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The Midweek Motivator – A Higher Call

Four days before Christmas 1943 on his first mission, 21-year-old 2nd Lt. Charlie Brown was trying to nurse his badly shot-up B-17 back to safety. Half his crew lay wounded or dead when suddenly a sleek shape pulled up on the bomber’s tail. The feared German Messerschmitt piloted by Bavarian Lt Franz Sigler, former airline pilot and by then Luftwaffe Ace with many “kills” stenciled on his fuselage, had the American bomber in his sights, his thumb on the trigger. 

What followed defies imagination and would later be described as the most incredible air encounter of that war. Two lives collided that crystal blue day: a farm boy from West Virginia, among the U.S. Air Corp’s youngest Captains and his opponent one of the Luftwaffe’s most celebrated Ace fighter pilots, yet ironically one who had hoped to avoid fighting in the war. 

The book A Higher Call follows both pilots’ mission through hell; sandstorms, endless flak, and the deaths of fellow pilots and their crews. Ultimately Franz and Charlie would stare at each other in crystal blue skies above Germany on this day. What happened between the two pilots would be classified by our 8th Air Force as “top secret.” And it was an act that in 1943 Franz Stigler dare not mention for fear of his life at the hands of a Nazi firing squad. 

It took Brown and Stigler forty years’ searching for one another. Ultimately they made it their last mission, changing their lives forever. 

On that arctic blue December day over Europe Stigler had the crippled B-17 locked in his sights; badly damaged with one engine “feathered” and many holes in its aluminum fuselage. As he lined up for his shot Stigler noticed his enemy’s tail guns were askew, pointing away from his attack angle; a clue the American tail gunner was dead. Suddenly something completely anathematic occurred at 10,000 feet: Stigler couldn’t shoot! A sense of honor only rarely experienced by combatants overcame the German Ace; he simply couldn’t destroy his wounded American rival. 

As the two planes continued east (Brown hoping to make the English Channel and safety), his German opponent was trying to signal him to turn north. Brown assumed Stigler wanted to capture his crew, but Stigler feared the Channel was too far and that his damaged opponent couldn’t make it, thus hoping to entice the B-17 to head for neutral Norway, much closer by air. 

In the B-17’s cockpit chaos reigned with the wounded crew, malfunctioning controls, and the ever menacing loss of altitude. After an agonizing hour the English Channel was on the horizon and while by then the German fighter was now in an enemy sky, Stigler flew protection until the American plane was halfway across the channel before peeling off for home. 

After the war Captain Brown searched every available source to find his German protector. Stigler did the same. It took forty years when finally, their career aviation endeavors brought both men to Seattle; finally meeting in a stirring moment seized out of space and time.  

The heroes met each year thereafter as their friendship deepened while their families shared the stirring memories of that unlikely day over Europe when humanity trumped the need to kill an opponent’s surviving aircrew. Adam Makos’ book A Higher Call has been praised as one of the most amazing accounts from WWII.