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Friday, July 21, 2017

A Higher Call By Adam Makos with Larry Alexander--Book Review

Adam Makos with Larry Alexander 2012 A Higher Call ( New York, Penguin Random House)

After seeing some television publicity for this book, I decided to read it even though I have never read a lot of WWII literature.  This book is not a classic but it is well worth the time to read.  The book will hold your interest and keep you turning pages until the end.  But it has many of the typical drawbacks of a book written with a ghost writer.  The book tells the story of what might have been the most unusual encounter between German and American military personnel during WWII.  In some ways, the story is reminiscent of the famous Christmas Truce of WWI in which British and German troops instituted a temporary cease fire on Christmas Day 1914 across trenches. "A Higher Call" tells the story of an encounter between Charles Brown, an Appalachian West Virginia farm boy turned bomber pilot, and Franz Stigler, a German Messerschmitt pilot and full fledged aerial ace over the skies of Germany near the end of WWII.  

Brown and his crew were on their first bombing run flying in the rear position of a squadron of bombers.  That position in a squadron was always assigned to the newest crew because it gave them a chance to watch ahead to see what the other pilots were doing.  But it was also the first place in a squadron that German fighter pilots attacked since they usually made their first approach from above and behind.  In the fire fight, Brown's plane was literally riddled with German fire and according to every person who saw the plane it was literally on the verge of being unable to stay airborne.  Franz Stigler was not in the initial group of planes that attacked the squadron.  Somehow, Brown and his co-pilot were able to keep the bomber aloft after the firefight ended and peeled off to try to return to their base in England.  Stigler got airborne and was searching for planes that might be stragglers or wounded.  He spotted Brown's bomber and made an initial approach to shoot it down which would have given him his last necessary kill to receive the Iron Cross, Germany's most coveted military award for fighter pilots.  

But as Stigler approached the bomber for his customary close in kill, he realized that it was deeply, gravely damaged.  The rear of the plane was nearly destroyed.  The tail gunner was dead, hanging in his safety harness. The rear turret was nearly blown off the airplane. Only one gun on the plane was in working order.  Several of the crew were wounded.  The rear stabilizers were damaged beyond what would be considered remotely safe to fly even in a straight line. The plane was perforated by machine gun fire from end to end. Stigler was a devout Catholic and had been trained by a man who was also highly honorable and had told Stigler long before that if he "ever saw him shoot down a pilot hanging in his parachute, I will kill you myself".  Stigler realized that Brown's plane was attempting to return to its base in England and would need to fly over a coastal antiaircraft battery which would surely finish the plane and its crew.  He flew alongside the plane and tried to signal with his hands, since Brown also had no useful radio, to tell Brown to change his route to avoid the flak zone.  Brown did not understand and kept flying toward the coast. In desperation, Stigler fell into place near the plane hoping the antiaircraft gunners would believe he was simply allowing the wounded plane to get over open water before he shot it down.  The gunners fell for the bait.  Stigler flew alongside Brown until he was safely over open water on his way to England, saluted Brown, and peeled off to return to his base.

Stigler knew that if the story ever made into the German military command, he would be summarily executed for dereliction of duty.  Stigler never told a soul until many years later when he had successfully immigrated to Canada.  Brown and his crew made it back to England and reported the truth of what happened and were nominated for medals by their commanding officer.  But the US and Allied command immediately put a gag order on the episode and declared it Top Secret.  The crew got no medals.  Many years later, when he was an aircraft manufacturing executive in Florida, Brown advertised in German language WWII newspapers to try to find the pilot who had saved his crew.  He left out several key details of the incident in his letters to the papers and eventually Stigler heard of the effort by Brown, learned who Brown was, and contacted him.  Both men had been deeply affected by the incident and eventually became life long friends, often referring to each other as brothers.  They made speaking engagements together, talked on the phone on nearly a daily basis, and shared a deep, almost spiritual relationship.

Despite any deficiencies the book has due to the ghost writer, it does a wonderful job of describing the incident and the effect it had on Stigler and Brown.  It focuses almost entirely on the war career of Stigler with little emphasis on the war career of Brown.  It also says as little as possible about the relationship between the two after their reunion.  In these respects, the book is deeply deficient.  But the book also does a good job of telling the story of how many Germans were deeply opposed to Hitler and the Nazis while remaining deeply committed to their country.  There were many people, even in the German military, who knew how horrible Hitler and the Nazis were, how terrible their efforts to annihilate the Jews and other minorities were, and how devastating the Nazi actions were to the German character, reputation, and morale. Every one of those people placed their very lives in danger by holding such views.  There was a real resistance in Germany during WWII and the heroes and heroines of that resistance deserve to have their stories told. 

After WWII ended, Franz Stigler found himself ostracized in Germany because the German people believed that the fighter pilots had failed Germany by not protecting them from the Allied bombing which led to the end of the war.  As a former fighter pilot, Stigler found it nearly impossible to get any kind of job even down to the most menial of labor.  He chose to emigrate to Canada and it turned out to be the best thing he could have done.  He prospered in Canada and even owned a fully restored Messerschmitt fighter plane which he used to act as the "bad guy" at air shows all over North America traveling and flying with the very men he had fought against in the war.  The story of Stigler and Brown is a story that deserves to be told, deserves to be read, and deserves to be repeated by others who are forced into enmity by unjust governments.  Buy the book!  Read it!  Come to understand that not all Germans were evil during WWII. 

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