War stories have always caught my attention, especially manly acts of courage and chivalry. Maybe others feel like me and that is why the Art of Manliness featured Adam Makos, the writer of ‘A Higher Call’ in a recent podcast with a fuller story about the book on their blog. Alison, my wife, knowing how much I love inspirational stories, borrowed the book from the local library over the holiday period. It really is one of the most amazing true stories I have ever read.
The Daily Mail tells us about it better than I ever could:
The lone Allied bomber was a sitting duck. Holed all over by flak and bullets and down to a single good engine, it struggled simply to stay in the air over Germany, let alone make it the 300 miles back to England.
The rear gunner’s body hung lifeless in his shattered turret, another gunner was unconscious and bleeding heavily, the rest of the ten-man crew battered, wounded and in shock. The nose cone had been blown out and a 200mph gale hurtled through the fuselage.
Somehow the pilot, 20-year-old Lt Charlie Brown, still clung to the controls — and the last vestiges of hope.
He had already performed miracles. Returning from a daylight bombing run to Bremen, he had manoeuvred the plane magnificently through a pack of Messerschmitt fighters, taken hit after hit, then spiralled five miles down through the air, belching smoke and flames, in an apparent death dive before somehow levelling her out less than 2,000ft from the ground.
If common sense prevailed, he would order everyone to bail out and leave the B-17 Flying Fortress to its fate. He and the crew would parachute to safety, prisoners of war but alive. But that would mean leaving an unconscious man behind to die alone, and Brown refused to do that.
Mercifully, though, he realised as he coaxed the massive plane along at 135mph, barely above its stalling speed, the German fighters had disappeared. They must have seen the bomber — part of the U.S. Air Force based in eastern England — plummeting to earth that day in December, 1943, and ticked off another kill before returning to base.
There was a faint chance, then, they might make it home after all, even though, as his flight engineer now reported after an inspection of the plane’s blood-spattered interior, ‘we’re chewed to pieces, the hydraulics are bleeding, the left stabiliser is all but gone and there are holes in the fuselage big enough to climb through’.
In the distance, agonisingly close, Brown could see the German coastline, and ahead of that the North Sea and open skies back to England. Spirits rose — until a glance behind revealed a fast-moving speck, a lone Me109, getting bigger and bigger by the second, closing in.
In the cockpit of the German fighter, his guns primed, was Lt Franz Stigler, a Luftwaffe ace who needed one more kill to reach the 30 that would qualify him for a Knight’s Cross, the second highest of Germany’s Iron Cross awards for bravery.
Stigler, aged 28 and a veteran airman who had been flying since the start of the war, had been refuelling and reloading his guns on the ground when the lone B-17 had lumbered slowly overhead.
Within minutes, he was fast-taxiing to the runway and up in the air to give chase, the precious Knight’s Cross now just a leather-gloved trigger-finger away.
What happened next was extraordinary in the annals of World War II — and told in a new book that offers a gleam of humanitarian light in the dark tragedy of that conflict.
As Stigler came up behind the bomber he could not believe its condition. How was it still flying? Nor, strangely, was there any gunfire from the stricken plane to try to ward him off. That was explained as, inching closer, he saw the slumped body of the rear gunner.
Veering alongside, he could see the other guns were out of action too, the radio room had been blown apart and the nose had gone. Even more startlingly, through the lattice work of bullet holes, he glimpsed members of the crew, huddled together, helping their wounded.
He could make out their ashen faces, their fear and their courage. His finger eased from the trigger. He just couldn’t do it, he realised.
He was an experienced fighter pilot. He’d fought the Allies in the skies over North Africa, Italy and now Germany. This bomber he was cruising alongside was just one plane out of the countless air armadas that had been pulverising his homeland night and day for three years, wiping out factories and cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.
And yet . . . Stigler saw himself as an honourable man, a knight of the skies — not an assassin. The first time he flew in combat was with a much admired officer of the old school, who told him, ‘You shoot at a machine, not a man. You score “victories”, not “kills”.
‘A man may be tempted to fight dirty to survive, but honour is everything. You follow the rules of war for you, not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity. So you never shoot your enemy if he is floating down on a parachute. If I ever see you doing that, I will shoot you down myself.’
The message hardly chimed with the ruthless Nazi mentality that had gripped Germany and its armed forces under Hitler. Nor with a war being fought with such savagery on many fronts.
But it chimed with Stigler, who had never bought into Nazi philosophy or joined the party. He prided himself in fighting by this code. It never mattered more than here and now, flying side by side with a helpless enemy over northern Germany.
His Knight’s Cross could go hang. ‘I will not have this on my conscience for the rest of my life,’ he muttered to himself.
Aboard the American bomber, anxious and bewildered eyes swivelled towards the Messerschmitt, now positioned just above its right wing tip and matching its speed as if flying in formation.
So what has a story about courage and chivalry in the second World War got to do with being a good father? To be a good father is to be a good man. To be a good man is to be honourable in everything you do.
Stigler’s commanding officer was right to say, “A man may be tempted to fight dirty to survive, but honour is everything”.
Let us be inspired as fathers by the example of the German pilot Franz Stigler, whose faith stood him in good stead amidst the perils of fighting for Nazi Germany. He answered to a higher call, as did the pilot of the B-17 Bomber.
We can all take inspiration from these men’s courage, faith and chivalry.