At its controls was a 21-year-old pilot.
Half his crew lay wounded or dead.
It was their first mission.
Suddenly, a sleek, dark shape pulled up on the bomber’s tail—a German Messerschmitt. To make matters worse, the fighter pilot was an ace; he could destroy the American bomber with one squeeze of a trigger.
What happened next defied imagination and would soon be called “the most incredible encounter between enemies in World War II.”
A Higher Call is the true story of these two pilots whose brief encounter in the skies that day would affect the rest of their lives.
The American—2nd Lieutenant Charlie Brown—was a farm boy from West Virginia who came to captain a B-17; the German—2nd Lieutenant Franz Stigler—was a Bavarian airline pilot who sought to avoid fighting in World War II.
Check out this video chronicling the first face-to-face conversation between Charlie and Franz, an emotional moment nearly half a century after they initially “met”:
A Higher Call follows both Charlie and Franz’s harrowing missions:
Charlie endured takeoffs in English fog over the flaming wreckage of his buddies’ planes, flak bursts so close they would light up his cockpit, and packs of enemy fighters that circled his bomber like sharks.
Franz faced desert sandstorms, a crash alone at sea, and the sight of 1,000 bombers, each with 11 guns, all awaiting his attack.
The following excerpt is author Adam Makos’ recollection of his first contact with Charlie Brown, including his revelation that there’s much more to the story than a damaged bomber that landed safely:
I had not been out of college a year when I called an old American bomber pilot named Charlie Brown. I had heard of him and had sent him a magazine and letter to ask if I could interview him. Legend had it that Charlie’s bomber got shot to pieces and there was a twist, although I couldn’t quite catch the full story at first. Supposedly he had some unusual connection with a German pilot named Franz Stigler, whom he called his “older brother.”
Charlie agreed to an interview then he threw me for a loop. “Do you really want the whole story about what happened to me and my crew?” Charlie asked.
“You bet,” I said.
“Then I don’t think you should start by talking with me,” he said.
“Really?” I asked.
“If you really want to learn the whole story, learn about Franz Stigler first,” Charlie said. “He’s still alive. Find out how he was raised and how he became the man he was when we met over Europe. Better yet, go visit him. He and his wife are living up in Vancouver, Canada. When you have his story, come visit me and I’ll tell you mine.”
I was about to make excuses and tell Charlie I had little interest in a German fighter pilot’s perspective, when he said something that shut me up.
“In this story,” Charlie said, “I’m just a character—Franz Stigler is the real hero.“
Ultimately Charlie and Franz would stare across the frozen skies at one another. What happened between them the U.S. 8th Air Force classified as “top secret.” Indeed, Franz would have faced a firing squad had he ever mentioned it.
Finally, decades later, when their hair was grey and their faces showed advancing age and the cockpit was a distant memory, Charlie and Franz searched for one another—a final mission with an outcome as incredible and life changing as their encounter in 1943.
More stirring reunion footage: