanks for each other on what they were thinking during the encounter and how their lives had fared since. For Stigler, the reward was seeing the wives, children, and grandchildren of the crew he had let escape.

In fact, in one of his last writings to Brown before his death, Stigler said that Brown was as precious to him as his own brother, a man who had lost his life in WWII. And while Stigler and Brown were celebrated in their waning years as they told and retold their story, many of Stigler's countrymen did not feel so kindly as evidenced by the crank calls he'd receive calling him a coward, traitor, or worse. Even Stigler's former commanding officer was ambivalent when told the story decades later.

So what exactly is it about this story that's so compelling? Like most things in life, it boils down to the interaction of two people. In this case, in the midst of bloody combat, it's a story of honor. Despite knowing full well that had circumstances been different Stigler would've shot down Brown's aircraft like any of the other victories he scored, we can appreciate the fact that he went about his business with professionalism and also an appreciation for life within the overall context of death. What's the old saying? Loss of one life is tragic - loss of a million is a statistic. Character is revealed by what you do when no one else is watching.

The fear is that we're giving some sort of absolution to the entire German military during WWII. The fear is that two old men, feeling lucky to have survived WWII and knowing their time on earth is coming to an end, have embellished this tale to feel better about what went on all those years ago over Germany. The fear is that this respect will be extrapolated to other enemies, past and present, who don't deserve it. But I don't think that's the case. Even the USAF opened the files on this incident and awarded the B-17's entire crew the Silver Star and Brown was awarded the Air Force Cross.

There's a nice video preview of the book (including interviews with Brown and Stigler) to watch here. The author's website is here.

I received no compensation of any kind for this review.

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