Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An Honorable Enemy

We’ve all heard the story of the kind-hearted stranger, or angel in disguise, stepping in to help someone and then disappearing, never to be heard from again. But sometimes, those stories have even more incredible turns.

Take, for instance, the events that transpired over the skies of Europe on December 20, 1943. Early that morning, a fleet of nearly five hundred bomber planes departed a foggy England, targeting an aircraft factory in the German city of Bremen. After dropping their bombs, the planes turned for home. However, one B-17, which had been fighting engine trouble the entire way, started to fall behind. One of its four engines had gone out entirely, and an anti-aircraft shell had blown a large hole in it’s nose. This was its crew, and pilot Second Lieutenant Charlie Brown’s, first bombing run.

As it fell farther behind, the B-17 became a prime target for the hovering German fighters. Eight fighters attacked, and Brown started to improvise with evasive maneuvers. Making himself as small a target as possible, he began playing chicken with the fighters. The plane’s guns, however, had frozen at the high altitude and could not return fire. One fighter got behind Brown and killed the tail gunner. A waist gunner was severely wounded. Half the rudder was shot away, and one whole rear stabilizer was entirely shot off. A fuel tank had its cap blown off, but somehow did not explode. Then, in the middle of a turn, the bomber’s oxygen supply failed, the crew fell unconscious, and the plane dove to the earth.

Miraculously, Brown awoke as the oxygen supply revived due to the lower altitude. More miraculously, he was able to pull the plane out of its dive. The German fighters were gone, but the bomber was still over enemy territory. The plane’s navigator charted a course back to England, but between them and the sea was the “Atlantic Wall” - one of the strongest German defenses in Europe.

Just at that moment, the worst possible thing happened. A solitary German fighter flew behind the bomber. However, instead of taking advantage of such an easy target, it flew up alongside the bomber. Brown was scared stiff--and kept pretending it wasn't there. But the German anti-aircraft, seeing the enemy bomber escorted by one of their own, held their fire. Once over the North Sea, the German pilot saluted and flew away. Brown and his crew landed safely a few hours later. Their plane was in shambles. Brown later said that looking at his plane after they landed was more frightening than anything that had happened in the air.

Brown, and the rest of his crew, survived the war. But they weren’t the only ones. So did the German pilot. His name was Franz Stigler, and he was a German ace. At the time of the incident, the only thing between him and the Knight’s Cross was shooting down one more bomber. In 1990, they tracked each other down and met for the first time.

When journalist Adam Markos contacted Brown and told him he wanted to write this story, Charlie responded: “If you really want to learn the whole story, learn about Franz Stigler first. He’s still alive. Find out how he was raised and how he became the man he was when we met over Europe. Better yet, go visit him. He and his wife are living up in Vancouver, Canada. When you have heard his story, come and visit me and I”ll tell you mine. In this story, I’m just a character--Franz Stigler is the real hero.”

Markos did just that, and wrote a book about it. More than a story about what happened over Germany that morning, A Higher Call is the story of honor in war. It’s the story of a highly skilled German ace who refused to shoot a defenseless enemy. And it’s the story of the German Air Force, torn between honorable patriotism and Nazism.

War often can bring out the worst. It can also surprise us.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...