A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II (2012) by Adam Makos with Larry Alexander is a New York Times and international best seller. It also has five stars on Amazon. However, it’s not a book I would have chosen to read on my own. Although World War II is the neverending source of remarkable stories, the constant death and destruction is hard to take in. So, I only read about war once in a while, usually when I hear the buzz about an especially extraordinary book. And I had never heard of A Higher Call. However, it somehow made its way into our picklist at my book club, and the next thing you know, I was reading it.
The book advertises itself as such:
December, 1943: A badly damaged American bomber struggles to fly over wartime Germany. At the controls is twenty-one-year-old Second Lieutenant Charlie Brown. Half his crew lay wounded or dead on this, their first mission. Suddenly, a Messerschmitt fighter pulls up on the bomber’s tail. The pilot is German ace Franz Stigler—and he can destroy the young American crew with the squeeze of a trigger…
What happened next would defy imagination and later be called “the most incredible encounter between enemies in World War II.”
The U.S. 8th Air Force would later classify what happened between them as “top secret.” It was an act that Franz could never mention for fear of facing a firing squad. It was the encounter that would haunt both Charlie and Franz for forty years until, as old men, they would search the world for each other, a last mission that could change their lives forever.
Between the good reviews and the mysterious event that had occurred in the air, I was ready to find out what happened. And then I read the introduction by Adam Makos. In high school Makos started a magazine focused on American pilots in World War II. After college, he worked at the magazine full time. His three journalistic rules were: “get the facts right, tell stories that show our military in a good light, and ignore the enemy–we do not honor them.” I was not impressed by someone who had made it out of college and wanted to write stories that ignore half of history. Why would I want to read a book written by him? I like a full picture and nuance, an author who is a subject-matter expert, and someone I can learn from, not an ignorant, patriotic, junior-high version of history. He ends his introduction with a question, in italics. “Can good men be found on both sides of a bad war?” Um…yes, do I have to read the book now? To be fair, it is possible Makos was just trying to play up how much he’d learned as he researched this story, but I was suddenly dreading what I would find in the rest of the book.
Fortunately, Makos had a co-author, and this book turned out to be fair, in-depth, and fascinating. [Again, to be fair, I have no idea how much input or influence the co-author had on this book, but when comparing the Introduction written by Makos to the rest of the text, I would guess a lot.] What surprised me about this one, especially after that introduction, was that A Higher Call focused on Franz Stigler and was more of an intimate look at the German Air Force than anything else. A Higher Call begins when Franz is a young child learning to fly a glider, and it follows Franz as he becomes a pilot, then a fighter pilot. We are with Franz through the long and thorough destruction of the German Army and Air Force. We even focus on Franz after the war.
There is information about the American, Second Lieutenant Charlie Brown, especially when it comes to that infamous day in the air and its aftermath. Otherwise, we are always with Franz. Even the “incredible encounter between enemies” is completely one-sided. Charlie was out of his mind trying to survive, and any chivalry was on Franz’s side. This focus on German history was a surprising and fascinating turn that was not hinted at by the cover, introduction or blurbs. Usually that kind of misdirection irritates me because I prefer honesty, even in advertising. However, because Franz’s life gave a view into Germany during WWII and especially the German Air Force, I am glad I did not get what I was expecting.
I only wish I had more information on one aspect. Makos and Alexander explained in detail the lives of the German Air Force fighter pilots, which were significantly better than the infantry and the rest of the German population. They were well-fed and clothed and could even retire to a beautiful lodge nestled by a lake if/when they got hurt. This was true even near the end of the war when Germany was running out of everything. So, was there a significant class difference between Air Force and infantry? It certainly seemed that way, but it was never discussed. The authors also mention the German Fighter pilots’ “gentlemanly” code of conduct. They would not shoot an enemy fighter pilot parachuting to the ground, and they would even try to find shot-down enemy pilots before the SS or the population could get to them.
Enemy pilots as POW’s were treated much better by the German Air Force than any other official group in Germany. But why was this? Was it because they were more removed from the war, since they were always fighting in the air, and they could take the death and destruction less personally? Was it because their basic needs were still fulfilled, so it made them less desperate? The entire thing felt like an international gentleman’s club, where the higher class watch out for each other the best they can,while the riffraff fought in the trenches below them.
I ended up flying through this book with enthusiasm, and I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in the subject matter. However, I wish the authors had dug a little deeper to bring more of a framework to the story.
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