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
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio


I really enjoyed Reach for the Sky, about Douglas Bader, WWII flying ace and POW who lost both legs in an accident in the early 1930s and taught himself to fly fighter planes anyway. It's a biography, not an autobiography, but it was written about ten years post-war and the author obviously interviewed Bader and had a lot of contact with him. In some ways this results in a somewhat more glowing portrait of him than you'd probably get in a book written decades later (from other accounts, he was apparently kind of an asshole, although a charismatic asshole), but it's very close to the subject and goes into a lot of detail on exactly how he adjusted to his disability in a 1930s/1940s world, which I found very interesting.

Another one I really liked was The Last Flight of Bomber 31, about the WWII bombing runs staged from the Aleutian Islands across Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula towards Japan. Obviously this one fascinated me in part because of the Alaskan historical connection, but it's also a really interesting account of trying to conduct an air war over large amounts of territory with extremely long supply lines and the logistical difficulties they faced. The Americans could just barely manage to reach Japan's northernmost acquisition, a rocky island of no interest to anyone except as a strategic point of attack on the main part of Japan, by stripping down their planes of all extraneous weight and adding an extra fuel tank, but even under good conditions they were flying on fumes by the time they made it back to the easternmost tip of the Aleutians, so anything from a headwind to minor damage to their planes tended to result in crash-landing in Kamchatka. This was awkward for the Russians, who were trying to maintain their neutrality with regards to Japan so as not to have to fight a war on two fronts, so they took the American pilots as POWs because they didn't really have a choice, but negotiated a sort of informal "escape route" across Siberia to release their (alleged) POWs in the Middle East and allow them to get back into the fighting.

The author also strikes a pretty good balance between the American and Japanese perspectives, and deals fairly with the ordinary Japanese soldiers who were stuck in the middle of nowhere with Americans dropping bombs on their heads all night long, some of whom had pretty interesting stories too -- like one guy who kind of broke my heart - born in the U.S. of Japanese origin, his family was visiting relatives in Japan when the war broke out, and he ended up drafted on the side he didn't want to be on, and stuck on this barren rock in the middle of nowhere, then imprisoned in a Siberian labor camp for several years post-war rather than being repatriated back to the U.S. like he was hoping.
lilacsigil: 12 Apostles rocks, text "Rock On" (12 Apostles)

From: [personal profile] lilacsigil


Bader is a really interesting guy (he still holds the record for pulling the most Gs without passing out, because he didn't need to circulate blood to his legs), but I'd put a warning that he was an old-school colonial racist who spent a lot of time working for Shell in Africa and was a huge supporter of white rule in Rhodesia in particular. If the book has anything about his later life, I'd want to warn about that. My dad grew up in then-Rhodesia and Douglas Bader came to speak at their (all-white) boarding school. He landed his plane right in front of the assembled kids and offered to take a couple of the younger female teachers up for a flight, but this was not allowed!
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio


Yeah, this is a big part of what I mean about how a biography of Bader published later than the 1950s (and not written by someone who appears to be friends with the guy - the book came out in 1954) would probably have presented him in a less positive light. I know from other sources that his politics were extremely reactionary, but that isn't really touched on in the book at all, which presents him as a sort of dashing iconoclast. In all fairness, it doesn't really deal with the postwar years at all except as a brief epilogue (which, given that it was only the early 1950s when the book was written, isn't that surprising). The book is pretty much just about his disabling accident and WWII career.
lilacsigil: 12 Apostles rocks, text "Rock On" (12 Apostles)

From: [personal profile] lilacsigil


That's a good period to read about. He did do a lot of work on behalf of disabled people, and I don't want to minimise that, but running into the extreme racism without a warning is not great.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio


Yeah, it's definitely one of those cases of people being complicated! A lot of the things he did are really impressive and admirable, a lot of the beliefs he held were repugnant, and one doesn't negate the other (in either direction).
nenya_kanadka: toy kangaroo joey: "You will roo the day u messed with me" (@ Roo the day)

From: [personal profile] nenya_kanadka


The Alaskan/Russian/Japanese one sounds fascinating! I say as someone who grew up with Alaska Highway mythology.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio


I really loved it! The framing story is the author going along on an exploration of a bomber crash in Kamchatka, then the book arose out of research to try to discover which bomber crew it was so the families could have closure. So there's also a lot of interesting (well, interesting-to-me) stuff about how they went about that too, and pictures of the crash site and so forth. Just talking about what they -- the author and photographer -- had to go through in order to get there (which involved planning months in advance and days/weeks of travel) really impressed on me how remote eastern Siberia is.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio


Sadly no (the actual travel across Siberia was done by train) but there are descriptions of crash-landing in the Siberian mountains, life in a remote Siberian POW camp, and also (rather horrifyingly) being imprisoned in a Siberian lumber-cutting gulag, which it is kind of amazing anyone survived at all.
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