Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Review: "A Higher Call" by Adam Makos

Charlie Brown was perfectly clear about the situation. When the young journalist, having "heard a story", sought him out for an interview, he said, "If you really want to learn the whole story, learn about Franz Stigler first...in this story, I'm just a character – Franz Stigler is the real hero."

Author Adam Makos had no choice but to seek out Franz Stigler, living in pleasant retirement in the Vancouver area, to learn what happened on 20 December 1943, in the skies near Bremen. There, the life arcs of two warrior-aviators intersected for about 10 minutes. If someone had described to their earlier selves what transpired during that brief encounter, they would each have reacted with disbelief. But as they moved on along separate paths – destined to intersect again nearly 50 years later – they knew their lives had changed forever.

On that morning over Germany, Charlie Brown was the 21 year-old pilot of a terribly damaged B-17. He was embarked on a first combat mission that had become deadly and terrifying. Franz Stigler was, at 28 years of age, an elite Luftwaffe veteran of hundreds of missions in the Bf 109. He was fighting to defend his homeland and his countrymen from the onslaught of the American bombers. Both of them had already on that day displayed heroism in battle. But when they met, there was nothing left for Charlie to do. Keeping his crew alive and his airplane aloft to that point had exhausted his resources. He could only watch and wait.

As he approached the straggling bomber, it fell to Franz Stigler to make a choice. The action required by the call of duty was clear. He should attack and destroy the wounded B-17. But perhaps there was a higher call, requiring forbearance. Perhaps honor and humanity required staying the hand of destruction. It was time to decide. Act, in answer to the call of duty...or act not, in answer to the higher call. The sum of all his experiences led to the choice that few would have predicted and few would understand. "This will be no victory for me, Franz decided. I will not have this on my conscience for the rest of my life."

How did an elite warrior, the product of a proud martial tradition, come to make this choice? This is perhaps the most fascinating question raised by the episode and the author sets out to answer it. This requires a thorough study of Franz Stigler's life, and Makos provides it. We learn where Franz came from, how his love affair with the sky originated, how his sense of honor evolved.

We're taken back to Bavaria in the late 1920's where young Franz begins to fly, under the auspices of a local glider club sponsored by his father, the elder Franz (who had been a scout pilot in the Great War) and Father Josef, a local Catholic priest who had been a fighter pilot in that war. Following in the footsteps of his elder brother August, Franz flew a simple Zögling ("Pupil") glider that was launched using a bungee cord, from the side of a hill. It was said that, "[b]ecause training was conducted solely by solo flight the aircraft had to be very easy to fly and also easy to repair." This principal was demonstrated by young Franz, who pranged the club's glider on his first flight, but soon became proficient.

Franz was urged by his devoutly Catholic mother to enter the Seminary, but Father Josef, the fighter pilot, glider club sponsor and family friend, urged him to follow his dream of flying. He took advantage of government training programs and found himself, in the late 1930's, flying Ju 52's for Lufthansa. In due course, he was transferred to the newly emerging Luftwaffe and set to work as an instructor. One of the students he found himself responsible for was his elder brother August.

While Franz continued to instruct, August went on to serve as a night fighter-bomber pilot flying Ju 88's from France against England. It was late in 1940 that Franz learned that August had been killed in an accident at night, on takeoff. The loss of his brother moved Franz to seek a transfer to fighters. There followed 18 months of preparation and training, until in the spring of 1942 Franz Stigler arrived in North Africa to serve as a fighter pilot in Jagdgeschwader 27 (JG 27).

JG 27 was a famous unit, the home of the great ace, Hans-Joachim Marseille. Franz was in good company. He was assigned to the squadron of Leutnant Gustav Rödel. His new commander quickly gave him a lesson that would have a profound influence on him:

"Every single time you go up, you'll be outnumbered. Those odds may make a man want to fight dirty to survive. But let what I'm about to say to you act as a warning. Honor is everything here. What will you do, Stigler, for instance, if you find your enemy floating in a parachute?"

"I guess I've never thought that far ahead yet," Franz said.

"If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute," Rödel said, "I will shoot you down myself. You follow the rules of war for you, not for your enemy. You fight by the rules to keep your humanity."

As the author recounts in some detail, Franz flew and fought under Rödel's leadership in Africa for five months. His unit was then transferred to Sicily, where he continued to fly and fight for another ten months. During this period he met Adolf "Dolfo" Galland, the famous General of the Fighters. He managed to impress Galland with his views on tactics for effective attacks on heavy bombers. This relationship would be important to Franz' future more than once in the coming years.

In mid-1943 the strategic bombing campaigns of the Allied Air Forces were beginning to have real effects on the German homeland. Fighter units, including JG 27, were transferred back to Germany to engage in homeland defense. The stage was being set for an epic confrontation.

Meanwhile, Charlie Brown and his crew were readying themselves to join the fight. By the fall of 1943 they had joined the 379th Bomb Group of the mighty 8th Air Force at RAF Kimbolton. They'd been assigned a veteran B-17F named Ye Olde Pub.

On 20 December the 379th took off for a raid on Bremen. Ye Olde Pub, with a rookie crew, was assigned the trailing position, known as "Purple Heart Corner". The slot would soon once again earn its name.

On the approach to Bremen, before reaching the point where its load of bombs would be dropped, Ye Olde Pub was hit by flak. The Number 2 engine was knocked out, and the bomber's Plexiglas nose was shattered. Charlie pressed on. Another burst of flak damaged the Number 4 engine just before the bombardier released Ye Olde Pub's deadly load. As the group turned away from the target, Ye Olde Pub with one engine out, one producing partial power, and drag increased by the damage to the nose slowed and began to fall behind the formation. Soon, a group of eight Fw 190 fighters focused their undivided attention on Ye Olde Pub.

The author's chapter describing the fight between the B-17 and the Focke-Wulf's is intense and thrilling. It describes Charlie's desperate maneuvers, the crew's efforts to fight back, and the horrific damage inflicted by the fighters. In the end, the bomber rolled into an inverted spin when the pilots, their oxygen system disabled, blacked out. The Fw 190's – either out of ammunition or certain that their job was done – moved on.

About 10,000 feet above ground, Charlie awoke. He started to try to recover the airplane from its spin, and barely succeeded in regaining level flight below 2,000 feet.

The damage and casualty reports were frightening. The tail gunner, Sgt. Hugh 'Ecky' Eckenrode, was dead. Two other crew members were badly wounded. The airplane was riddled with holes and many systems were destroyed or compromised. They were staggering toward the coast, at low altitude, on 2½ engines.

Just then, Franz Stigler was on the ground at a nearby field while the ground crew rearmed and refueled his '109. He heard an approaching aircraft and looked up in amazement as a damaged B-17 flew westbound, almost directly over the field. Franz wasted no time in taking off to give chase.

Charlie struggled to get Ye Olde Pub to climb to 2,000 feet. He passed the word that anyone who wanted to bail out had his permission. No one took him up on it. And behind them, a Bf 109 piloted by one of the Luftwaffe's best pilots was closing in.

Franz closed on the B-17's tail, knowing that he needed to get close to be sure his attack would be effective. But when he closed in, he saw the damage to the bomber's tail section. He saw that the tail-gunner's weapons were disabled. He got close enough to to see the wind-driven streams of 'Ecky' Eckenrode's blood.

Franz slid his '109 to the right and moved forward along the right side of the B-17. Through a gaping hole in the fuselage he saw crew-members, not at their stations, but huddled together and caring for the wounded.

Franz decided then, that on this day he was not going to kill these men. He pulled even with the cockpit and slid over to the bomber's left side. He pointed to the north, repeatedly and mouthed "Sweden...Sweden", in an effort to get Charlie to turn toward the nearest haven. He was certain that if the B-17 tried to cross the North Sea and reach England it would crash and all aboard would be killed. Charlie Brown had no idea what he was saying.

Finally, over the sea, Franz gave up, saluted Charlie, and peeled away to return to Germany. Only then did he consider that if anyone had seen what he had done he'd certainly be court martialed.

Ye Olde Pub staggered across the North Sea at minimum altitude. The crew jettisoned everything they could to lighten the aircraft, but the B-17 was having difficulty maintaining altitude. Soon, their height above the sea was measured in hundreds, rather than thousands of feet.

As they approached the English coast a pair of P-47 Thunderbolt fighters joined them. They exchanged hand signals (the radios were out) and raced ahead. Charlie followed. As Ye Olde Pub crossed the English coastline, Charlie searched for a farmer's field to use as a landing site of last resort. Then he saw the two P-47's ahead, circling at 1,000 feet. He turned toward them and soon saw the runway they had found for him.

Minutes later, Charlie Brown settled Ye Olde Pub onto the runway at RAF Seething, home to the 448th Bomb Group. One of his crewmen was dead; two were injured severely enough that they would probably not have survived a bailout. The airplane would not go to war again.

The intelligence officers debriefed Charlie and he told them the whole story, including the odd behavior of the Bf 109 that had escorted them off the coast. The word came down to forget that had happened. Never mention it to anyone. It was unacceptable to say that a 'Nazi' had behaved with honor and chivalry.

Franz Stigler never experienced any repercussions from the incident with the B-17. He fought on with JG 27 through the first 10 months of 1944, in Germany and Jugoslavia. Then on 26 October 1944 a B-17 gunner's .50 cal. round, having spent nearly all of its energy passing through the canopy of Franz' Bf 109, struck him in the forehead. Amazingly, he lived. Not so amazingly, he suffered symptoms of brain trauma and was grounded by the flight surgeon. Franz was, for the time being, out of the war.

After a brief stay at a R & R facility, Franz pestered his group commander, still Gustav Rödel, for something useful to do, and Rödel was able to get him a slot at the jet school near the Messerschmitt factory in Augsburg. There he took to the Me 262 like a duck to water. He was kept on as an instructor, but ran afoul of a political officer and found himself released with no new assignment. That's when he remembered 'Dolfo' Galland.

The word was around. Galland had run badly afoul of Reichsmarschall Herman Goering and been sacked as General of the Fighters. But Goering had allowed him to form a new fighter group, Jagdverband 44 (JV 44), flying Me 262's. It was said that Goering couldn't arrest the famous and popular Galland but could, perhaps, arrange for him to die in combat. Franz called Galland and asked if he could join JV 44.

Galland told Franz that he'd be glad to have him as long as he brought a jet with him. So Franz went to the factory, stole a jet (details, quite entertainingly, in the book) and reported to Galland's group.

JV 44 may have been the most amazing unit in the history of air warfare. All of the pilots were considered experten. Nearly all were there because they had somehow run afoul of the Nazi political system. All of them were committed to defending the German homeland.

None of these men were found culpable for the crimes of the Nazi regime. Many of them would later serve with great distinction in the Air Force of the Federal Republic of Germany. But in 1945, they were still the enemy, fighting on for honor in a lost cause.

And of course, the war ended. Franz struggled to survive in the economic disaster that was post-war Germany. In 1953 he emigrated to Vancouver, Canada and became successful in business. Charlie Brown went to college, rejoined the Air Force and retired in 1965, then worked for the State Department before retiring for good in the early 1970's. But 20 December 1943 always stayed with him. At the urging of friends, he tried to place a query in a newsletter distributed to veteran Luftwaffe pilots. The editor turned him down, so he appealed to Dolfo Galland...who used his influence to ensure that the query was published.

In January 1990, in Vancouver, Franz Stigler collected his mail including the Jagerblatt newsletter. Minutes later, he was calling for his wife to come and see what he'd read. And he quickly wrote a letter.

Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler soon met and became the closest of friends. They referred to each other as 'brothers', and for many years they enjoyed a close relationship based on a bond that no one else could fully understand. Franz and Charlie both "went West" in 2008, six months apart. Franz' obituary said that he was survived by his brother, Charles Brown.

In this book, Adam Makos does a good job of describing the experiences that brought Franz and Charlie to their fateful encounter near Bremen. We're left with complete understanding of what happened. But I found myself wishing that the author had addressed "the elephant in the room". What are we to make of this story? Actions have consequences – what were the consequences of Franz Stigler's actions on that day in 1943? By choosing not to attack Charlie Brown's B-17, Franz made it possible for him to return to England with his crew. Charlie flew another 27 bombing missions with that crew (plus replacements) and dropped over 50 tons of bombs on German targets. Viewed in accordance with the cold calculus of war, it seems clear that Franz failed, on that day, to do his duty, and thus put his country in jeopardy. The author does not seriously address this issue.

The book's only allusion to the moral ambiguity surrounding Stigler's actions is in a mention of 'Dolfo' Galland's reaction. Stigler had kept in touch with Galland after the war, and he reported that the old General of the Fighters had mixed feelings about his story. He regarded Franz' actions on that day in '43 as a dereliction of duty – and also the right thing to do.

It's left to the reader to ask whether "the cold calculus of war" is decisive. What about the calculus of humanity? Remember what Gustav Rödel said to Franz Stigler: You fight by the rules to keep your humanity. When the war is over, do we want to welcome back into our midst warriors whose every choice was guided solely by the cold calculus of war? Or do we want to embrace warriors who have fought bravely and well, and yet have retained their humanity and can say that their honor is intact?

Today's wars are harder. The choices, never easy, are even tougher. But I know that I want men like Franz Stigler making those choices for our side.


Gary said...


Another excellent review. I will be adding this to my "must read" list. I did see something about this on one of the pilot forums but didn't know about the book. Thanks!

Frank Van Haste said...

Definitely worth the read, Gary. Glad that you found the review useful.


Cedarglen said...

Gary said all, above. Thanks, Frank.

Frank Van Haste said...

Your welcome, Craig.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding book about very brave and dedicated people in WWII. I hope we'll be seeing a movie made based on the book.