(War History Online) The pilot glanced outside his cockpit and froze. He blinked hard and looked again, hoping it was just a mirage. But his co-pilot stared at the same horrible vision.
“My God, this is a nightmare,” the co-pilot said.
“He’s going to destroy us,” the pilot agreed.
The men were looking at a gray German Messerschmitt fighter hovering
just three feet off their wingtip. It was five days before Christmas
1943, and the fighter had closed in on their crippled American B-17
bomber for the kill.
The B-17 pilot, Charles Brown, was a 21-year-old West Virginia farm
boy on his first combat mission. His bomber had been shot to pieces by
swarming fighters, and his plane was alone in the skies above Germany.
Half his crew was wounded, and the tail gunner was dead, his blood
frozen in icicles over the machine guns.
But when Brown and his co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke, looked at the
fighter pilot again, something odd happened. The German didn’t pull the
trigger. He nodded at Brown instead. What happened next was one of the
most remarkable acts of chivalry recorded during World War II. Years
later, Brown would track down his would-be executioner for a reunion
that reduced both men to tears.
Living by the code
People love to hear war stories about great generals or crack troops
such as Seal Team 6, the Navy unit that killed Osama bin Laden. But
there is another side of war that’s seldom explored: Why do some
soldiers risk their lives to save their enemies and, in some cases,
develop a deep bond with them that outlives war?
And are such acts of chivalry obsolete in an age of drone strikes and terrorism?
Charles Brown was on his first combat mission during World War II when he met an enemy unlike any other.
Those are the kinds of questions Brown’s story raises. His encounter
with the German fighter pilot is beautifully told in a New York Times
best-selling book, “A Higher Call.” The book explains how that aerial
encounter reverberated in both men’s lives for more than 50 years.
“The war left them in turmoil,” says Adam Makos, who wrote the book
with Larry Alexander. “When they found each other, they found peace.”
Their story is extraordinary, but it’s not unique. Union and
Confederate troops risked their lives to aid one another during the
Civil War. British and German troops gathered for post-war reunions;
some even vacationed together after World War II. One renowned American
general traveled back to Vietnam to meet the man who almost wiped out
his battalion, and the two men hugged and prayed together.
What is this bond that surfaces between enemies during and after battle?
It’s called the warrior’s code, say soldiers and military scholars.
It’s shaped cultures as diverse as the Vikings, the Samurai, the Romans
and Native Americans, says Shannon E. French, author of “Code of the
The code is designed to protect the victor, as well as the vanquished, French says.
“People think of the rules of war primarily as a way to protect
innocent civilians from being victims of atrocities,” she says. “In a
much more profound sense, the rules are there to protect the people
doing the actual fighting.”
The code is designed to prevent soldiers from becoming monsters.
Butchering civilians, torturing prisoners, desecrating the enemies’
bodies — are all battlefield behaviors that erode a soldier’s humanity,
The code is ancient as civilization itself. In Homer’s epic poem,
“The Iliad,” the Greek hero Achilles breaks the code when his thirst for
vengeance leads him to desecrate the body of his slain foe, the Trojan
“There is something worse than death, and one of those things is to
completely lose your humanity.”Most warrior cultures share one belief,
The code is still needed today, French says.
Thousands of U.S. soldiers returning from wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some
have seen, and have done, things that are unfathomable.
A study of Vietnam veterans showed that those who felt as if they had
participated in dishonorable behavior during the war or saw the
Vietnamese as subhuman experienced more post-traumatic stress disorder,
Drone warfare represents a new threat to soldiers’ humanity, French says.
The Pentagon recently announced it would award a new Distinguished
Warfare Medal to soldiers who operate drones and launch cyberattacks.
The medal would rank above the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, two medals
earned in combat.
At least 17,000 people have signed an online petition protesting the
medal. The petition says awarding medals to soldiers who wage war via
remote control was an “injustice” to those who risked their lives in
Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended the new medal at a February news conference.
“I’ve seen firsthand how modern tools, like remotely piloted
platforms and cybersystems, have changed the way wars are fought,”
Panetta says. “And they’ve given our men and women the ability to engage
the enemy and change the course of battle, even from afar.”
Still, critics ask, is there any honor in killing an enemy by remote control?
French isn’t so sure.
“If [I'm] in the field risking and taking a life, there’s a sense
that I’m putting skin in the game,” she says. “I’m taking a risk so it
feels more honorable. Someone who kills at a distance — it can make them
doubt. Am I truly honorable?”
The German pilot who took mercy
Revenge, not honor, is what drove 2nd Lt. Franz Stigler to jump into his fighter that chilly December day in 1943.
Stigler wasn’t just any fighter pilot. He was an ace. One more kill
and he would win The Knight’s Cross, German’s highest award for valor.
Yet Stigler was driven by something deeper than glory. His older
brother, August, was a fellow Luftwaffe pilot who had been killed
earlier in the war. American pilots had killed Stigler’s comrades and
were bombing his country’s cities.
Stigler was standing near his fighter on a German airbase when he
heard a bomber’s engine. Looking up, he saw a B-17 flying so low it
looked like it was going to land. As the bomber disappeared behind some
trees, Stigler tossed his cigarette aside, saluted a ground crewman and
took off in pursuit.
As Stigler’s fighter rose to meet the bomber, he decided to attack it
from behind. He climbed behind the sputtering bomber, squinted into his
gun sight and placed his hand on the trigger. He was about to fire when
he hesitated. Stigler was baffled. No one in the bomber fired at him.
He looked closer at the tail gunner. He was still, his white fleece
collar soaked with blood. Stigler craned his neck to examine the rest of
the bomber. Its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns knocked
out. He could see men huddled inside the plane tending the wounds of
Then he nudged his plane alongside the bomber’s wings and locked eyes with the pilot whose eyes were wide with shock and horror.
Franz Stigler wondered for years what happened to the American pilot he encountered in combat.
Stigler pressed his hand over the rosary he kept in his flight
jacket. He eased his index finger off the trigger. He couldn’t shoot. It
would be murder.
Stigler wasn’t just motivated by vengeance that day. He also lived by
a code. He could trace his family’s ancestry to knights in 16th century
Europe. He had once studied to be a priest.
A German pilot who spared the enemy, though, risked death in Nazi Germany. If someone reported him, he would be executed.
Yet Stigler could also hear the voice of his commanding officer, who once told him:
“You follow the rules of war for you — not your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity...”