rachelmanija: (Books: old)
rachelmanija ([personal profile] rachelmanija) wrote2017-08-05 11:44 am

A Higher Call, by Adam Makos

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
davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)

[personal profile] davidgillon 2017-08-05 07:44 pm (UTC)(link)
"The Dambusters", by Paul Brickhill, is a documentary account of the raid on the Ruhr Dams by 617 Squadron in 1943. You get the full story, from Barnes Wallis's conception of the mission, his development of the bouncing bomb, the trials, and then Guy Gibson's assembling and training the squadron. And then the raid, following each aircraft, and what happened to it. It's the core of the film of the same name, though that also draws on Gibson's wartime autobiography "Enemy Coast Ahead". Really well done.
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[personal profile] jack 2017-08-05 08:09 pm (UTC)(link)
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[personal profile] isis 2017-08-05 08:21 pm (UTC)(link)
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.
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[personal profile] sholio 2017-08-05 09:15 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh, I liked this one too! She had a really interesting life.
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[personal profile] cyphomandra 2017-08-05 09:33 pm (UTC)(link)
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.

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[personal profile] movingfinger 2017-08-05 08:30 pm (UTC)(link)
Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote a few things, but North to the Orient and Listen! The Wind! might be most interesting to you.

ETA: I have Byrd's Skyward but I'm pretty sure I haven't read it yet, but there it is: a narrative of the early days of aviation by the famed aviator and explorer. I have not read any single book about the doomed Umberto Nobile expedition (the airship Italia, which crashed), but I think there are some books out there.
Edited (additional books) 2017-08-05 20:41 (UTC)
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[personal profile] muccamukk 2017-08-05 09:00 pm (UTC)(link)
I probably mentioned it before, but I really liked Terror in the Starboard Seat non-fiction about a canadian mosquito navigator who 100% didn't want to be fighting nazis. A lot of stuff about base life and details of how navigating worked.
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[personal profile] muccamukk 2017-08-05 09:05 pm (UTC)(link)
For movies, I liked Twelve O'Clock High, which was largely about base life and the psychological stress involved in bomber missions. It was made in '49 and was supposed to have really captured the feel of it.

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[personal profile] nenya_kanadka 2017-08-06 05:43 am (UTC)(link)
But his Jewish pilot 100% DID want to be fighting Nazis! Exciting times.
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[personal profile] sholio 2017-08-05 09:14 pm (UTC)(link)
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.
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[personal profile] lilacsigil 2017-08-06 12:49 am (UTC)(link)
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!

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[personal profile] nenya_kanadka 2017-08-06 05:49 am (UTC)(link)
The Alaskan/Russian/Japanese one sounds fascinating! I say as someone who grew up with Alaska Highway mythology.

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[personal profile] green_knight 2017-08-05 09:32 pm (UTC)(link)
The diary of Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Battle Flyer, on Project Gutenberg, though I don't know that particular version) is worth reading, though it is not comfortable to read - he starts out very detached and treating the war as a good laugh, shrugging off deaths; daring and dashing and... at some point the reality of the accumulated deaths hits him and he becomes noticeably uncomfortable with his earlier self.

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[personal profile] selenite0 2017-08-05 10:55 pm (UTC)(link)
Chuck Yeager's autobiography is good. Doesn't just discuss the war, includes his time as a test pilot and commanding Air Force units.
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[personal profile] graydon 2017-08-06 01:16 pm (UTC)(link)
While certainly about pilots and certainly not about flying as such, Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" is an interesting thing to read with Yeager's autobiography.

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[personal profile] naomikritzer 2017-08-05 11:40 pm (UTC)(link)
Did you read "Code Name Verity" and "Rose Under Fire" by Elizabeth Wein? WWII YA fiction about young women pilots.
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[personal profile] naomikritzer 2017-08-05 11:41 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh, also, not exactly in the same genre, but a super fun read: "Riding Rockets" by Mike Mullane (about being an astronaut -- that's a kind of pilot, right?)

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[personal profile] magistrate 2017-08-06 12:17 am (UTC)(link)
I may have to check out this book!

I heard this story on an episode of the podcast Futility Closet, which seems to have a lot of really fascinating WWII stories. (Like the Battle for Castle Itter and the most effective double agent of the war.

I feel like the more I learn about WWII, the more I realize how deeply bizarre circumstances can be.
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[personal profile] vass 2017-08-06 12:29 am (UTC)(link)
Does anyone have any recommendations for other books on pilots, fighters or otherwise, historical or otherwise?

Have you read Sherri L. Smith's Flygirl? YA novel about a Black American girl who joins the Women Airforce Service Pilots in WW2, and has to pass as white to do so. That and Code Name Verity are what immediately came to my mind.

Also, I vaguely remember Roald Dahl's memoirs having a lot of piloting in them.
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[personal profile] teenybuffalo 2017-08-06 01:42 am (UTC)(link)
This anecdote is like a redemptive answer to some of the stories that horrified me in a book called _Quartered Safe Out Here_, George MacDonald Fraser's memoir of serving in WWII in Burma, in a regiment from the north of England. Despite what I'm about to say, I love this book and would recommend reading it.

Fraser describes one of many battles in which an officer shouted at his men, "Get that bugger, he's nobbut wounded!" and pointed at an enemy soldier who'd been shot and was trying to crawl away to cover. There is then a lengthy justification of how you can't just wound someone on the field of battle, you have to shoot him again and finish him off, or he'll be back in action a month from now, and shoot you. "If you think that sounds barbaric, well, think away," he says, and the subtext is: and who are YOU, reader, to question Fraser's morality? Have YOU been there? Huh?

Anyway, I tried to accept this from Fraser without either compromising my own sense of right and wrong, but it was hard to handle the cognitive dissonance. Likewise, his descriptions of his own bloodlust. He doesn't quite say, "Shooting that one Japanese guy on the field of battle was an adrenaline-packed thrill ride and I sometimes wish I could do it all over again," but I got that impression, and I felt filthy just reading it.

It was all very convincing at the time, but I don't think I have to buy into Fraser's worldview just because he was a combatant and I'm not. Nice to know not every combatant thinks it's automatically wrong to make a generous gesture in a battle or to refuse to finish killing people you wounded.
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[personal profile] sholio 2017-08-06 02:01 am (UTC)(link)
On the flip side, something interesting my husband's grandfather once told me (that I've never run across in any of my other reading on WWII) is that, as a young man in the European theatre of the war, he was taught to shoot to wound in preference to shooting to kill, because wounding a guy gets three people off the battlefield (the one you shot, and two guys to carry him off). I always found that really interesting and wondered how widespread it was.

The Pacific theatre was very different, though, and from what I've heard, for various reasons (racism obviously being one of them) the behavior of the Allied troops towards the opposition troops was more brutal.

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[personal profile] alessandriana 2017-08-06 05:05 am (UTC)(link)
I'm only a couple chapters in, but I'm enjoying Sled Driver: Flying the World's Fastest Jet, by Brian Shul. (You may have run across one of the stories from it, which has become a little bit tumblr famous.) It's out of print and copies cost $450, but the pdf can be easily found with a little digging.
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[personal profile] nenya_kanadka 2017-08-06 05:57 am (UTC)(link)
Twenty minutes is a long goddamn time in those circumstances! Wow.

Mucca's grandpa was a Canadian fighter pilot, but my own was US infantry, so no family tales to add there.
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[personal profile] autopope 2017-08-06 10:17 am (UTC)(link)
For another take on this territory, I'd strongly recommend Len Deighton's novel Bomber. It's a work of faction — fiction-written-as-documentary — that provides a thinly fictionalized account of the progress of a British heavy bomber raid on a German city in mid-1943, as viewed from all sides (military and civilian perspectives included). Reads like
in-depth news reportage, based on accounts by the survivors of the bombing campaign in question.

Of supplementary interest is Fighter, his more straightforwardly-historical account of the Battle of Britain.

From the "nothing to do with this at all" department comes The Man in the Hot Seat by Doddy Hay (long out of print, mostly published in the UK). Hay was an RAF tail-gunner during the latter part of the war, and a keen — Olympic level — free fall parachutist in the 1940s (back when that was considered extreme sports): most of the book is a memoir of his years as guinea pig test pilot for Martin-Baker ejector seats, in which he racked up a number of memorable firsts (first backward-facing ejection, first triple-zero (ground level, zero speed, zero altitude) ejection), and a considerable number of broken bones. A bit of an odd book, about an extremely odd fellow.
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[personal profile] summerstorm 2017-08-06 01:25 pm (UTC)(link)
Wow. Thank you for sharing this.
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[personal profile] carbonel 2017-08-10 03:12 pm (UTC)(link)
I'm surprised that 84 responses in, no one has mentioned the one recommendation I can think of: Piece of Cake.

This is a novel from 1983 by Derek Robinson about a fictional (but historically accurate) RAF squadron in the first year of WWII.

It was adapted into a six-part miniseries in 1988.

Not my usual sort of thing, but I watched the adaptation with my then-boyfriend and later read the book. Then I had to read something fluffy and comforting afterward.