Heroism and honor over German skies

| January 9, 2013

Cross posted.

ye olde pub


Last week my Kindle went to the great Kindle Outlet Store in the sky. Apparently it fell out of my pocket and I ran over it with the car. In Kindle heaven it will no doubt meet its two predecessors; the one I rolled over on top of on a camping trip and the one I left on an airplane. This caused much consternation in my house, because I read about 3 books a week and is my chief means of coping with stress.

As I sat at my desk lamenting my loss, my friend Emory sent me a link to a remarkable story about a US Air Force bomber pilot during WWII that got shot up REALLY bad, but then a german fighter pilot escorted him through the anti aircraft areas and out over the North Sea on his return to England. It was a remarkable story, and I enjoyed it very much.

A few hours later I got an email from a administrative assistant to my Editor who had just fielded a call from a guy who had given her the brief outline of the same story and asked if I knew anything about it. I said that remarkably I did, and sent her the same link that Emory had sent me. Twenty minutes later she walked into my office smiling and handed me a copy of Adam Makos’ book “A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story Of Combat And Chivalry In The War-Torn Skies Of World War II.”

Had my kindle not have been broken, I very likely wouldn’t have read the book. We get hundreds of books sent here every month, and with a few exceptions, I don’t read much in the way of war stories anymore. But, it was quite fortuitous on the timing, so on Friday night I started reading it.

Mr. Makos had me pretty well hooked right in his opening paragraph in the introduction:

On December 20, 1943, in the midst of World War II, an era of pain, death, and sadness, an act of peace and nobility unfolded in the skies over Northern Germany. An American bomber crew was limping home in their badly damaged B-17 after bombing Germany. A German fighter pilot in his Bf-109 fighter encountered them. They were enemies, sworn to shoot one another from the sky. Yet what transpired between the fighter pilot and the bomber crewmen that day, and how the story played out decades later, defies imagination. It had never happened before and it has not happened since. What occurred, in most general terms, may well be one of the most remarkable stories in the history of warfare.

As remarkable as it is, it’s a story I never wanted to tell.

 Mr Makos went on to talk about how as a young WWII history enthusiast he had grown up believing that WWII was nothing less than the good guys (us) against the bad guys (the Germans or “Nazis”.) But as he researched this book and spoke with Charlie Brown, the pilot of the B-17, Charlie said something that would change the story: “In this story,” Charlie said, “I’m just a character – Franz Stigler is the real hero.”

Franz was the pilot of the Bf-109, and in reading the book, you see that the good/bad dichotomy really doesn’t work. The US were certainly the good guys, and the Nazi’s (and assorted Gestapo and other “Party” individuals) were definitely the bad guys, but the German Pilots themselves don’t fall into the latter category. The honor that some of these guys showed will astound some readers.

German Pilots were very supportive to the American Pilots they shot down. In fact, often German Pilots would race to where the American pilots jumped or crashed, and take them into custody themselves to ensure that they would be placed in Luftwaffe facilities and not in “Party” ones or other POW camps. One pilot in particular, Hans-Joachim Marseille flew with Franz in Africa and had impressed upon Franz the inherent honorable nature of what was expected from German pilots.

One part of the book discusses this at some length.

…The legend went that Marseille had shot down a British pilot named Byers, who had been badly burned when captured. Marseille personally took Byers to the field hospital, where hospital staff told Marseille the prisoner’s name and unit. That evening, Marseille flew through British flak to drop a note over Byers’s airfield, addressed to his comrades. The note said that Byers was badly wounded but was being cared for. Two weeks later, when Byers died of his wounds, Marseille felt so badly that he flew back through the flak to the British field and dropped another note notifying Byers’s friends and sending deepest regrets. It was a gallant act that earned the respect of many in the Air Force except for one: the second most powerful man in The Party, who doubled as the Air Force’s leader – Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering. Goering had once been an ace in the Red Baron’s squadron in WWI but had since become known throughout the Air Force with disdain. Someone had nicknamed Goering “the Fat One,” due to his heft, and it had stuck. Goering put out an edict that no pilot should ever again attempt a stunt like the one Marseille had.

“Is the story true?” Franz said to Marseille.

Schroer nodded slightly, for only Franz to see.

There was another portion of the book that talked about German Ace Günther Lützow:

…Luetzow had been the commander of Fighter Wing 3 (JG-3) on an airfield outside of Kharkov in the Ukraine, when SS soldiers came to commandeer his services. They wanted Luetzow to lend them any non-flyers he could spare to help them round up people they called “undesirables.” Luetzow knew the reputation of the SS and knew that whatever they were planning, it could not be good. When Luetzow refused to help them, the SS threatened to go around him. Luetzow called his entire wing to the tarmac in dress uniform – the pilots, the orderlies, and even the mechanics. Luetzow told them what the SS had asked of him and said he would remove his Knight’s Cross and resign from the Air Force if any of his men complied with the SS’s request.

Even as German and US (and other nations) air forces fought over the European skies, what struck me as most interesting was the fight between the honorable men of the German Luftwaffe with their German leadership.

The meeting of Charlie and Franz over Germany is just a small part of the book, but it is the tie that binds these two wonderful men. As I read through the book I did what I normally do when I really enjoy a book: I contacted the author and told him how much I enjoyed it. I’ve read some outstanding books in the past year, and this is certainly in the top echelon of those books. (With “The Outpost” by Jake Tapper, and the phenomenal “Road to Valor” by Ali McConnon which talks about an Italian Cyclist’s heroism during WWII.)

Mr. Makos friended me on Facebook and had this to say:

I hope [my book] makes Franz and Charlie household names like Band of Brothers did for Dick Winters and Buck Compton and Don Malarkey

Indeed. And I also hope it allows folks to see that even amidst the atrocities that comes with war, that some people, even our enemies, are capable of honorable acts of heroism.

I hope you will pick up a copy of “A Higher Call” and enjoy it as much as I did. You can purchase it at AMAZON, at this link.

Category: Politics

Comments (31)

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  1. Eric Delegard says:

    On the Dec 20 podcast of the Diane Rehm show on NPR they did an interview with the author which included interviews with Charlie and Franz. Highly Recommended.

  2. Twist says:

    Maybe your Kindle can meet up with my old Sony PRS that went 10 toes up, in the great beyond. On the bright side it gave me an excuse into talking my wife into letting me get a Kindle Fire.

    Back on topic: Excellent article.

  3. Tom6400 says:

    Looking forward to reading it when I get home!

  4. David says:

    Is “Road to Valor” about Bartoli or Coppi?

    When you get a new reader, also download a freeware called “Calibre” on your computer – it converts e-book formats so you can convert a Nook book, for instance, to an Amazon format and vice versa. I have converted literally hundreds of books with it. It makes the available ebook universe MUCH wider.

  5. OldSoldier54 says:

    “…I also hope it allows folks to see that even amidst the atrocities that comes with war, that some people, even our enemies, are capable of honorable acts of heroism.”

    The Iraqi lawyer and his wife who literally risked a fate worse than simple death to save Jessica Lynch come to mind …

  6. martinjmpr says:

    Interesting that this should come up now – I got a Kindle for Christmas from my wife and am currently reading Stephen Ambrose’s “The Wild Blue”, which is about the bomber crews that flew over Germany during the war. I know that there were accusations (apparently founded) of plagiarism and Ambrose drew some flak for that (see what I did there? 😉 ) but it really is a well written book and I’ve always admired Ambrose’s talent for making history both personal and accessible.

    I guess this one will have to go on the Kindle list now, too!

  7. Twist says:

    @4, Thanks. I thought the books I had on my Sony were lost forever not that I got a new type of reader. I will try what you suggest.

    Because of TAH I got a lot of new books on my reader. Right now I’m rereading Starship Troopers. I now know what my next book will be.

  8. TSO says:

    @4 – Bartolli

    AWESOME read.

  9. TrapperFrank says:

    My father and uncle fought in the European theater during WWII. My dad in the Navy and Uncle in the Army. Both told stories of how the Germans had a sense of honor. My uncle told stories of how the Germans would allow you to go under a flag of truce and pick up the wounded after a battle. There also stories about the valor shown by the Kriegsmarine, during the war also.

  10. Twist says:

    @9, I read a book when I was younger, which for the life of me I can’t remember the author or name of, that talked about how during WWI on Christmas day that the British and Germans met in no-mans-land and exchanged rations and then played a game of soccer.

  11. Veritas Omnia Vincit says:

    Individual acts of human decency occur in many horrific situations, too bad a societal act of decency was not part of the equation in Germany from 1932-1945.

  12. Yat Yas 1833 says:

    Dad served in the 79th Div in the ETO and never had anything bad to say about the Germans. He said they fought like hell but no harder than him (dad) and his buddies. He also said they were allowed to get their wounded after a battle. He never said much about the Japanese but I always got the feeling he wasn’t really partial to them.

    Great story and links.

  13. Jumpmaster says:

    In a similar vein, read about Major Robert S. Johnson’s experience as a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot in World War II. On June 26th, 1943 he was limping back to England alone in his badly shot-up Thunderbolt when he was attacked by a Luftwaffe FW-190. After failing to shoot down Major Johnson’s plane, the German pilot flew alongside, rocked his wings in salute and flew away. Not quite as gallant as Franz Stigler but still an act of kindness in the midst of a horrific war.

  14. Bill R. says:

    Read the book a few weeks ago. Excellent read. Although my Dad served in the Pacific, he worked with an Austrian who owned a jewelry store when I was young. He fixed watches and clocks for him. One evening the man came over to pick up some things and brought a friend with him. He served in the German army and was captured by the Russians at the end of the war. One hell of a story, and he finally escaped and walked across Russia in the early 50’s.

  15. Common Sense says:

    Oh no! Not your Kindle! I protect mine as carefully as I did my kids when they were young 🙂

    I read that story a while back:


    It includes a video interview with both of them. Wonderful story.

    One of my parent’s closest friends had been a German soldier in WWII, wounded and held in an American POW camp. I learned a long time ago that most of the regular German military was just as honorable a fighting force as we were, it was the SS that was evil. Our friend was eternally grateful that he was in an American camp and not a Soviet one. He had a pronounced limp from his wound his entire life. He was a good man.

    My son turned me on to military non-fiction and now I’m addicted. I’ve read and enjoyed Lone Survivor, Service, American Sniper, None Braver, Into the Fire, and the one I just finished, Sal Guinta’s Living with Honor. He did a book signing at my son’s base and he got it for me as a Christmas gift. The only one I didn’t really enjoy was Where Men Win Glory. The author and the family were very political which distracted from Pat Tillman’s story. I also a long list of more of then yet to read.

    These books gave me a much greater understanding of what all of you do, I thank you for your service and willingness to put up with appalling living conditions, danger, and sacrifice. I think they should be mandatory reading for Congress before then vote on military matters.

    I’ve also enjoyed some related fiction, like Dennis Chalker’s Home Team series and Michael Stephen Fuchs’ D-Boys and Counter Assault.

  16. Jabatam says:

    Honor, valor, and chivalry call no one place home and claim no language. This brought tears to my eyes

  17. Twist says:

    Common sense, I highly sugest you read “House to House” written by David Bellavia and John Bruning.

  18. fm2176 says:

    #15 Common Sense,

    I wouldn’t even say that the Waffen SS (as opposed to the Allgemeine or Totenkopf) was necessarily “evil” as a whole, though units such as the Dirlewanger Brigade had a well-earned reputation as war criminals. If anything, earlier in the war the Waffen SS attracted young men looking to serve in a more elite unit. Granted, some divisions were more politically indoctrinated than others (1st SS LAH and 12th SS HJ, for example), but many other Waffen SS divisions were comprised of foreign volunteers (including some Muslims), making it a rather diverse military force for its time.

    I think my wife’s on her fifth Kindle now, the kids usually destroy them within a year.

  19. USMCE8Ret says:

    @10 – There is a book by Stanley Weintraub called “Silent Night” who describes that event during WWI around Ypres, France (Flanders Field). It’s a true story. My own Uncle Stanley was there and told us about it.

  20. USMCE8Ret says:

    …rather, “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce”

  21. Old Trooper says:

    I have heard that the British POWs in North Africa had nothing but positive to say about how they were treated by Rommel.

  22. Veritas Omnia Vincit says:

    Rommel knew that crazy b4stard fuhrer had to go….too bad they ll didn’t understand that.

  23. Living in Israel says:

    @13: I read something very similar about a FW-190 (BF-109? It’s been a long time) failing to shoot down a P-47 over the English Channel. It’s from the book “War in the Air” by Stephen Coonts.

  24. Just an Old Dog says:

    Ambrose’s “Citizen Soldiers” covers a lot of the good the bad and the downright ugly side of the German Armed forces. A lot of their conduct in combat depended on who they were facing. With few exceptions they conducted themselves fairly well against the Western Allies (US and Brits) When it came to the Russians it was a totally different war. They gave what they got regardless of being regular Wehrmacht or SS. A German Division in the Ukraine would think nothing about wiping out a Soviet position to the last man, regardless of them trying to surrender or not, as they knew that the Soviets were just as likely to kill them. Move the same unit to the Western Front and their attitude was entirely different.

  25. john Miska says:

    “I hope [my book] makes Franz and Charlie household names like Band of Brothers did for Dick Winters and Buck Compton and Don Malarkey” Hey I hate to pop your bubble but there are those of us who as children knew these men as heroes before Ambrose even thought about writing that book!!! These men were my heroes from the first day as a boy I went over to My buddy Jack Christy’s house and his dad (Col James V Christy) was entertaining a few of the guys over beer and steaks in his back yard. Over the years i met many of them and was friends with several who whee my boyhood mentors ….mentors I must say all my life. The Col was my High school Algebra teacher as well as my friend’s dad.
    Look up the Col in a book called “A Time For Trumpets”.
    I was blessed to have such mn to look up to as a kid!

    I do hope that the book does spread the word about such men but to say that it was the book that made them household names ….I take umbr idge with that as tey were household names in our home long ago!!

  26. David says:

    Best of luck for those using Calibre – it has worked wonders for my collection.

    Reason I asked wa the greatest Italian rider, Coppi, was a POW during the war – his pre-and post-war rivalry with Bartoli was legendary. Thanks for the tip.

    Sadly, wasn’t Ambrose accused of plaigerism? Sad to hear, he really wrapped you up in the story.

    Waffen SS – some of the units were effectively just elite troops. Some had a really spotty record.

    Something like 3% of non-Russian Allied POWs died in German captivity. 16K out of 25K died in Japanese captivity. There’s the difference.

  27. UpNorth says:

    Common Sense, in addition to House to House, which is a good read, you might want to get New Dawn The Battles for Fallujah, by Richard Lowry. It’s also a good read.

  28. Twist says:

    @27. I’ll have to try Richard Lowry’s book after I have finished my trip down the memory lane of “Starship Troopers”.

  29. Bruce says:

    The story just has the snoppy and the red baron flair to it.
    In WW1 when flying was new, if your enemy was shot down
    behind enemy lines and captured, he was treated like a guest
    by his fellow pilots. As carnage took place on the ground,
    their was honor in the skies.

  30. Hondo says:

    VOV: so did Adm Canaris. And Canaris apparently did far more than talk in terms of opposing Hitler and his policies.

  31. jpj says:

    #15 CommonSense

    “it was the SS that was evil”

    There were certainly evil bastards among them; however, there were examples to the contrary as well. The Allies battled the SS at Arnhem. May I draw you attention to their commander, SS-Obergruppenführer Wilhelm Bittrich, as well as the conduct of SS-Sturmbannführer Egon Skalka.