A Christmas Story, But Not by Charles Dickens

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It’s hardly a coincidence that this tale surfaces just before Christmas. It’s about a new book set in the European skies in 1943. Military historian Adam Makos, editor of Valor magazine, has written A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II with fellow military writer Larry Alexander.

It offers some insights into how war has – and has not – changed. Battleland conducted this email chat with Makos earlier this week.

What happened 69 years ago today?

On December 20, 1943, a miracle happened in the darkest hours of World War II.

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Just four days before Christmas, two enemies—a German fighter ace and an American bomber pilot—met in the skies over Germany. What they did had not happened before, or since. They decided not to kill one another.

The American’s bomber was damaged. The German’s fighter was primed for the kill. But when the German’s eyes met those of the American pilot, something changed in both men.

Instead of destroying the bomber, the German escorted it out of Germany, to safety. The two pilots parted with a salute. And then, in the late 1980s, as old men, the American and the German searched for one another, reunited, and became best friends.

It’s the greatest little-known story of World War II.

Sum up your book in a nutshell.
A Higher Call follows the war experiences of these two pilots from different nations—Charlie Brown, the American farm boy turned B-17 pilot—and Franz Stigler, the German airline pilot turned fighter pilot.

Both were good men who never asked for World War II and when their lives collided in the skies over Germany, they were forever changed.

The book’s message is controversial but powerful: that enemies can be brothers. It’s a war story with a message of peace and hope. It’s a true story too, and the kind of story our world needs to hear.

What lessons about war, and enemies, does that event, and your book, teach us?

The greatest lesson that Franz and Charlie teach us is to think about the person we hate or “the enemy.”

When you look into your enemy’s eyes, sometimes you’ll find he’s not that different from you.

Franz Stigler, the German pilot, was a good man. Had he been born in America or Canada or England he would have been a great hero. Instead, he was a victim of World War II —born at the wrong time, on the wrong side.

It’s heartwarming to see the response to this message. People are embracing the book. People are hungry for heart-warming stories like this, now, more than ever.

Why did you write A Higher Call?

I felt a duty to tell this story. Here were these two old men, Franz and Charlie, one living in Vancouver, the other in Miami. They were forgotten but for a few days a year when they’d attend an air show or speak at a Rotary Club. And together, they held a story with the power to change our world.

Any book you’ve ever read about World War II has only told half the story, from one side or the other. In doing so, they only reveal half the tragedy. A Higher Call looks at the same war from both sides and for the first time, it allows you to see the full tragedy of a war. You’ll never look at World War II the same way again, I promise.

How did you happen upon this story?

I was just 23 years old and writing for a small aviation magazine that I had founded with my friends in high school. In interviewing old World War II vets, they would ask, “Do you know the story of the German who let the American bomber get away?”

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Adam Makos

I didn’t, but became intrigued and tracked down Charlie Brown, seeking an interview.

When I found him, Charlie threw me for a loop. He denied me the interview! He told me to interview Franz first. “In this story,” Charlie explained, “I’m just a character—Franz Stigler is the real hero.”

The next week I was on a plane to meet and interview Franz. I knew Franz had done one of the most incredible acts in the history of war but I had to figure out why he had done it? How did he become the kind of man who would spare his enemy? And what happened to him afterward? It was a mystery that I had to solve.

Are today’s enemies – so-called non-state actors, not formally allied with any nation – different from the German enemy the U.S. faced in World War II?

I believe there’s a commonality between the enemies of today and yesteryear. Both contain two types of soldier. There are the fanatics who hunger for violence, and there are the average citizens who are dragged reluctantly into war. I saw both types when I went to Iraq in 2009 to cover a story.

In today’s war the enemy has its fanatics—jihadists. They’re like the SS or the Gestapo of World War II Germany.

Then there are the average citizens, local Iraqis and Afghans who fight for a multitude of reasons, some they don’t even understand. They’re much like the ordinary Germans who were drafted from their farms, shops, and schools and sent reluctantly to fight World War II.

Franz Stigler was an average German citizen in 1937. One day he was flying for the airlines, and the next day he found himself drafted and flying for the German air force. He never joined the Nazi party nor believed in their ideals.

Yet, he paid a heavy toll for a war he never wanted—World War II cost him dearly—but I won’t tell how and spoil the book.

If A Higher Call accomplishes anything, I hope it teaches us that sometimes our enemy can be a good man, just born on the wrong side. Sometimes, the person we call our enemy is not so different from us.