Nonfiction about a brief but fateful encounter between a German ace fighter pilot and an American bomber crew, in mid-air; forty years later, the two pilots met up again. The book started out as a magazine article, and I bet it was a terrific one. It’s a great story and unlike many WWII stories, this one is about people’s best behavior rather than their worst.

As you may guess from the summary, the actual incident, though amazing, lasted about twenty minutes and is recounted in about ten pages. So most of the book is the story of the German fighter pilot, Franz Stigler, plus a much smaller amount about the American crew. (Stigler was not a Nazi and in fact came from an anti-Nazi family. I know that it would have been convenient for him to claim to have been secretly anti-Nazi after the fact, but given what he was witnessed to have done, I believe it.)

The book is is interesting if you have an interest in the subject matter, but doesn't really rise above that. The best parts, apart from the encounter itself, were the early sections on the culture and training of the German pilots. One detail that struck me (not just that it happened, but that Stigler actually told someone about it), which was that dogfighting was so terrifying that pilots regularly landed with wet pants. I'd heard that about the first time, but not that it wasn't just the first time. Just imagine doing that for months on end. And knowing that you're not likely to do it for years on end because the lifespan of a fighter pilot is probably not that long.

If you just want to know what happened in mid-air over Germany, in December, 1943, click on the cut.

The American bomber was hit over Germany, killing two and wounding several of its 12-man crew. As it began to flee, Franz Stigler was sent to dispatch it. But when he got close, he saw that its guns had been destroyed and enough of its structure had been ripped away that he could actually see the men inside, some tending to the wounded and others trying to bluff him by aiming the wrecked guns at him. He couldn't bring himself to kill defenseless men in cold blood, especially when he could see their faces, so he decided to let them go.

Here's where he goes way beyond the call. He tried to signal to the pilot, Charlie Brown, to fly to Sweden, but couldn't manage to communicate it. (Brown only figured out that was what he meant when they met 40 years later and Stigler told him!) But what Stigler knew, and the Americans didn't, was that if they kept their course, they would fly right over a German anti-aircraft battery that would shoot them out of the sky. So Stigler flew below them, knowing that the gunners below wouldn't shoot down one of their own planes. He escorted them for twenty minutes, until they were safe, then saluted them and flew back, knowing that if he didn't come up with a convincing story to explain what he was doing, he'd be taken out and shot.

Luckily for Stigler, things were so chaotic and desperate at the time that no one really looked into it. Luckily for the bomber crew, they managed to get safely home. After the war, Stigler moved to Canada. Forty years later, he read an article about that encounter in a magazine, and wrote to Charlie Brown with details that no one could have known unless they were there.



Does anyone have any recommendations for other books on pilots, fighters or otherwise, historical or otherwise? I've read Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and really enjoyed the combination of desperate survival narrative with odes to the joy of flight. I think I'd be more interested in memoirs by pilots than biographies about them.

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

From: [personal profile] isis


I absolutely loved Beryl Markham's memoir West With the Night. She was the first woman in East Africa to be granted a commercial pilot's license (in the 1930s), and the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio


Oh, I liked this one too! She had a really interesting life.
cyphomandra: boats in Auckland Harbour. Blue, blocky, cheerful (boats)

From: [personal profile] cyphomandra


I also liked the Markham a lot 😀 (I ended up writing a crossover fic featuring it for Yuletide having never previously read it, solely on the basis of the requester's prompt sounding intriguing, and Isis very kindly beta'd for me).

Richard Hillary's The Last Enemy is fascinating - the memoir of a Spitfire pilot, written during the war. I was actually reading it for details about Archibald McIndoe's work (pioneering plastic surgeon) as I have been fiddling with a relevant story idea for ages, so can't remember specific details about flying, but I would recommend it and it may be on project Gutenberg.
cyphomandra: boats in Auckland Harbour. Blue, blocky, cheerful (boats)

From: [personal profile] cyphomandra


No kidding! What fandom did you cross it with?

Jan Morris' Last Letters from Hav, my favourite travel book to a nonexistent country :D

Your grandfather sounds fascinating! Did he do a memoir? I hadn't thought about the less visible injuries but yes, they must have been devastating.

I've read an interview somewhere (in one of Jan Wong's memoirs, I think) with a Chinese urologist who did a lot of penis reconstruction surgery - apparently the traditional Chinese toilet training method involves putting the kids in open crotch pants, which in small villages with feral pigs and dogs means the potential for horrific injuries.
nenya_kanadka: Rasputin made friends with the zeitgeist (@ mangled history Rasputin)

From: [personal profile] nenya_kanadka


Makes me think that some of that work could have been useful for (later?) surgeons doing gender confirming surgery for trans people, as well as the cis guys who got injured in the crotch area.

Poor damn kids.
Edited Date: 2017-08-06 05:41 am (UTC)
rydra_wong: Lee Miller photo showing two women wearing metal fire masks in England during WWII. (Default)

From: [personal profile] rydra_wong


Richard Hillary's The Last Enemy is fascinating - the memoir of a Spitfire pilot, written during the war. I was actually reading it for details about Archibald McIndoe's work (pioneering plastic surgeon)

Ah, the Guinea Pig Club! [personal profile] rachelmanija, they and McIndoe are a fascinating story -- McIndoe wasn't just a pioneering surgeon, IMHO, he was pioneering psychological/social support and de-medicalizing life for patients who had to undergo repeated surgeries over years, including integrating them into the local community.
cyphomandra: Painting of a bare tree, by Rita Angus (tree)

From: [personal profile] cyphomandra


Yes! I have been fond of McIndoe since I was assigned a project on "Skin" at the age of 12 - I'm not sure what the teacher was thinking, but what she got was an awful lot of early plastic surgery :D

I am tinkering with an historical m/m in that setting.
rydra_wong: Lee Miller photo showing two women wearing metal fire masks in England during WWII. (Default)

From: [personal profile] rydra_wong


Well,I just fell in a rabbit hole.

Observe my lack of guilt. *g* I think I first found out about them via an exhibition at the Hunterian Museum, covering plastic surgery in WWI and II.

NPR piece, in case you haven't already found it:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7556326
mildred_of_midgard: (Default)

From: [personal profile] mildred_of_midgard


I saw that, and I figured you had stopped after Amazon.

Since you buy a lot of physical books, and I've stopped buying anything but e-books, I bequeath to you my book bargain-hunting secret: bookfinder.com. It'll search Amazon, abebooks, and a few other sites, and put the prices up next to each other for easy comparison.
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