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
muccamukk: Athos looking up with an ironic half smile. (Musketeers: Wry Look)

From: [personal profile] muccamukk

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.
muccamukk: Gregory Peck looks up from the book he's reading. (Books: Hello Reading)

From: [personal profile] muccamukk

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.
nenya_kanadka: quality content: Gregory Peck with his shirt off (@ Gregory Peck shirtless)

From: [personal profile] nenya_kanadka

Rachel, FYI, this is a Gregory Peck film, and in fact the one that started our whole craze this spring. 😂
muccamukk: Gregory Peck looks up prayerfully. (Christian: Say a little prayer)

From: [personal profile] muccamukk

That's NOT the one where he's a Mosquito pilot who spends most of the movie dirty and sweaty. I'd rec that too, but it has v. little flying in it.
selenite0: (Bandaged Maggie)

From: [personal profile] selenite0

Twelve O'Clock High was part of my official training as an Air Force officer. I showed it to my kids as part of our Memorial Day movie tradition.

It hit me much harder as a father than when I'd first seen it.
selenite0: (Jamie glasses)

From: [personal profile] selenite0

They liked it. "Glory" is still their favorite of the Memorial Day movies.
nenya_kanadka: Gregory Peck staring soulfully into the camera (Gregory Peck hello)

From: [personal profile] nenya_kanadka

A *different* movie, I will point out, than the one where he's a Canadian bomber pilot in Burma who falls in love and quits his (post loss of first wife!) death wish and THEN gets lost in the jungle and has to sweatily, dustily bring his injured fellow aviator home! (ETA: I see Mucca's already mentioned Purple Plain. 😂)

He was in a lot of war movies.

Twelve O'Clock High was available at our local library, though, and may be at yours.
Edited Date: 2017-08-06 06:48 pm (UTC)
muccamukk: Gregory Peck looks up prayerfully. (Christian: Say a little prayer)

From: [personal profile] muccamukk

It's stoic woobie heaven, man.

(It's also around the point where Our Hero learned to act, which is nice. Icon from previous film, where he didn't seem to have.)

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