Posted on 22 December 2014.
And the WW II German Pilot Who Saved Him
The 21-year old American B-17 pilot glanced outside his cockpit.
He froze in terror.
He blinked hard and looked again in disbelief. His co-pilot stared at the same horrible sight. ”My God, this is a nightmare,” the co-pilot said. ”He’s going to destroy us.”
The young pilot, Charlie Brown, agreed.
The men were looking up at a gray German Messerschmitt 109 fighter hovering just three feet off their wingtip. It was five days before Christmas, 1943, and the fighter had closed in on their crippled American B-17 bomber, Ye Olde Pub, honing in for the kill.
The B-17 pilot, Charles Brown, was a 21-year-old West Virginia farm boy on his first combat mission. His bomber had already been shot to pieces by swarming fighters following a successful bombing run over Bremen. Severely damaged, it fell behind the rest of the bombing squadron as they quickly headed for home. His plane was now alone, limping along and struggling to stay afloat in the skies above Germany.
Charlie and most of his crew were wounded and the tail gunner was dead, his blood frozen over in icicles on the machine guns.
But when Brown and his co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke, looked at the fighter pilot again, something very odd happened. The German didn’t pull the trigger. He simply stared back at the bomber in amazement and respect. What happened next was one of the most remarkable acts of chivalry ever recorded during World War II.
Instead of pressing the attack, the German nodded at Charlie Brown and saluted. It was a Christmas miracle.
Two Pilots, Two Foes
Charles Brown was on his first combat mission during World War II when he met an enemy unlike any other: An ace German pilot named Franz Stigler.
Stigler wasn’t just any fighter pilot. He was veteran Luftwaffe fighter pilot with over 480 missions, 25 kills, and a successful North Africa campaign to his credit. Stigler had already shot down two B-17s that day. One more kill and he would earn the Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest award for valor.
Yet Stigler was driven by something deeper than glory. Stigler’s older brother, August, was a fellow Luftwaffe pilot who had been killed earlier in the war. American pilots had killed Stigler’s comrades and were now bombing his country’s cities.
Stigler was initially refueling and rearming his fighter on the ground of a German airbase when he had heard a bomber’s engine. Looking up, he saw a B-17 flying so low he thought it was going to land. As the bomber disappeared behind some trees, Stigler tossed his cigarette aside, saluted a ground crewman, and took off in his BF-109 in pursuit. Revenge, not honor, is what drove 2nd Lt. Franz Stigler to jump into his fighter that chilly December day in 1943.
As Stigler’s fighter rose to meet the bomber, he decided to attack it from behind. He climbed behind the sputtering bomber, squinted into his gun sight and placed his hand on the trigger.
He was about to fire– then he hesitated. Stigler was baffled. No one in the bomber fired at him.
He came closer to look at the tail gunner. He was still, his white fleece collar soaked with blood. Stigler craned his neck to examine the rest of the bomber. The Plexiglas nose was shattered by flak, its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns were knocked out. One propeller wasn’t turning. Smoke trailed from the other engine. Half the tail was gone. He could see injured men huddled inside the shattered plane tending to the wounds of the other incapacitated crewmen.
Then he nudged his plane alongside the bomber’s wings and locked eyes with the pilot whose eyes were wide open in shock and terror, his hands fumbling at the controls to keep the plane aloft.
Stigler pressed his hand over the rosary he kept in his flight jacket. He eased his index finger off the trigger. He couldn’t shoot. It would be murder.
A Higher Call of Duty
“I didn’t have the heart to finish those brave men,” Stigler recalled. “I flew beside them for a long time. They were desperately trying to get home, and I was going to let them do that. I could not have shot at them.”
Stigler wasn’t just motivated by vengeance that day. He also lived by a moral code of honor. He could trace his family’s ancestry to knights in 16th century Europe; he had once studied to be a priest.
Stigler considered his options. He knew a German pilot sparing the life of the enemy would risk certain death by execution in wartime Nazi Germany.
Yet Stigler could also hear the voice of his commanding officer, who once told him: ”You are fighter pilots first, last, and always. You follow the rules of war for you– not your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity. If I ever hear of any of you shooting at someone in a parachute, I’ll shoot you myself.”
Stigler later said, “To me, it was just like they were in a parachute. I saw them and I couldn’t shoot them down.”
Alone with the crippled bomber, Stigler changed his mind and his mission. He nodded at the American pilot and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn’t shoot down the slow-moving bomber.
Stigler escorted the bomber out of harm’s way over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot.
Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away, and returned to Germany. “Good luck,” Stigler said to himself. ”You’re in God’s hands now…”
He also said goodbye to the German Iron Cross that he richly deserved. Franz Stigler didn’t think the big B-17 could make it back to England. He wondered for years what had happened to the American pilot and crew he encountered in combat.
As for Charlie Brown and Ye Olde Pub, it was a truly bewildering moment. As he watched the German fighter pilot escort him to the coast, salute in farewell, and then fly away that December day, 2nd Lt. Charles Brown wasn’t waxing philosophical about enemies. He was thinking of survival.
Before the bizarre encounter with Stigler had occurred, Brown, lacking oxygen, had lost consciousness and awakened to find Ye Olde Pub in a dive at 5,000 ft. He struggled to regain the controls and pulled the bomber out of the dive at 1,000 ft, beginning the long flight home in the shattered bomber when Stigler happened to show up.
Charlie flew his crippled plane, filled with the wounded, back to his base in England. Not knowing if they would make it back home or not given the poor conditon Ye Olde Pub was in, Charlie gave his young crew the choice of bailing out. They all chose to stay.
The 21-year-old captain nursed the warship along as best as he could. The B-17 landed with one of four engines knocked out, one failing, and with barely any fuel left. The bomber’s internal oxygen, hydraulic and electrical systems were sorely damaged; only half of its rudder and port side elevator were left remaining.
After Brown’s bomber came to a stop in England, he slumped back in his chair and put a hand over the pocket Bible he kept in his flight jacket. Then he sat in silence, exhausted, flak wounds to his shoulder.
Brown reported the incident to his superiors but was ordered to keep the matter secret. His commanding officers did not want any word of a chivalrous German pilot sparing the life of an American soldier to get out. Brown kept it to himself and never spoke of it, even at postwar reunions.
Stigler, likewise, never reported the incident for risk of a court martial. He told his superiors that he had escorted the bomber over the North Sea where he shot it down.
‘We’ll Meet Again Some Sunny Day’
Brown flew more missions before the war ended. Life moved on; he got married, had two daughters, supervised foreign aid for the U.S. State Department during the Vietnam War, and eventually retired to Florida earning the rank of Colonel.
Later in life, though, the encounter with the German pilot gnawed at him. He started having nightmares. But in his dreams there would be no act of mercy. He would awaken just before his bomber crashed.
Brown took on a new mission in his remaining life. He wanted to find that German pilot who spared him and the lives of his crew. Who was he? Why did he save my life? He scoured military archives in the U.S. and England. He attended a pilots’ reunion and shared his story. He finally placed an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots, retelling the story and asking if anyone knew the pilot.
In January of 1990, Brown received a letter. Opening it, he read:
All these years I wondered what happened to that B-17, did she make it home? Did her crew survive their wounds? To hear of your survival has filled me with indescribable joy. I was the one.”
It was Franz Stigler.
Treated poorly after the war and working as a lowly brick mill laborer, Stigler left Germany in 1953 and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he became a prosperous businessman. Now retired, Stigler told Brown that he would be in Florida come summer and that ”it sure would be nice to talk about our encounter.”
Brown was so excited, though, that he couldn’t wait to see Stigler. He called directory assistance for Vancouver and asked whether there was a number for a Franz Stigler. He dialed the number, and Stigler picked it up.
They spoke on the phone for hours. Stigler described his plane, the escort, the salute, and confirming everything Brown needed to hear to know that he was indeed the German fighter pilot involved in the incident.
“My God, it’s you!” Brown shouted as tears ran down his cheeks.
Brown had to do more. He wrote a letter to Stigler in which he said: ”To say THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU on behalf of my surviving crewmembers and their families appears totally inadequate.”
Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler met and had a summer reunion together. Both men looked like retired businessmen; they were now plump, sporting neat ties and formal shirts. They fell into each others’ arms and wept and laughed. They talked about their encounter in a light, jovial tone.
Then the mood changed. Someone asked Stigler what he thought about Brown. Stigler sighed and his square jaw tightened. He began to fight back tears before he haltingly said in heavily accented English: ”I love you, Charlie.”
Stigler had lost his brother, his friends and his country. He was virtually forgotten by his countrymen after the war. While there were 28,000 pilots who fought for the German air force, only 1,200 of them survived. Losses were also heavy on the other side: 30,000 Americans roughly the age of 22 lost their lives in B-17s during the war.
The war had cost Stigler everything. “Charlie Brown was the only good thing that came out of World War II,” Stigler said. “It was the one thing I could be proud of.”
Brothers, Heroes, Foes
Brown and Stigler became best pals. They would take fishing trips together. They would fly cross-country to each other homes and take road trips together to share their story at schools and veterans’ reunions. Their wives, Jackie Brown and Hiya Stigler, became friends.
Brown’s daughter, Dawn Warner, says her father would worry about Stigler’s health and constantly check in on him.
“It wasn’t just for show,” she says. ”They really did feel for each other. They talked about once a week.”
As his friendship with Stigler deepened, something else happened to her father, Warner says: “The nightmares went away.”
Brown had written a letter of thanks to Stigler, but one day, he wanted to show the extent of his gratitude. He organized a reunion of his surviving crew members, along with their extended families. He invited Stigler as a guest of honor.
During the reunion, a video was played showing all the faces of the people that now lived – numerous children, grandchildren, relatives, crew members – because of Stigler’s act of chivalry. The former German pilot, watching the film from his seat of honor, cried.
”Everybody was crying, not just him,” Warner says.
Stigler and Brown died within months of each other in 2008; Stigler was 92, and Brown was 87. They had started off as enemies, became friends, and then became something more.
After he died, Warner was searching through Brown’s library when she came across a book on German fighter jets. Stigler had given the book to Brown. Both were country boys who loved to read about planes.
Warner opened the book and saw an inscription Stigler had written to Charlie Brown:
“In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying.
The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me as precious as my brother was.”
~Via Hub911, Aerial Chivalry, Wayne Freedman, Sabaton, and Youtube
A sincere appreciation goes out to Valor Art Studios and John D. Shaw
And don’t miss this head-banging piece of the incident and the
young, brave B-17 crews that we especially liked, here.