On December 20, 1943, a 22-year-old bomber pilot named Charlie Brown was in trouble over Germany. He and his newly formed unit were returning from their first mission, a successful one that took out a munitions factory in the heart of enemy territory. But before they got away, German planes strafed Brown’s B-17, tearing it up and wounding several of the crew.
Brown himself was knocked out and recovered only at the last moment to prevent a fatal nose dive.
Now desperate to get his limping plane back to England, Brown looked to his right and, to his horror, saw a German Messerschmitt tracking right with him.
What Brown didn’t know at the time was that the German pilot was Franz Stigler, an ace, who was one kill short of number 23. That would have garnered him the Knight’s Cross, the highest honor for a German soldier in World War II.
Here’s something else Brown did not know. Stigler had been schooled in the old warrior code that you fight with honor. He was told by his commanding officer never to shoot at an enemy in distress, like a flyer going down with a parachute. The reason? “You follow the rules of war for you, not for your enemy. You fight by the rules to keep your humanity.” (This was not Nazi doctrine, of course. But there were many soldiers who fought for the “Fatherland” more than for Hitler, and who had religious roots. Stigler himself was a Catholic).
Stigler had seen that the B-17 had no tail guns blinking, no stabilizer, and a blown away tail-gun compartment. He also saw a terrified tail gunner behind guns streaked with icicles of blood.
Charlie Brown thought the German would open fire, but instead saw the pilot vigorously pointing to the ground. Brown took that a signal to land in Germany. Brown shook his head. He and his crew all wanted to try for England.
Stigler yelled out “Sweden!” to Brown, but Brown didn’t understand. Now he was sure the German would open fire. So he ordered his gunner to take aim. When Stigler saw what was about to happen, he saluted Brown and said, “Good luck. You’re in God’s hands now.”
The stunned American pilot saw no more of the Messerschmitt. He and his crew barely made it back to England, but make it they did, with their incredible story. Only it was a story the American brass kept under wraps. They did not want to humanize the Germans!
Stigler kept quiet about it, too, because what he had done would have been considered an act of treason for the Nazis. He knew that if he’d been seen escorting the wounded Americans, and his plane number identified, he could have been executed.
After the war, Stigler emigrated to Vancouver. Brown continued his Air Force career for another twenty years.
In 1990, Brown decided to try and find out who that German pilot was. It was a long shot, of course. They were almost half a century removed from the events. But Brown gambled with an ad in a newsletter for veteran fighter pilots, stating that he was looking for the one who “saved my life on Dec. 20, 1943.” He held back a key piece of information to test whoever answered the ad.
Stigler saw the ad in Vancouver. He yelled to his wife. “This is him!” He wrote a letter to Brown. Brown called Stigler on the phone and without even being asked, Stigler gave Brown the secret information.
The two men, both in tears, arranged to meet. They became “special brothers” for the rest of their lives and died six months apart in 2008. Stigler was 92, Brown was 87.
Their story is told in a new book, A Higher Call. You can read more about the men here.
Honor is a thread that runs deep through the human spirit. It is what has built civilizations. It is what prevents us from being a mere sub-section of the animal kingdom. And it takes a special kind of cynicism or pathology to snuff that out.
In my view, it is the storytellers who have the power to keep honor and nobility and sacrifice (and thus civilization itself) alive. It has always been so, from the ancient myths to Greek drama to the morality plays to world literature. I often deliver a keynote address to conferences called “Storytellers Save the World,” because in this sense, they do.
Think of the honor shown by characters as diverse as Atticus Finch and Harry Potter. It is a character of surpassing honor that keeps the Hunger Games trilogy from finishing up in a nihilistic, dystopian darkness.
Honor is the missing ingredient in much current, and ultimately forgettable, fiction. As the noted novelist and writing teacher, John Gardner, once put it, “The good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life . . . that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss.”
Honor may be the very lifeline that keeps us from falling into that dark abyss. We are a people in need of honor, for our collective soul. And if we don’t keep that we won’t just be reading about dystopian worlds. We’ll be living in one.
Honor thy fiction. Champion the sentiments that hold us together. This is especially important now, two days removed from the awful events in Newtown, Connecticut. Like so many of you, I spent much of the day Friday in tears. I would hear more reports, think of the children, and weep again.
My wife told me about one little boy. He was with about fourteen other classmates and a teacher, holed up in a bathroom. He said he knew karate. “It’s OK,” he told the teacher. “I’ll lead the way out.”
That’s honor and self-sacrifice in seedling form. That is the hope for our future.
A future we can also affect with the stories we choose to tell.