“The Greatest Generation” was coined by journalist Tom Brokaw to describe the generationwho grew up in the United States during the Great Depression and then went on to fight in World War II, as well as those whose productivity within the war’s home front made a decisive material contribution to the war effort.Brokaw wrote in his 1998 book The Greatest Generation, “It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” He argued that these men and women fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was the “right thing to do.” No doubt this generation was “great,” but what made them great was they were first “good.”
It has been said that America is great because she is first good. In the bestseller Good toGreat, the authors suggest that truly “great” companies were first “good” companies. The leaders of these “good to great” companies studied were not flashy and flamboyant. In fact, they were a lot like most World War II heroes: modest, simple, salt of the earth. In short, good people.
I must admit I hadn’t been much interested in World War II up until a few weeks ago. But after giving a speech, which included several military stories, a retired pilot came up to me with tears in his eyes and asked if I had heard a story about a German fighter pilot having sympathy for an American and his crew during a dogfight over war torn Germany during World War II. In the story, rather than shoot the American and his crew down, the German pilot actually escorted the Americans out of harm’s way pointing them safely toward England.
I had not heard that story but having two pretty powerful pilot stories in my speech, my new friend had certainly piqued my interest about the possibility of adding a third. To my surprise, the incident was the subject of a recent book, A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II, by Adam Mako.
The two pilots were Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler. The incidentoccurred on December 20, 1943, when after a successful bomb run on Germany, Charles ‘Charlie’ Brown’s B-17 Flying Fortress was severely damaged by German fighters. Ace pilot Franz Stigler had an opportunity to shoot down the crippled bomber, but instead, for humanitarian reasons, decided to allow the crew to fly back to their airfield in England. Stigler literally flew right over Brown’s wing, safely escorting them until they reached the ocean and departed with a salute to the American pilot.Remembering the words of one of his commanding officers, “You are pilots. You don’t score kills. You score victories. If I ever hear of you shooting at someone in a parachute, I’ll shoot you myself.” Stigler later commented, “To me, it was just like they were in a parachute. I saw them and they and their plane were so torn apart, I couldn’t shoot them down.”
Amazingly, Brown managed to fly the 250 miles across the ocean and land his severely damaged plane. After a flight debriefing informing his officers about how a German pilot had let him go, he was told not to repeat this to the rest of the unit so as not to build any positive sentiment about enemy pilots. Stigler said nothing of the incident to his commanding officers, knowing that a German pilot who spared the enemy while in combat risked execution. The two pilots actually met each other 40 years later, became close friends and remained so until their deaths.
In the book, Short of the Glory, the late Ed Pritchard was quoted as saying, “great men/women are seldom good men/women.” Those words have both haunted and motivated me throughout my life. Knowing the readership of the Gazette, we all fall into the category of “greatness.” We’re elected officials, we’re lobbyists, we’re business and government leaders. We shape public policy and make decisions that impact many people. We interact and influence some pretty powerful people. Pritchard’s sage advice is that we can’t afford to let that greatness get in the way of being “good.”
In the brilliant movie Saving Private Ryan, an old James Ryan returns with his family to the military cemetery in Normandy. He visits the grave of Captain John Miller, the man who, a half a century before, led the mission to save Private Ryan. At the end of the mission, Miller was fatally wounded. As he lay dying, his final words to Private Ryan were, “James. Earn this…earn it.” We then see Ryan kneeling at Captain Miller’s grave, marked by a cross. Ryan, his voice trembling with emotion, says, “Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.” Weeping, Ryan turns to his wife and says, “Tell me I’ve led a good life…tell me I am a good man.” Confused, she responds, “What?” Choked up, he manages to make a second request, “Tell me I’m a good man.” Her response, like this entire scene, chokes me up: “You are.”