A Higher Call
December 20, 1943, 3000 feet over Nazi Germany, a severely crippled American B-17 is limping home to England alone, no formation, no fighters, and unprotected. The B-17 pilot glances outside his cockpit and freezes. He blinks hard and looks again, hoping it was just a bad dream. But his co-pilot is staring at the same horrible vision. The men are looking at a German Messerschmitt fighter hovering just off their wingtip. It was five days before Christmas 1943, and the fighter had closed in on their disabled bomber for the kill. What happened next was one of the great unknowns of World War II for over 40 years.
The B-17 pilot, Captain Charles Brown, was a 21-year-old West Virginian farm boy was on his first combat mission. His bomber was shot to pieces by German fighters, half of his crew were dead, and the other half wounded, and they were alone in the skies over enemy territory. As Captain Brown and his co-pilot, Lieutenant Spencer Luke, stared at the German fighter, something strange happened. The German pilot nodded at Brown.
The pilot, Lieutenant Franz Stigler wasn't just any German fighter pilot. He was an ace and one more kill would win him The Knight's Cross, Germany's highest award for valor. When Stigler approached the damaged bomber, he focused his gun sight and placed his hand on the trigger. As he examined the crippled bomber, he hesitated. He looked closely at the tail gunner turret and saw the man laying over his guns, his flight jackets white fleece collar covered in blood. Stigler assessed the rest of the bomber and noted that its skin was peeled away by anti-aircraft shells, its defensive guns were all out of commission, and looking into the plane, he saw American airmen tending to the wounds of their crewmen.
Lt. Stigler eased his plane up alongside the bomber's wings and locked eyes with the American pilot whose eyes were wide with shock and horror. Stigler pressed his hand over the rosary he kept in his flight jacket. This German ace did not fight for glory or vengeance; he fought because it was his duty to protect his homeland. He also lived by a code, a "Warriors Ethos," one of loyalty to his fellow soldiers, a duty to his homeland, respect for his foe, honor, integrity, and personal courage, the courage to do the right thing
A German pilot who spared the enemy risked death in Nazi Germany. If reported, he would be executed. Yet Stigler could 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." He eased his index finger off the trigger. He couldn't shoot. It would be murder.
Alone with the crippled bomber, Stigler changed his mission. After nodding at the American pilot, he moved his aircraft into a formation position so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn't shoot down the slow-moving bomber. Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea, took one last look at the American pilot, saluted him, peeled his fighter away, and then returned to Germany.
As he watched the German fighter veer off that December day, Capt. Brown wasn't thinking about the philosophical connection between enemies. He was thinking of survival. He flew back to England and landed with barely enough fuel to safely land. After his bomber came to a stop, he leaned back in his chair and sat in silence for several seconds. What had just happened?
Ethos has been defined as the disposition, character, or fundamental values peculiar to a specific person, people, culture, or movement. The Warrior Ethos, the professional attitudes, and beliefs that characterize the soldiers, reflect their unit, their service, or their country's enduring values. Those professions charged with protecting those values, nay its defenders, military, national security, and law enforcement are the foundation stones of this ethos.
At the core of these defenders, are their convictions and the willingness to serve the nation, its people, its beliefs, and common values. The common concept of a Warrior Ethos is to put the mission first, refuse to accept defeat, never quit, and never leave a fallen comrade behind. They have absolute faith in themselves and their team because they have common beliefs and values.
But there are a few other principles, traits, and attributes that are just as important within the Warriors Ethos. I clearly believe Lt. Stigler had them as much as he had mission first, never quit, and never leave someone behind. He showed:
Loyalty- He was a soldier, not a butcher. That B-17 would harm nobody else that day except those on board if it crashed.
Duty- His primary duty was to defend, attack when ordered, yes, but shooting this aircraft down would have been like shooting men dangling from parachutes.
Respect- He respected his foe, respected their duty, and respected their will to survive.
Selfless Service- His willingness to demonstrate charity and allow those men to get home could have cost Lt. Stigler his life, but it was the right thing to do. Selfless courage is a victory in itself.
Honor - He knew there is no honor in killing a defenseless foe. Mercy is an important trait when making hard decisions regarding how someone is to be punished for doing "their duty."
Integrity- His strong moral principles aligned with a nod of nobility to his fellow airmen says much of who Lt. Stigler was and how he had decided to live his life, even in war. I will do my duty, but as I see fit. And, I will live my life by my convictions.
Personal Courage- It takes moral principles to stare fear in the face and still choose to act. As the video eluded, the Stiglers were not Nazis, just a patriotic German family. Lt. Stigler chose to stand up against evil. The greatest heroes stand because it is the right thing to do, not because they believe they will walk away as heroes.
The tenets of the Warrior Ethos provide motivation for action and comradeship. These other aspects of ethos are just as important in times of conflict. As the video noted, one day the conflict will end with victory, defeat, or because the soldier no longer plays a part. Then the memories will come back and how you treated people, friend, and foe alike will soothe you, make you reflect, or horrify you.