In December, 1943, a badly damaged B-17 american flying fortress was struggling to return to its english base after his first bombing mission over Germany. Half its crew was dead or wounded, it was constantly loosing altitude.
Suddenly, a Messerschmitt fighter plane pulls up on the bomber’s tail. Its pilot is Franz Stigler, a German ace. Normally, he has to « finish » the ailing plane. It is war. They are ennemies. But that will not happen. Watching from close this ruined big plane and wondering how it could still fly, with so many holes and missing parts, a phantom of a plane, Stigler forgot he was a German fighter pilot. He swung his Me-109 past the tail and flew along the bomber’s fuselage. Through the plane’s exposed ribs he saw its crew, huddled over one another, caring for their wounded. The bomber nose was blown away.
Flying close, Stigler locked eyes with Charlie Brown, the B-17 pilot. He pointed a direction and mouthed: « Sweden ! » Sweden was closer than England, they could make it. But Brown and his crew didn’t get it, they were so confused by Stigler’s strange, unexpected behaviour. They believed they were going to be shot down. Then Brown ordered a gunner to get up in his turret and swing his weapon toward the Me-109. That’s when Stigler did the only thing that came to mind: he saluted the B-17 pilot then doved away in the direction of Germany. « Good luck, you’re in God’s hands », he said.
Against all odds, Charlie Brown and his men were able to land their plane in England. Franz Stigler would have been court martialed and executed had the Germans known what he had done: show mercy to the ennemy. A treason. But he later said that he had heard a higher call.
A Higher Call is the title of a geat book by Adam Makos, in which the author tells « one of the greatest untold stories in military history » and of the great friendship that Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler came to share many years later. After the war, Stigler emigrated to Canada.
For years, Charlie Brown had tried to find out if Stigler was still alive and where. And one day, in 1990, the two men were reunited in Seattle. « In the years following their reunion, » Makos writes, « Franz and Charlie traveled across North America telling their story to any civic clubs, air museums, or military units that requested them. This was their last act of service to build a better world. Their message was simple: ennemies are better off as friends. »
Franz Stigler succombed to illness in March 2008. Charlie Brown died in November of the same year.
In June 1944, Le Roy Lutz heard a higher call too. He had been strafing german targets over the Champagne region in France and his P-38 Lightning had been hit by the flak. His plane, the Lucky Lady, was barely maneuvrable and its twin engines were rapidly loosing power. Lutz couldn’t control his flying path. He was inexorably heading down to the little village of Mardeuil and he sensed he was going to crash. It was noon, there were people in the streets, children returning from school.
Lutz had to make a split second decision: to bail out (though very risky at such a low elevation) or to try a crash landing in a nearby field. He opted for the latter but was killed. But he had, by a very short margin, managed to steer the plane away from a house in which were a family and a four year old little girl – the future mother of Hélène Marchal, a journalist, who discovers almost 70 years later that LeRoy Lutz had sacrificed his life to save the life of innocent people. And realizes that she owns him her life. She decides to investigate and to piece together his life.
Except… except that Hélène’s quest is not about LeRoy Lutz, but about John Philip Garreau, a fictional character in my novel The Legend of Little Eagle, which was inspired by LeRoy’s fate.
The amazing thing is that fiction, in a way similar to how Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler were later reunited, is that it incited someone to contact me: Jerry Lutz, a nephew of LeRoy. He was looking for information about his uncle and had run into my book. We exchanged a few messages. He told me about the German roots of the Lutz family and I was able to provide him with some information he was not aware of about what went on after the war in Mardeuil, where LeRoy’s heroic action is still commemorated every year.
But the similarities between Makos’s non fiction book and my novel don’t end here. It took more than 50 years for the Lutz family to learn what had really happened to LeRoy, thanks to the efforts of André Mathy, who as a child had been an eyewitness of the accident. LeRoy Lutz was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart in 1995, his heroic act being officially recognized. Members of the Lutz went overseas to visit Mardeuil, where they were made citizens of honor of the town.
« Can good men be found on both sides of a bad war ? » asks Adam Makos in the final line of his book.