A lesson in Christ-like mercy from the book A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II
Source: "A Higher Call," painted by John D. Shaw. © Valor Studios and John D. Shaw
His fighter aircraft freshly fueled and armed, Franz could have easily shot down the stricken American bomber. It was Dec. 20, 1943. The four-engine American B-17 Flying Fortress with her crew of 10 flew alone in the skies north of Bremen, Germany, as Franz approached her cautiously from behind. The bomber had just participated in a massive raid of over 400 planes on a German aircraft plant on Bremen’s outskirts. Now, after surviving harrowing German anti-aircraft fire and fighter attacks, she was limping home. Her tail gunner was dead, killed in a fighter attack. Another gunner was gravely wounded, his left leg nearly severed above the knee. Other members of the crew were also wounded. For the pilot of the crew, this was his second combat mission of the war. For the other nine men of the crew, it was their first.
Franz Stigler was already a seasoned German fighter ace at 28 years old. He flew his first combat mission in April of 1942, 20 months earlier, over North Africa. Since then he fought in Germany’s campaign in Sicily. Now he defended the skies over northwest Europe from Allied aerial bombardment. He needed one more bomber victory, one more like the one now in his sights, to earn the coveted Knight’s Cross. To him, author Adam Makos of the book, A Higher Call, writes, the Knight’s Cross was “a sign of honor.”
The central story of A Higher Call is what happened next in this potentially deadly encounter between enemies in the war-torn skies of World War II.
Jesus Christ told His followers, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). By an act of mercy in the middle of a terrible war, performed at great personal risk to himself, Franz Stigler exemplified a character trait that Christ desires to see in his followers.
As the B-17’s wings were filling his gun sight, Franz began to realize that something was wrong. He had expected by now that the tail gunner would be firing at him. Instead, he could see that the tail gunner position was obliterated. The dead gunner was slumped over his guns, his blood soaking his fleece collar red. Franz saw that the left horizontal stabilizer of the bomber’s tail section was shot away. He wondered how the ship was still flying. He made the decision not to shoot.
The author writes: “Franz had never seen anything like this. Every foot of the bomber’s metal had silver holes where the bullets had entered and flaked away the paint.” The craft was helpless as he pulled alongside and began to fly in formation with the crippled plane. Through gaping holes in the waist section of the fuselage, Franz could see the American airmen caring for their wounded. He could hardly see them as enemies who he must kill.
Author Adam Makos thoroughly researched this true story of an aerial combat encounter between enemies . He wrote that Franz Stigler at this moment in time answered “a higher call,” which meant mercy for the crew of the wounded bomber. Franz decided that he would not have the death of these helpless men on his conscience for the rest of his life. What Franz did not know then was how his singular act of chivalry toward his enemy would later bring blessings to his life.
Flying at the wingtip of the bomber, Franz nodded to the American pilot staring incredulously at him. He was a 20-year old West Virginia farm boy named Charlie Brown. Adam Makos writes of Charlie: “He had milked the cows before school and lived without electricity…he had never missed a day of school.” New to combat, Charlie had flown his plane with heroic skill to this point of the mission. Just before Franz appeared, he had pulled the Flying Fortress from a deadly spin after being nearly shot from the sky by eight enemy fighters.
The German fighter ace flying alongside him was trying to signal Charlie to land and save his crew. Not comprehending the signals, Charlie kept flying toward the North Sea coast and England. Franz flew with him for about 10 minutes, an eternity in aerial combat, and escorted him over the coastal German anti-aircraft batteries. The gunners on the ground, seeing one of their own flying as escort to the American bomber, did not fire. Then, with a salute, Franz left Charlie over the North Sea and turned back to Bremen airport. He told no one of his encounter and hoped that he would not be reported for letting an enemy escape. His act of mercy would be considered an act of betrayal to his country.
In risking his career and perhaps much more to save a wounded and helpless enemy, Franz Stigler displayed a quality of character like that which Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The man in Christ’s parable who showed compassion for a helpless, robbed and beaten man beautifully defines a character quality that Christ expects in His followers. After telling the parable, He told his listeners to “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
After his aerial encounter with Franz, Charlie struggled to keep his plane flying over the North Sea on its way back to England. She was losing altitude, laboring to fly on little more than half her engine power. He had just 250 feet of height when he finally made the English coast. With the help of American fighter planes who came to guide him, Charlie flew his plane to the nearest airfield and landed safely. It was the end of a mission that would eventually earn the bomber’s crew nine silver stars and one Air Force Cross.
Charlie and Franz both survived their later combat experiences. In the years after the fighting ceased, Franz’ life in a shattered country was difficult. He eventually immigrated to Canada and became a successful businessman living in Vancouver, British Columbia. Charlie re-enlisted in the service, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Not done yet with his career, he went on to serve with the U.S. State Department for six more years before retiring for good.
For years later, long after the war, Charlie and Franz would often think of their encounter. Franz wondered if the bomber had made it home. Charlie wondered if that German pilot who showed him mercy that day might still be alive.
A Higher Call tells the moving story of how these two men found each other 46 years after their encounter in the war-torn skies of Europe. Upon first making contact, Franz wrote to Charlie, “I am happy now that you made it, and that it was worth it.”
For over a decade after their reunion, Franz and Charlie appeared together in many speaking engagements across North America. They told audiences of their incredible war-time encounter. In the afterward of A Higher Call, Adam Makos writes,“Their message was simple: Enemies are better off friends.”
Franz had lost his only brother, a bomber pilot like Charlie, early in the war during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Years later he would write: “I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying. The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me, as precious as my brother was.”
Franz Stigler passed up the chance to be a hero for his country, to earn the Knight’s Cross, in order to help a wounded enemy. His act of mercy offers us a profound lesson in a character quality that Christ wants us to possess. It is a character quality that would lead us to show kindness and mercy to those in need, even when doing so may be to our hurt.