Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II

My father likes to take walks at night.  Around 10:00 pm at night, he will head out the door into the darkness and walk the entire neighborhood.  He likes the quiet and the coolness of the night.  He can ponder his day and clear his head while getting some great exercise.  Generally he does this alone, but I have been known to join him when I am in town visiting my parents.  It's a great time to have a long, uninterrupted talk with my dad, something that becomes increasingly difficult as schedules and kids get in the way. 

On one of these walks, Dad told me one of his favorite "character" stories that he uses as a scout leader with his young troops.  The story is about a World War II bomber pilot named Charlie Brown who was shot up while flying a B-17 bomber over Germany.  As he was struggling to get his plane back to England, a German fighter pilot flew up by his side.  The two enemy pilots stared at each other while Charlie waited for him to finish him off, but instead of killing an already wounded crew, the German pilot escorted the American pilot out of Germany to the North Sea.  The German pilot then saluted the American pilot and then veered off.  Neither pilot was entirely sure of what happened, but it was clear that the German pilot had made a choice not to include that particular plane in his kill list that day.  Dad uses the story with his scouts to talk about character, honor, choices, etc. 

Adam Makos, who wrote the original story for a magazine (where Dad first saw it), has researched and expanded the story into an entire book, A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II.  The book tells the story of two men, Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler, fighting opposite sides of a war but finding themselves in a moment of history on December 20, 1943, that would go on to become one of the greatest military stories ever told.  Eventually, decades later, the two men find each other, and a friendship is formed that defies our prejudices about what the enemies of that war were supposed to be.

We like to think of World War II as the simple war.  Ask the average person on the street about World War I, and they will likely give you a blank stare.  That one's hard to understand, although there is a hilarious-yet-accurate description of the conflict here.  But World War II?  Oh, that one's easy.  Japanese - they attacked us.  Bad.  And in Europe?  Please.  Nazis are bad.  All Germans were Nazis.  Therefore all Germans were the bad guys.  We fought on the sides of the angels. And we won.  Because we were right.  On to the Cold War.

However, war is never simple, and it is never easy. 

A Higher Call, while telling both men's stories, really focuses on the story of the German pilot, Franz Stigler, a commercial pilot who never wanted to be in the war in the first place and who certainly was not on the side of the Nazis.  Did you know the National Socialist Party only won 44% of the vote when they came to power?  The majority of Germany voted against them.  However, they still won the most votes over the other 11 parties vying for power in the 1930s, so in they came.  Many, if not most, of the armed forces in Germany in World War II were not defending the Nazis.  They were fighting for the survival of their country, and many, like Franz Stigler, found themselves stuck between the enemy to the West and the enemy within their own borders.  In an army where telling a joke about Hitler could put you in front of the firing squad, loyalties are often fuzzy, and the struggle to be faithful to your country while hanging onto your humanity becomes a life or death situation.  The winners get to write the history books, and it is easy to paint the Germany of the 1940s with the same paintbrush.  The truth is far more complicated. 

This book gave me a fresh perspective on multiple sides of a war I previously thought of as a black-and-white issue, and it left me weeping at the end at the strength of mercy and friendship in the face of war.  I would highly recommend it as a quality way to spend your reading time.

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars (just because I didn't always follow the technical stuff)

Umm...I just received Written in My Own Heart's Blood by Diana Gabaldon...that's right, book 8 of the Outlander series...814 pages of that's pretty much my TBR list for the next little bit.  I hope I remember to eat something...

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