On December 20, 1943, in the midst of World War II, 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 them may 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.
Growing up, I loved my grandfathers’ stories from World War II. They made model airplanes with my younger brother and me. They took us to air shows. They planted a seed of interest in that black-and-white era of theirs. I was transfixed.
On a rainy day my life changed a little. I was fifteen and living in rural Pennsylvania. My siblings, best friend, and I were bored, so we decided to become journalists. That day we started a newsletter on my parents’ computer, writing about our favorite thing—World War II aviation. It was three pages long and had a circulation of a dozen readers.
A year later, my life changed a lot. It was the summer after my freshman year in high school when a great tragedy struck our small town of Montoursville called “TWA Flight 800.” Sixteen of my schoolmates and my favorite teacher were traveling to France aboard a 747 jetliner. They were all members of the school French Club. Their plane exploded, midair, off the coast of Long Island.
I was in the French Club and had planned to go with them until a hitch arose in my plans. My Mom sold enough Pampered Chef products in her part-time job to earn a vacation for our family to Disney World. The catch was that the Disney trip was the same week as the school trip to France. I chose Disney with my family and was given the chance to keep living.
Flight 800 taught me that life is precious because it is fragile. I can’t say I woke up one day and started working faster to make some impact on the world. It never happens in an instant. But looking back, I see that it happened gradually. By the end of high school, my siblings, friend, and I had turned our newsletter into a neatly bound magazine with a circulation of 7,000 copies. While our friends were at football games and parties, we were out interviewing WWII veterans.
People began noticing our little magazine. Tom Brokaw wrote us a letter to say we were doing good work. Tom Hanks met us at the WWII Memorial in Washington and encouraged us to keep it up. We met Harrison Ford at an air show in Wisconsin. He read our magazine on the spot and gave us a thumbs-up. So did James Cameron when we met him in New York City.
After college, we worked for our magazine full-time. As editor, I enforced our primary rule: honor American veterans and ignore the enemy. We never had to worry about ignoring Japanese veterans—there were none in America that we knew of. But the German veterans were different. A number of them had emigrated from the ruins of Europe to North America.
I read about Germans in my books, saw them in movies, and that was enough. I agreed with Indiana Jones when he said, “Nazis. I hate these guys.” To me, the Germans were all Nazis. They were jackboot zombies who gathered in flocks to salute Hitler at Nuremberg. They ran concentration camps. They worshiped Hitler.
But something began to puzzle me. I noticed that the aging American WWII pilots talked about their counterparts—the old German WWII pilots—with a strange kind of respect. They spoke of the German pilots’ bravery and this code of honor that they shared. Are you kidding? I thought. They killed your friends. You’re supposed to never forget. I thought the Greatest Generation was crazy.
One day I called an old American bomber pilot named Charlie Brown. Legend had it that Charlie’s bomber got shot to pieces and there was a twist, supposedly he had some unusual connection with a German pilot named Franz Stigler, whom he called his “older brother.”
Charlie agreed to an interview then he threw me for a loop. “Do you really want the whole story about what happened to me and my crew?” Charlie asked.
“You bet,” I said.
“Then I don’t think you should start by talking with me,” Charlie said. “Learn about Franz Stigler first,” Charlie said. “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.”
I was about to make excuses and tell Charlie I had little interest in a German’s perspective, when he said something that shut me up.
“In this story,” Charlie said, “I’m just a character—Franz Stigler is the real hero.”
When I booked my ticket to Vancouver in February 2004, I had to explain to my young magazine partners why I was spending $600 of our limited funds to fly across the continent to break my own rule. I was going to interview, in my words, “a Nazi pilot.” I was twenty-three years old.
I never envisioned that Charlie Brown had pushed me into one of the greatest untold stories in military history.
I ended up spending a week with Franz. He was kind and decent. I admitted to him that I thought he was a “Nazi” before I met him. He told me what a Nazi really was. A Nazi was someone who chose to be a Nazi. “Nazi” was an abbreviation for the National Socialists, a political party. Franz never joined them. Franz’s parents voted against the Nazis before the Nazis outlawed all other political parties. And here I’d thought it was in every German’s blood. I never called Franz a “Nazi” again.
After my week with Franz, I flew to Miami and spent a week with Charlie. We published the story of Charlie and Franz in our magazine. Ours readers loved it and wanted more. So I asked Charlie and Franz if they would let me write their story as a book, the tale of two enemies. They agreed.
Little did we know that the process of writing this book would span eight years. Three times my research took me to Europe, from bombers bases in England to mountaintops in Sicily to musty bunkers in Germany. I drew from my magazine adventures, too. The Air Force let me ride in a fighter jet and I flew a restored B-17 bomber from the copilot’s seat. In September 2008, I traveled to Iraq to get a glimpse of a soldier’s life.
What follows is the book that the old me, with my old prejudices, would have never written. When I first phoned the World War II bomber pilot named Charlie Brown, all I wanted was thirty minutes of his time. But what I found was a beautiful story worth every minute of eight years. The story has plenty of questions about the prudence of war and the person we call the enemy. But mostly it begs a question of goodness.
Can good men be found on both sides of a bad war?
Visit the book's website to learn more about "A Higher Call."
Adam Makos is a journalist, historian and editor of the military magazine Valor. In his fifteen years of work in the military field, Makos has interviewed countless veterans from WWII, Korea, Vietnam and present-day wars.