I had never heard of the story, until it was featured in CNN a couple of weeks ago. The book is written by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander and is focused on two pilots on the American and German sides of World War II.
The centerpiece of the story is four days before Christmas in 1943. American pilot Charlie Brown was attempting to fly his bullet-ridden B-17 back to England. One crewman was already dead, the guns were jammed or destroyed, and the only things barely working were two of four engines.
In the German 109 fighter was Franz Stigler who had lost his older brother, August, to Allied pilots. Franz was a survivor of the ill-fated African campaign and was only one bomber 'kill' away from the Knight's Cross, a prestigious medal of valor. With it would come national fame and a month's vacation.
When the American fighter did not fire its guns at him, Franz pulled closer and even flew alongside. He could see crewmen the back of the bomber, huddled, trying to keep warm and attend to the wounded. He saw the fear on the American pilot's face and despite having the moral right to send this warplane flaming into the German countryside, he did not pull the trigger. For some reason, he felt 'a higher call'.
But the American pilot was steering his plane to cross anti-aircraft guns at the German border. Franz could do nothing and the gunners on the ground would easily clear the sky of this American plane that could no longer keep altitude. But he did something remarkable - he flew in escort position, hoping the gunners on the ground would hold their fire when they saw a German plane. (Germany had some B-17s which they used on secret missions.)
Franz escorted the B-17 to the water and then turned back to Germany, fearful for what he had done. He ever told the story; he would surely face a firing squad for aiding the enemy.
Ironically, the Americans classified the incident as a military secret. The B-17 crewmembers could never talk of the incident. It was feared that other American pilots would expect mercy instead of fighting in similar circumstances and not have such a benevolent opponent.
Charlie Brown survived the rest of the war and pursued the great American dream. Decades later, he wondered about the pilot that had violated his orders and training. Eventually he would advertise in a German aviation magazine, providing only some of the details of that December day. In a Disney moment, Franz Stigler saw the advertisement and replied to Charlie, also curious about the American he had spared so long ago.
The two first talked on the phone, then met in Seattle, and eventually became fishing buddies in Florida. They died within 6 months of each other.
I recommend the book, although I caution you it is written for someone that enjoys military battle history. We learn a lot about Charlie and Franz and although at the time, their lives appeared to be snapshots of the chaos we call life, there was a higher story in the making.