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

Along these lines, I think the war autobiography that delivered one of the hardest punches between the eyes I've ever read in a war memoir is Farley Mowatt's. Have you ever read that one? Trading on his reputation as a humorist, he wrote a very funny, light and engaging memoir about himself as a young Canadian kid dealing with boot camp, losing his virginity, etc, and it's all written in the same light, tongue-in-cheek tone as most of his animal books. Until the last few chapters, when he experiences battle for the first time and ends up in the meat grinder of Italy. And then there's a horrifying tonal switch as just about everyone he knows gets killed, there's no supplies, no backup, and they keep getting ordered forward and pulverized every time they try to advance. He has a psychotic break from the stress, and that's where the book ends, in mid-battle with Mowatt having pretty much lost touch with reality in the middle of a corpse-strewn battlefield.

It's not that the brutality of war is something that most war memoirs shy away from, but the way it gently leads you into the battlefield with a lightly funny touch and then plunges you straight into utter brutality of war and just leaves you there, dangling on a narrative cliffhanger, is really well done. It's a brilliant way to use the book's structure, as well as reader expectations about him as an author, to convey the experience that he had, as an idealistic 18-year-old who had no idea what he was getting himself into.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio

Er, in retrospect, I should probably have asked if you wanted spoilers before describing the entire book. Also, I read it something like a decade, decade-and-a-half ago, so I'm not sure how well it holds up. /caveat

But yeah, I've also read a number of his books about animals and nature, and really enjoy them.
graydon: (Default)

From: [personal profile] graydon

Its even more complex than that!

I remember reading it, and about it, when it came out and running into several articles drawn from regimental histories "which cannot be reconciled with Mr. Mowat's account." (Which is not necessarily to say And No Birds Sang involves deliberate untruths; people don't often remember what actually happened during combat.) Mowat himself said he had waited until after his father died to publish it. There's some parental expectations involved as well as the presented naïveté.

We don't have (so far as I know) a really good critical biography of Farley Mowat, nor anyone who has gone through and done the monumental job of fact checking necessary to talk about the mythologizing Mowat certainly did a lot of even in ostensibly factual books. And there are very few primary sources.
graydon: (Default)

From: [personal profile] graydon

I think in Mowat's case the only possible answer is "both".

People who get consciously good at humour may not solely do so because of trauma, but it seems like a safe bet. It's clear Mowat started doing that prior to serving and sort of semi-clear that most of Mowat's writing is about a better world with better outcomes. (And then you get into "why is that the better outcome?")

"Why?" and "to what end?" is why I would like that critical biography and the kind of academic interest to generate it. Not going to tackle that one on my own.

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