On December 20, 1943, exactly 71 years ago to the day, a badly damaged American bomber was flying over German airspace. Piloting the plane was a 21-year-old on his first mission. Half his crew lay wounded or dead. A German fighter flew in and lined up right behind the bomber. Piloting that fighter was one of Germany’s top aces. With just a pull of the trigger, he could send the American bomber crashing to the ground.
In today’s podcast, Adam Makos shares the remarkable story of what happened next between two enemies, and how it lead to a most improbable friendship. Mr. Makos is the author of the book A Higher Call which re-counts this event and the owner of Valor Studios — which sells military art prints, books, and collectibles. Adam is also the author of Voices of the Pacific, which he co-wrote with AoM’s own regular contributor Marcus Brotherton. In addition to discussing the story at the center of A Higher Call, I ask Adam about his life’s calling of capturing and telling the stories of WWII veterans.
- How a newsletter Adam started as a 15-year-old kid turned into a business that sells fine art
- What Adam has learned about being a man from interacting with hundreds of WWII veterans
- The incredible story of the in air encounter between American pilot Charlie Brown and German pilot Franz Stigler
- How Brown and Stigler found each other later in life and became friends
- What we can learn about being a man from Brown and Stigler
- And much more!
Watch Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler meeting for the first time as old men:
If you’re looking for a great read during your holiday break, definitely pick up a copy of A Higher Call or Voices of the Pacific (or both!). You can’t go wrong with either read. Also be sure to check out Adam’s company Valor Studios. You’ll find fine art prints depicting scenes from WWII. Below is a print of that fateful encounter between Charlie and Franz over 70 years ago:
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Special thanks to Keelan O’Hara for editing the podcast!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Four days before Christmas in 1943, a badly damaged American bomber struggled to fly over wartime Germany. At its controls was a 21-year-old pilot. Half of his crew lay wounded or dead, and this was his very first mission that he was flying. Suddenly out of nowhere, a German fighter plane came up and lined up directly behind this bomber’s tail. Flying this German fighter was a German ace pilot, one of the best in the German Air Force.
With just a squeeze of the trigger, this German pilot could have taken this bomber down, but he didn’t do that. Instead, he did something that was absolutely incredible. This incredible story became the topic of a book called “A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War 2”.
Today on the podcast, we have the author of that book, Adam Makos. We’re going to talk about this event that brought together two enemies and the unlikely story of how they became friends with just this chance encounter. It’s a fascinating and very touching podcast. I think you’re really going to enjoy it, so let’s go on with the show.
Adam Makos, welcome to the show.
Adam Makos: Thanks, Brett. Glad to be with you.
Brett McKay: All right. You have made your life’s calling in a lot of ways to tell the stories of the men and women who took part in World War 2; but before we get into your company, Valor Studios, and some of the books you’ve written about World War 2, what peaked your interest about World War 2 because you’re a young person? How old are you, and how did you get started being interested in World War 2?
Adam Makos: Brett, I’m 33. I’ve been studying World War 2 pretty much as a career for the last 15 years, so I started very young. My grandfathers got me interested. One was a Marine Stateside and the other one flew in B17 Bombers in the Pacific at the tail end of the war. Growing up around my grandfathers, that really … That did it. We went to airshows together, we went to museums. They showed me their photo albums, and I was just so lucky that I was able to grow up with them in my life. That’s pretty much where it came from. I was just enamored with the era for some strange reason. I didn’t understand it at the time. I was a teenager. Now that I’ve come to study them, I know why it called to me.
Brett McKay: You didn’t just let your interest stay as an interest. You actually did something as a teenager with that interest, and this led to the formation of your company, Valor Studios. Can you talk about how Valor Studios came to be because I think the story is just really fascinating? Then, what does Valor Studios do exactly?
Adam Makos: Thank you. Valor Studios these days is a publishing company that celebrates the heroes mostly from World War 2 from Korea, from Vietnam a little bit, and celebrates them by publishing. We publish a magazine, we publish fine artwork, and we, in many case, will take veterans back to the battlefields, anything to keep history alive. It began as a small little newsletter in a rainy day.
My brother, my friend, and myself were 15 years old, 14 years old, and it was a rainy day. We had our first computer, and we said, “Let’s make a newsletter. Let’s play journalists,” and we had to decide what subject to write about. Do we write about Ferraris? Do we write about the Wild West? Do we write about football? Instead, we decided, “Let’s write about our grandfathers. Let’s write about World War 2.” It’s little newsletter that was one-page. It suddenly became two-page. It then became 10, and it’s sold to our family and our friends, and then it starts to sell to the public.
The newsletter over time became a magazine. Through that magazine, we were telling the stories of World War 2 veteran guys in our hometown, and then it became very famous World War 2 veterans. Then, this little magazine eventually started to publish artwork because we would use art to tell our stories and we thought, “Why not just commission paintings that can vibrantly tell the stories of these battles and sell them to the public, so people could hang these on their wall and be reminded 365 days a year of these heroes that we had discovered?”
Valor Studios is still in operation to this day, and it’s fueled my book publishing career which has really taken a lot of the recent years. Working with these heroes has shaped my life in a lot of ways.
Brett McKay: When you were a young man, what you would do is you just … Would you interview these World War 2 veterans, and then just write their story in the newsletter?
Adam Makos: We would, and it was … Again, it was a SBD dive bomber pilot. It was a P-51 pilot. Then, we start to discover that we wanted to tell the story of the men who served on submarines. We wanted to tell the story of marines in the specific or a tanker in the European theatre, and so we worked with these men. At the time when we started, they were 80, 81. Now, you don’t need a World War 2 veteran who is 90, 91, 92, and so we had … I always say I grew up with a hundred grandfathers, and they became my best friends. Sadly, they’ve been disappearing one by one, by one, but the lessons remain, and that’s what I try to put in these books, everything I’ve learned from these mentors.
Brett McKay: It is really sad. About the declining number of World War 2 veterans who are still around, do you have any numbers on how many veterans we still have or alive?
Adam Makos: Oh, goodness. I had heard a news then not long ago, and it totally escapes my mind. What I’ve seen, Brett, is that in a unit, say … Let’s talk about the Band of Brothers. They have 200 men and officers at one time roughly, and we find that there’s about a dozen left, so that’s the number you’re facing. In any given World War 2 unit, you probably have about 5% or fewer of the men remaining these days. It’s a sobering statistic, and it makes very hard to write a future book, so time is of the essence.
Brett McKay: Yeah, trying to get as many of them written down as you can. I’m curios. You said that you started this … Was it a paper newsletter that it started out with?
Adam Makos: Yeah, it was. Yeah, just started out on an inkjet printer. Then over time, it became professionally published, and it’s still published. It’s called “Valor Magazine”. It’s the official magazine of ValorStudios.com. Through that time, Brett, we’ve worked with some of the most indelible figures. One in particular, Dick Winters was a very good friend, leader of the Band of Brothers and as well as Hal Moore, the Hero of Vietnam, and Len Lomell of Pointe du Hoc. I don’t know if you want … I have learned a common lesson from them. I don’t know.
Brett McKay: I would love to hear it.
Adam Makos: Would you like to hear that?
Brett McKay: Yes.
Adam Makos: These men were … Of course, we all know Winters, leader of the paratrooper unit, Easy Company. We know Hal Moore. You might have seen “We Were Soldiers Once … And Young”, the movie, the book. He was played by Mel Gibson in that. Then, Len Lomell. He’s one of those figures that, man, he should have had his own TV show. He should have had his movie. He was the ranger who led one of the companies during the attack on Pointe du Hoc. He was … I guess you could say Saving Private Ryan was partially based on him. Tom Hanks’ character was very much inspired by Len Lomell.
The common thing that each one told me at one time or another, and this is the only overlap I ever heard, and it was about fairness. They would say it’s so imperative to the success of a unit, a military unit to accompany to a family. Len Lomell once looked me in the eye. He said, “I’m going to tell you something. You’ve got a good family, and it’s important that you’re fair to them. Fairness is everything, and it’s how I was successful in war and in life.” Dick Winters said the same thing, “You’ve got to be fair to your men if you want respect.” Hal Moore, the same principle.
I guess that’s one of the things. It’s an ultimate challenge in this day and age because as you know, so much of our careers and in our lives are about … American society is based around getting as far as you can for yourself. It’s a very inward focus that’s promoted. How many friends can you get on Facebook? How many likes can you get? How much money can you make in your job? Who’s the prettiest girls you can date? It’s all a self-based mindset.
These men are saying, “No, no, no. The way to succeed in life is to be concerned about the people around you, and to be fair to them, and to be good to them; and then, those people will lift you put.” It’s a reverse thing. You don’t lift yourself up. You’re good to the people around you, and they’ll take care of you. It’s a good lesson. I try to practice this all the time.
Brett McKay: That’s a great lesson. You mentioned earlier that one of the things that Valor Studios does is you take soldiers or veterans to battlegrounds. Do you have any stories where you did that? You accompanied a veteran to a battleground, and there was … What sort of response do you see from veterans? Do some of them get very thoughtful or pensive, or do some of them just start telling stories? What happens when you do that?
Adam Makos: That’s a fine question. Every man reacts differently, but today, on the anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, 70th anniversary, I think to a trip where we brought Shifty Powers, Earl McClung, Bill Guarnere, Babe Heffron, Buck Compton and Don Malarkey back to the site of the Battle of the Bulge. What we did, we brought them originally to visit the troops of the First Armored Division who had just come back from Iraq. It was our own little U.S.O. thing to give back to our military. This was a couple years go.
Afterwards, we toured the battlefields with the men. For Shifty and Earl to go back to those foxholes, it was very eerie because we were there on the anniversary. Suddenly, this man crossed the street and walked out of the midst. Even another old man, then he came and stepped into our midst. Sure enough, he was a German soldier. Now, he’s 88 years old or so just like our men, and we started to retranslate or talking to this man, and he was there for the anniversary as well. We found out that he had fought across the street from them. Shifty and Earl said, “Come here. Let’s get a photo together.”
This man had been a Volksgrenadier officer. German soldier, shipped right out of Germany to fight his battle. His unit was all young boys and old men. He said, “We were so scared of you. We would see the white eagle on our shoulder, and we said, ‘Uh-oh. The eagle heads are coming.’” It terrified them. While these men are getting their photos together, they’re smiling. Earl said, “Hey, to anyone who’s gathered around,” because there were soldiers with us. It was my family.
He said, “Everyone, take a picture. This is not something you’re going to get to see every day. You got the good,” and he pointed himself, to himself, and then he pointed to the German. He said, “You got the bad, and then you got the ugly,” and he pointed to Shifty. Everyone around just got a laugh out of it. I think that was a powerful moment. Later on, I … Shed me because not only did I get to see the emotions that these men still carried so many years later, I got to see someone from the other side.
I got to see how Earl and Shifty weren’t afraid to put their arms around this man. This is a man they had fought. He had probably tried to kill them, they had tried to kill him. Earl had probably have killed several of his men because there was a big battle where Earl ran across the road once, and he killed four men in one engagement. Yet, all these years later, those men, as Shifty Powers famously said in Band of Brothers, “Maybe we could have been friends, that German and I. Maybe he like to fish, maybe he like to hunt like I do. Maybe we could have been friends.” I think that attitude has shaped my work in recent years in this military field trying to understand both sides of the same story.
Brett McKay: Continuing that same line of American soldiers and German soldiers being friends, you wrote a New York Times Best Selling book. It’s been on the New York Times Best Selling list for … Was it 23 weeks?
Adam Makos: Yes. Yes, it did. It was outstanding beyond anyone’s expectations, Brett. Really incredible.
Brett McKay: Yeah. It was called “A Higher Call”. It’s just an amazing, amazing story. For listeners who haven’t heard about the story that A Higher Call is based on, can you give us the just of it of what happened? How did this happen, and why did it happen?
Adam Makos: I’ll be glad to. It was a … A Higher Call was a story I discovered when I was working for a small magazine. See, as the editor, a lot of stories would come across my desk. People would say, “You need to do this story. You need to do that one,” and I kept hearing from World War 2 veterans, “You got to tell the story of the German who let the American bomber go.” I thought, “Wait a second. This is a tall tale. This had not happened,” because a lot of times, you see sensational things; and if it’s too good to be true, it usually is.
I tracked down this story, and I found out there was some truth to it. This American bomber pilot, Charlie Brown, was flying a B-17 back in December 1943. It was his crew’s first mission. Reportedly, they had been badly damaged. They were just limping home trying to escape Germany when a German fighter ace came up, flew alongside with them, didn’t shoot them down, and more so, he saluted at them and flew away. I thought it was too incredible, and so I called the American pilot, Charlie Brown.
I tracked him down in Florida. He was living in Miami. I said, “Charlie, is there any truth to this? If so, I got to tell this story.” He said, “Adam, let me tell you this.” He said, “You’re starting about it the whole wrong way.” He said, “In this story, I’m just a character. The German is the hero, and his name is Franz Stigler. If you really want to do this right, you’re not going to talk to me. You’re going to go talk to the German first. He’s still alive. I’ll put you in touch with him. After you get his story, then you can come get mine. I’m just a character.” That’s how it started, Brett. I went out to interview this German, a man named Franz Stigler, to discover this incredible World War 2 story.
Brett McKay: Why did …? Yeah. It’s amazing. What Stigler did was he escorted to safety this American plane. In a lot of ways, that’s an act of treason, right? Was that an act of treason that he … What Stigler did?
Adam Makos: It certainly was, and in that day and age … I spent about a week with Franz Stigler, and then later on, I interviewed him over years and years, and years. Then, I interviewed Charlie, and he gave me his story as he promised. I discovered that this story was larger than life, and it was true. Franz Stigler had been … Had shot down an American bomber that day, and he had landed to rearm, refuel when this B-17 flew overhead. He saw it, and he jumped in his Messerschmitt 109 fighter and tracked down the B-17. When he came up behind it, he was poised to shoot down, but something changed in him. Something clicked, and he had decided to spare it. The … Gosh, I guess I could … Would you like to know why?
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Adam Makos: I guess the moral … This moral explanation took place earlier in Africa. He was a young fighter pilot. He had joined because his brother was killed in World War 2 as a pilot. Franz would have been happy to have stayed out of the war. He was a flight instructor for the German Air Force; but when his brother died, everything changed, and he went to war seeking revenge.
In Africa, before his first mission, his Squadron Commander was a man named Roedel, and this Roedel, Gustav Roedel said, “Franz, what are you going to do today if you shoot down a plane and you see a man in a parachute? Are going to hold your fire? Are you going to shoot him? What are you going to do?” Franz said, “I don’t know, sir. I’ll figure it out when it happens.” Roedel said, “Well, let me tell you what you’ll do.” He said, “If you end up shooting a man in a parachute and I hear of it or I see it, I’m going to shoot you myself.”
This is before Franz’s first mission, and he’s already scared to death. Roedel said, “No, listen. Let me tell you why I say this.’ He said, “You fight by the rules of war, not for yourself. You fight by the rules for …” I’m sorry. “Not for your enemy. You fight by the rules for yourself, so that someday, if you survive this war, you can live with yourself. You can look yourself in the mirror; and someday when you face God, you can face him with a clean conscience. That’s why you fight by the rules of war.”
Franz went out lashing that day, and he carried it into his career because he was very lucky. Had he reported right to the Eastern Front where the fighting was so violent and so hateful, he may have never learned such a lesson, and he may have killed Charlie Brown and his crew that day. Instead, because he went to the desert, there was a strange sort of war being fought in early 1942, and it was … The British and the Germans were fighting by the rules of World War 1 where you showed respect to your adversary, where chivalry was still practiced.
If a man was shot down behind the enemy line, a German doctor would care for a British soldier, a British airman. The British showed the same courtesies. A lot of times, a shot down pilot or a captured pilot will be hosted at a dinner by his captors. There’s a story of a British pilot who was shot down and badly burned. Later, a German pilot flew over the British line and dropped a letter to the man’s comrades to say, “I’m sad to report that your friend has died of his wounds. We did all we could,” and so that was Africa, and Franz was very lucky. That’s what made Franz make that decision on December 20th, 1943.
Brett McKay: Why was it that Africa had that chivalry mindset as oppose to the other arenas of war?
Adam Makos: I would say it was several things. It was the common hardships. These men were thrown out in the desert. It was the same enemies from World War 1, so they have fought each other before, and everyone was suffering. We’re all alone in the desert. We’re all forgotten back home. Our girlfriends are probably dating someone else. We miss our families. They were all suffering the same hardships, and it wasn’t personal between them. Churchill sent the British to the desert, Hitler sent the Germans to the desert. Nobody wanted to be there.
Also, this sounds a little strange, but we hadn’t entered the war yet. The Americans weren’t in the desert at that point. When we came into the war, I think we brought a different attitude, and it was, “We don’t want to be here. We’re here to fix your mess for the second time in 20 years. We’re going to win this war,” and we brought a new level of … I guess you could say pragmatism and certain sort of savagery to the air war. We said, “We’re just going to destroy the German nation, we’re going to destroy every fighter pilot we can. We’re going to win this war,” and so whereas the British and the Germans couldn’t afford to sportingly at the beginning of the war.
When we came in, it was … The gloves were off. I think that’s what created a difference here. Also, it was very different from the Eastern Front where there was another sort of … There was the propaganda and the racial savagery where it was the Germans and Russians looked at each other as inhuman. Whereas in the desert, the British and Germans had that attitude that said, “Well, we might have been friends if we weren’t born on the wrong side.”
Brett McKay: Stigler, a German pilot, escorted Charlie Brown, an American pilot. Did Stigler suffer any consequences for his action, or did he … Did this fly under the radar?
Adam Makos: He was very lucky, Brett. He never mentioned to it to a single soul. Back in that day … That summer of 1943 for example, a woman who is working in an ammunitions plant had told a joke about Hitler. She said, “Hitler and Goering were up on top of the Berlin Radio Tower, and Hitler said, ‘I want to put a smile on the faces of people of Berlin.’ Goring said, ‘Well, then why don’t you jump?’” That was the joke, and she told it. Someone overheard her, and they reported her to the Gestapo, and she had her head cut off by the [geheten 00:24:47] that summer.
Franz Stigler escorts an American bomber out of German territory. He saluted to the pilot, flies away. That would have been treason times ten, and he would have been shot. He could never speak of it. That’s why this story laid quietly for so long. He couldn’t speak of it during the war. After the war, he put the memories behind him, and it stayed dormant for 50-some years.
Brett McKay: Wow. You mentioned that Charlie Brown and Stigler were friends like Brown knew how to get in contact with Stigler, but how did that happen because for Brown, I’m sure he looked across? Stigler is just some random German pilot, right?
Adam Makos: Exactly.
Brett McKay: How did Brown track down Stigler and get in touch with him?
Adam Makos: This was the second one in a million or one in a billion happenings, and that’s why I was so lucky with A Higher Call that both men were alive because I could examine this. Charlie only saw this man’s face. Inside of his cockpit, Franz was saying, “Good luck. You’re in God’s hands,” and then he flew away. He said, “I’d done all I can do.” He done a lot. He had escorted him out of Germany when he could have just flown away. He didn’t have to stay with this bomber, but Franz knew if another German fighter pilot came along, they wouldn’t molest this bomber with him there, with him flying alongside of it, but if they found him alone, they would knock it into the sea because the plane was defenseless.
All these years later, Charlie Brown realizes that he’s alive because of this German. At a bomb group reunion, he told his buddies. He said, “You know what? I remember that one time, I was saluted by a German fighter pilot,” and everyone just laughed at him. Once they were done laughing, they said, “Seriously?” He said, “Yeah,” and he told the story. A man named Joe Jackson, one of the pilots that day, said, “Charlie, you owe it to this man to try to find him. You owe it to yourself.” Charlie said, “How am I going to do this? Fifty years have passed. This is like 1988,” and so Charlie begins.
He puts ads in magazines, he searches the archive, and he gets lucky. He gets very lucky. He places an ad in a German fighter pilot magazine called “[Yeager Blot 00:27:05]”, and it was read by any of the German fighter pilots since World War 2, so you had Cold War guys. You had men of all ages. The ad said, “Looking for the German pilot who saved my life over Brenton. If you know the details … 1943, we flew together. If you know the details, contact Charlie Brown.”
Franz Stigler had moved to Vancouver, Canada to work in a lumber industry after the war. He couldn’t live in his hometown anymore. He had lost his family. He had lost his friends. He had lost his country effectively. He had seen his city bombed, and he knew that Hitler was the cause of all that, and he hated that part of his people, so he left, and he lived in Vancouver. He got that ad, he got his magazine, he found that ad, and he wrote Charlie a letter.
All he said in this letter was, “I’m just glad it was worth it. I wondered all these years if your bomber made it back to England and if you survived the way, or if you crashed and ended up in a watery grave. I’m glad it was worth it.” Charlie Brown got this letter, and he went crazy. He called the Vancouver operator, and he said, “Find me Franz Stigler.” The two men talked, and they agreed to meet. Charlie flew all the way to Seattle, and Franz came down. The two hugged, and they cried. There’s a really cool video, Brett, that people can find if they just go to YouTube or you’re welcome to post it. It’s their first reunion.
Someone filmed Franz and Charlie meeting. During this meeting, they tell their side of the story, and then Franz said, “I love you, Charlie.” This is this hardened German fighter pilot on camera sniffling and saying, “I love you, Charlie.” That, to me, was an incredible thing, and that tells anyone who sees it this is not just a tall tale. This story is the real deal.
Brett McKay: Wow, that’s an amazing story. One of the things I found interesting about A Higher Call is that you really humanized the German pilots instead of … And it’s not just Franz Stigler, it’s all of them. Instead of painting them as terrible villains, a lot of these pilots, they just come off as guys doing their job, and they often times don’t even support the Nazi government. Was it difficult for you personally to get past the tendency I think many Americans have, right, to villainize Germans and get to know more about the men on a human level?
Adam Makos: It certainly was because I had spent my whole career interviewing my American buddies, these old bomber pilots and gunners, and I thought, “Well, these Germans are trying to kill my friends,” and I thought they were reprehensible. Only when I started to write this book did I step into the shoes of Franz Stigler. I had to. Charlie made me do it. He said, “You had to talk to the German first. You have to understand his side.” Then, I go back into Franz’s … Into his shoes, and he’s just this young man who loved flying gliders in the ‘30s. He considered becoming a priest one time, and his dream was to fly.
Suddenly, this Hitler guy comes to power. Franz is like 16 years old. Most of the Germans who fought in the World War 2 when Hitler came to power, they’re 12 years old, they’re 15, they’re 13. They don’t follow politics. They don’t know who this guy is. Then, I had to look at it. I said, “Well, what did Franz know about this? What part did he play in bringing this evil to power?” I found out that really, in this last election that Germany had, 1933, when everyone voted, Hitler, the Nazi party won the election.
Effectively, it was 44% of the vote, and so they … The farmers’ party took votes, the Catholic party, the democrat party, the communist party. Everybody split the votes. The only true block was the Nazis, so 56% of Germany was against them, 44% was for them. This is in 1933. When I came to realize that if you want to just paint things in black and white in photos or black and white imagery, half of Germany liked Hitler and half of them were against him from the start. Franz’s parents had voted for the Catholic party. They were Bavarian Catholics.
I came to realize that when this guy came to power, he soon took over the postal service. He took over the military. He took over the roads. He took over the pension. He took over the media. He took over every facet of government. By the time these German boys are fighting World War 2 in 1942, 1943, they had been born into Hitler’s Germany for all effective purposes. There was no freedom of choice. Although some were truly evil, let’s just say half of the country was truly evil.
Guys like Franz were just born in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a lot of fighter pilots I found. I couldn’t have written this book about an SS company. I couldn’t have even written this book about, say a Vermont company on the Eastern Front because the horrors were true. For fighter pilots, these were independent thinking men.
They were mavericks, and they were on the outs with the Nazi party from very early on because in the battle of Britain when the German fighter pilots failed to defeat the British Royal Air Force, Hitler, and Goering, and Goebbels, and all the Nazi big shots said, “Hey, German people. Do you know why we lost the battle? Not because we’re not superior, we lost the battle because the fighter pilots lacked courage, because the fighter pilots let you down;” and so the fighter pilots came to hate largely, hate the Nazi party, hate their own government very early in World War 2.
From that point on, they were just flying to defend their country and to see the end of the war. They knew they were going to lose the war, and so there was great deal of bitterness. When I got to know these Germans on a human level, I know that … Amid the fighter units … Yeah, you had your bad apples, but largely, those guys were no different than our fighter pilots. They’re no different than our fighter pilots today, no different from our fighter pilots in the beginning of time. They’re a lot like us.
Brett McKay: What did you personally learn from writing A Higher Call about being a good man?
Adam Makos: The big lesson that Franz was taught as a boy, he was … He loved to fly gliders, and his dad was a World War 1 pilot. One day, they had wrecked the glider, and Franz was repairing it in the woodshop. His father came in, and he said, “Franz, you’re using a lot of glue on these parts. You’re being sloppy.” Franz said, “Oh, don’t worry, Father. It will be covered with canvass. You’re never going to see this part of the machine.” His father said, “Franz, I have to tell you something.” He said, “Take the glue off. Do it all over again. Even if no one sees it, you do the right thing, especially when no one sees it because you’ll know it’s there. You’ll know you did it wrong. You know you were sloppy.”
It was quite a lesson for a 14-year-old kid to learn to do the right thing when no one is looking even if no one will see it. I think that’s the very important lesson. For Franz, it had a faith component. It was that God is watching you, and he sees everything. He was a Catholic. I think it just comes down to also a character thing. It comes down to that same reason that Roedel said, “You spare a man in a parachute for your soul.” The way we today live our daily lives is a reflection of what we think about our lives and the person we believe ourselves to be.
If you do nasty corrupt things and if you do evil things, other people may not catch on, you may not get in trouble, but you know it, and it corrupts your soul slowly. Men like Franz Stigler, he spared Charlie Brown that day when he had the power because he realized the importance of looking after his character.
Brett McKay: Yeah, A Higher Call. It’s just an amazing story. For all of you who are listening right now, I hardly recommend you go out and get … Pick up the book, but that’s not the only book about World War 2 you’ve written. After that, you co-wrote a book with Art of Manliness contributor Marcus Brotherton, Voices of the Pacific or Voices from the Pacific. What made you want to do about … A book about the stories of the men who fought in the Pacific theatre during World War 2?
Adam Makos: Brett, I had long wanted to write about them. As a young boy, I had read about the battles of Tarawa and Peleliu. Tarawa was like the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan, the Normandy Beach scene for hours, and hours, and hours, and days. It was just that kind of slaughter. All in the marines, everybody was … At the time, everyone was so fascinated by the paratroopers in Europe because it was a romantic thing, the idea of liberating a French town and fighting your way into Germany to end Hitler.
The Pacific was still forgotten, and yet, these men had endured an unthinkable hell because they faced elements that were just … They would drive a man insane normally, and so they fought. Then, an enemy who was so savage and so sadistic that you would surrender to a German. The German mortality rate in POW camps was about 4%. If you surrender to a Japanese, the mortality rate was over 25% in their camps, and that’s if you got to a camp, if you were not tortured first, if you were not beheaded. I had a lot of respect for the marines.
Luckily, this miniseries, The Pacific, came along, HBO’s story. It was okay. It wasn’t great. It didn’t … The men who were there said, “Some of these was embellished. Some of this movie was …” Oh, I don’t know. There was some trashiness to it that the men of that era did not believe in, and so they weren’t exactly … Sid Phillips wasn’t exactly thrilled by The Pacific, but I … Marcus and I decided to write this book to give the marines who were there the final say, “All right. The spotlight of popular culture is on The Pacific right now. Let’s not let a TV series be the final world. Let’s let the men have their voice,” and so we interviewed well over than a dozen marines who fought on the very silence in the pacific.
This was a very cool book because instead of me as a writer taking their stories and weaving them together, I just inject a line here, a line there, and we let their stories flow from one to the next to the next. They’re all short little vignettes, but they fall into this beautiful sequence where they tell you the story of the war in the Pacific without some young editor like myself coming in and editorializing their words. It’s like a crab cake. If you go out for dinner at a restaurant, you want a crab cake with all meat and minimal filler. I consider their voices to be the meat, and I keep the filler out on this one.
Brett McKay: Yeah. What I love about that book is that when you read it, you feel like you’re sitting around a kitchen table just listening to these old men, these veterans telling them their stories. That’s how it feels when you read it.
Adam Makos: That was the goal, Brett. It was exactly that. It was a bunch of veterans … Late night, they’re sitting around the table. Maybe they have a beer, maybe they’re playing cards. You know what? They’re just feeding off each other, and it’s … They’re not censoring it. That was one of the big things because my friend, Sid Phillips, who was one of the marines in the Pacific, he censored his stories for his grandkids. He said, “Oh, no. I wouldn’t tell them that. I don’t want to give them nightmares.” I said, “Sid, for this book, let’s take off the filter. Let’s pretend it’s just you and your buddies.”
It’s a very brutal book. It’s very raw, but it’s inspiring because you say to yourself, “Could I have survived the island of Peleliu? Could I have survived nearly a month on that island in 105 degree heat without water, with the enemy shooting at me on the beach and shooting at me across the airfield, and then I have to go into the hills, into these coral hills, and into these mangrove swamps to try to root them out? Am I tough enough?” I think … I don’t think I am. I don’t think in today’s world. I think I’ve been raised too soft. I think we all care too much about our lives.
Our lives are too precious to us. Sacrifice was something that men back then didn’t … They didn’t fear it like we do today, and so you ask yourself when you read this book, “Could I have survived the Pacific? Could I have fought alongside these men?” That’s a question each of us can answer.
Brett McKay: What projects can we expect to see you from you in the future, Adam?
Adam Makos: I’m working on … I just finished a book that’s … It’s right along the line of A Higher Call. It’s incredible story. It’s called “Devotion”. Devotion is a story from this forgotten war, the Korean War. I always thought … I go in all these things, Brett, just from the same standpoint as a lot of readers. It’s just like with Franz Stigler, “Oh, I don’t want to learn about the Germans. They’re the bad guys.” Then, I immerse myself, and I say, “Holy cow.”
Same thing with this Korean War book. I didn’t think much of the Korean War. It seemed muddy, and it seemed dirty, and it was like mash, and then a madmen flashes to it. I didn’t know anything about it, and then I discovered the story of these marines who marched into this frozen hell in Northern Korea, and we thought the war was about to be won. Right on the Chinese boarder, we’re about to destroy the North Koreans. We’re going to come home, and it’s just like World War 2, we’re going to be heroes. Then suddenly, the Chinese attacked, and they entered the war.
Most Americans don’t even know that the Chinese fought in the Korean War; but one day, our Marine Division woke up and some 20,000 Americans were surrounded by 100,000 or more Chinese. Devotion tells this story of these two pilots who flew into combat to try to save these marines. We follow the marines on the ground, outnumbered, just 10 to 1, and then we follow the pilots above. We followed two pilots in particular.
One is a man named Tom Hudner. He grew up … A white kid from Massachusetts, grew up in a country club scene. He had his whole life planned ahead of him. He could have had beautiful wife, and Ivy League education, and just anything he wanted. The other pilot withal was Jesse Brown, the first black pilot in the Navy. Jesse came from a sharecropper shack in Mississippi, very poor, and he believed he could be the first Navy pilot, and he did.
We followed this uncommon friendship for 1950 for that era of segregation, and we followed these two men into battle, and eventually … I won’t ruin the story. It’s a true story. One of these two men is shot down behind enemy lines on the side of a mountain in the snow. He’s trapped in his aircraft, and his aircraft is catching on fire. The other one said, “I’m going in.” All the people in the era that day thought, “What does he mean you’re going in? This fellow is on the side of a mountain.”
The other man crashed his perfectly good corsair fighter alongside of his friend on the mountainside to try to save him. Again, it’s that common story of sacrifice and the courage of that generation because we forget the Korean War was fought by the greatest generation. The marines were wearing the same helmet covers in World War 2. They are wearing the same dungaree, they are shooting the same M1 Garand, the pilots were flying the same corsairs, they’re dropping the same bombs.
It was five years after World War 2. It was practically an extension of World War 2. It was just a new battle where the allies of World War 2, the forces of democracy, and the forces of communism turned against each other and went to war on this nasty frozen peninsula. It seems like a world war. It was a world war fought in Korea, and it’s going to be a pretty epic book. It comes out in May, Brett. It’s called “Devotion”, and we’re expecting really big things from it.
Brett McKay: Yeah. We look forward to that. Adam Makos, thank you so much for this conversation. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Adam Makos: Hey, it’s great to talk to you, and I enjoy Art of Manliness myself. I’m a follower. I’m a fan. It was nice to talk to my fellow friend, so thank you so much, Brett.
Brett McKay: Thank you. Our guest today was Adam Makos. He’s the author of the book “A Higher Call”. You can find that on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Also, make sure to check out Adam’s business, ValorStudios.com, where you can find the finest military art prints, collectibles, and signed books. You’ll find historical treasures signed by Major Dick Winters from the Band of Brothers, General Hal Moore, Franz Stigler who was the German pilot that helped out Charlie Brown. It’s just a really cool thing, so go check it out.
That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check the Art of Manliness website at ArtOfManliness.com. Until next time, this is Brett McKay wishing you a very manly Christmas and stay manly.