I have read many books about aerial combat in World War II, but never have I read a book that exposed such honor, valor and raw humanity in its narrative. It has been a long aviation tradition, and known to all who have followed the history of aviation in combat, that many fighters who were enemies in air battle have shown an uncommon respect and compassion for the other man, in the other aircraft.
This tradition goes back to WWI when tenacious fighting led to the death of the enemy, but even in victory combatants acknowledged the courage and valor of their enemies. If you are interested in reading the stories of these first men to take the fight into the air, read “They Fought for The Sky” by Quentin Reynolds. It will give you a good idea of the special conduct aviators expected of themselves and others in aerial combat. These men were a different breed of fighting man. They fought with an unspoken code much like the medieval knights.
The book “A Higher Call” by Adam Makos has all of this esprit de corps and so much more. It takes place in the United States, England, North Africa and Germany. This is a story about Franz Stigler, a young man from Amberg, Germany, and Charlie Brown, another young man who came from West Virginia. It is a coming-of-age story for both of these unusual men. They had their early memories forged in the crucible of air combat in the skies over war-torn Europe and Africa. The reason they became pilots were as different as their countries of origin.
In Germany, Franz Stigler had his first experience as a pilot at twelve years old in a glider with his brother August. From that moment he knew that aviation was going to be the driving force in his life. His mother wanted him to be a Catholic priest, but even his priest Father Josef—who was there when he made his first flight and had been a fighter pilot in WWI—helped him to make the decision that he always knew was the right one for him. “I’d love to fly every day,” Franz said quickly. ‘Then go do it,” Father Josef said. “Your mother will get over it.” Franz never looked back on his decision.
Charlie Brown’s decision was another story. He worked hard on his family farm before school and lived without electricity. He had joined the National Guard to earn money for his family. After high school he transferred to the Army full time, and ended up behind the controls of a B-17. But his path to that flying fortress was uniquely American. He originally was a solider in the 7th Infantry Division at Fort Ord in Monterey, California. As a way of self-improvement he entered the base’s boxing tournament in the lightweight class. He met in the ring a skinny old solider, with gray hair and spindly arms who would change the direction of his military career. He thought he would go easy on the old timer, and he basically got his ass handed to him by this old pro. When the fight was over the old pro approached him and told him that he was too nice a kid for this Army and advised him to check out the Army Air Corps. That was how Charlie ended up as a pilot in the B-17’s with the 379th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force in December 1943 in Central England.
The individual stories of Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown continue on in detail leading up to that moment they were fated to meet, in combat, over the northern skies of Germany. The time that the author Adam Makos took to do all of the military research, the detailed graphics, and the vast photo collections add so much to the enjoyment of reading this book that you will never forget this unique story.
Makos introduces the reader to some of the finest fighter pilots who ever flew in the Luftwaffe. The Bf 109 Messerschmitt, the Fw-190, and the Ju 88 Junkers, and finally at the end of the war the Me-262 jet aircraft all come into the story to give us a clear picture of what the allies were up against in the air. Each one of their stories is rich in history and will give you a panoramic view of what it was like to fly in North Africa, Sicily and in Germany when the allies were wreaking havoc on German cities with bombing raids day and night. The literary portraits of General Adolf Galland, holder of the Knights Cross with ninety-four kills and Germany’s youngest general at age thirty-one, and the disgraced Reichsmarshall Hermann Georing, parading around in togas, with painted fingernails on bejeweled hands, addicted to opiates, and berating his finest officers — these offer a rare look inside the highest commands of the German Luftwaffe as the war was winding down. The book has some of the finest stories about the end of the war for the German pilots and the last-ditch efforts to bring out the Me-262’s, which turned out to be flying coffins because of cheap fuel and poor construction of their parts due to a lack of basic materials, and the use of slave labor to make the parts for the aircraft.
The author also introduces us to the American P-38 Lightnings, the P-47 Thunderbolts, the P-51 Mustangs, and the P-40 Curtiss Warhawks that all served as fighters and escorts for the bombers coming out of England and then France after D-Day. Makos goes into such depth as to describe how the Germans approached our B-24’s and B-17’s and how they fired their weapons to produce the maximum destruction upon each aircraft. As the counterpoint, you are given the tactics U.S. Air Corp used as a bomber group and the tactics the fighter pilots used to attack the incoming bandits.
Finally there is the story of how these two pilots after forty years, still haunted by their encounter in the skies over Germany, searched for one another and then, when they did find one another, how that meeting changed their lives. It proves that even in a savage war, in its darkest hours, good men can be found and the human spirit can prevail in all its brilliance and glory.