Incredible Enemy Compassion over Nazi Germany
On Dec. 20, 1943, Second Lt. Charles “Charlie” Brown was desperately trying to keep his heavily damaged plane, a B-17F bomber known as ‘Ye Olde Pub,’ aloft over Germany. This was the crew’s first mission and they had been in the second wave of bombers targeting Focke-Wulf airplane manufacturing plant near Bremen in northwest Germany when they ran into very heavy flak during their bombing run. The anti-aircraft fire blew out the Plexiglas nose, destroyed one engine and damaged two others. There were holes all over the fuselage and the tail was half gone; they couldn’t keep up with the rest of the bombers. Suddenly, they were attacked by a wave of eight Messerschmitt fighters, followed by another seven. His crew fought back and downed one or two of them, but then Brown, who was wounded along with most of his crew lost control of his plane. It flipped over and spiraled down, causing Brown to lose consciousness. The Germans figured the bomber was spiraling to it death and left. What they could not have known was Brown had finally regained control with just hundreds of feet to spare. Of his crew members, one was dead and six wounded, and Brown was alone in his cockpit since his co-pilot copilot Spencer “Pinky” Luke along with two other unharmed men, were tending to the others. Blood of the wounded crew was splattered throughout the plane’s interior. When Brown asked for a damage report, one of the crew replied, “We’re chewed to pieces.” Directly below them was a German airfield.
On the airfield German pilot Franz Stigler, a former commercial airline pilot whose father and brother had both died while serving their country, was refueling and re-arming his Messerschmitt Bf-109. When he heard Brown’s B-17 Flying Fortress roaring overhead, barely 200 above the ground, he looked up, dismayed at how low it was. Oberleutnant (Lieutenant) Stigler had already shot down two B-17s that day and one more added to his total would mean he would receive the Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest military award. He took off in his fighter as soon as he could.
Soon after taking off, Stigler located the B-17 and he approached from behind and above the bomber. At that distance he could see the tail was half shot away. Stigler dropped lower, closing, watching for the tail-gunner’s machine guns to rise, meaning he’d been spotted, but they never moved. He got close enough to see that the tail-gunner was dead or dying, his blood running down the gun barrel. Stigler edged his fighter alongside the stricken bomber. He had never seen a plane with so much damage still able to fly. There were so many holes in its fuselage he could see crew members tending to their wounded. Stigler remembered a former commander who, during the campaign in North Africa, told them: “You are fighter pilots first, last, always. If I ever hear of any of you shooting at someone in a parachute, I’ll shoot you myself.” Stigler considered that shooting these men down now would be the same as machine gunning them in parachutes.
Pulling in behind the Pub and concerned he would come under fire, Stigler had his finger on the trigger, one eye closed and the other squinting through his gun sight. He took aim and was about to fire when he realized what he wasn’t seeing: This plane had no tail guns blinking. This plane had no left stabilizer. This plane had no tail-gun compartment left, and as he got closer, Stigler saw the terrified tail gunner himself, his fleece collar soaked red, the guns themselves streaked with it, icicles of blood hanging from the barrels.
Stigler was no longer energized. He was alarmed. He pulled alongside the plane and saw clean through the middle, where the skin had been blown apart by anti-aircraft shells. He saw these terrified young men attempting to tend to their wounded. He drew equal to the B-17 and saw that the nose of the plane, too, had been blown away. How was this thing still in the air? He maneuvered toward the disabled bomber’s wingtip.
At first, Brown didn’t notice the small German plane. He was thinking, thinking, thinking. He had six wounded men in the back. Some were strong enough to jump out, but the critically injured would never survive the cold German forest. He’d have to keep flying, try to make it to England, but the others should jump. He then noticed the German fighter.
Flying along the wingtip of the Pub, a relaxed Stigler nodded to Brown but he was in such a state of shock he did not return the greeting. Running through Brown’s mind was how daring the German pilot in flying that close to even a badly crippled enemy bomber. Stigler signaled to Brown to land in Germany. Brown, in pain and still recovering from oxygen deprivation, refused. Stigler reconsidered and then tried to get Brown to swing northeast toward neutral Sweden, only 30 minutes away. He didn’t think the B-17 could make it back to England. Again, Brown refused, sticking to his course. Stigler continued to escort Brown’s Flying Fortress through the skies over Germany???partly because he didn’t want anyone to shoot them down. When they were finally over the North Sea, Stigler saluted and turned away. He didn’t think much of their chances.
Brown himself did not think much of their chances either but a crash-landing was never seriously considered since all pilots of B-17’s were under strict instructions that if a crash-landing became necessary as a last resort, survivors were to destroy the aircraft and activate the explosive charge in the highly secret Norden bombsight. Since it appeared to Brown most of the crew would not survive a parachute jump into northern Germany in the winter, and possibly all of them would perish in a crash-landing, Brown would fly back over land to let any of the crew bale out who wished to do so, and would then try and fly the aircraft back to England. All agreed to stay on board and take their chances.
Brown managed to get his B-17 back to base. For getting his plane and crew back under such conditions, a Colonel told him he would be nominated for the Medal of Honor. However, during debriefing, he and his crew kept talking about the crazy German who had escorted them to the sea. Immediately after, he and his crew’s participation in the mission was classified Secret and ordered not to discuss it with anyone. He never officially received so much as a pat on the back.
Stigler returned to his base and reported that he had shot-down the B-17 over the North Sea. To have done otherwise he would have been court-martialed and possibly shot for letting an enemy go free. By the end of the war he’d flown 487 combat missions and had 28 confirmed kills. He never received the Knight’s Cross. He served through the end of World War II and, unable to ever feel at home in Germany living in fear that he’d be found out, relocated to Vancouver, Canada, in 1953.
Brown served right up until the beginning of the Vietnam War and eventually settled with his wife in Miami. Still deeply traumatized by the incident, he thought about searching for the German until finally, in January 1990, knowing the odds were against him, he took out an ad in a newsletter for fighter pilots, looking for the one “who saved my life on Dec. 20, 1943.” He held back one key piece of information: Where the German pilot had abandoned his B-17.
At home in Vancouver, Stigler saw the ad. He yelled to his wife: “This is him! This is the one I didn’t shoot down!”
Franz had always wondered if the great risk he’d taken had been worth it, if the American had made it home. Brown had always wondered what the German had been planning to do to him, and why he had let him go.
He immediately wrote a letter to Brown.
Brown was too impatient to actually read it. He called the operator and had her look up Franz Stigler’s number, then placed the call immediately.
“When I let you go over the sea,” Stigler said, “I thought you’d never make it.”
“My God,” Brown said. “It’s you.”
Tears were streaming down his face. Stigler had answered Brown’s secret question without Brown having to ask it.
“What were you pointing for?” Brown asked.
Stigler, too, was crying. He explained everything: that he could tell that Brown had no idea how bad the plane was, that he was pointing first to the ground, to Germany, and then pointing away, mouthing “Sweden,” that he was trying to escort them to safety and that he abandoned them only when he saw the gun swing from the turret.
“Good luck,” he’d said to Brown from his cockpit. “You’re in God’s hands.”
They met at a 379th Bomber Group reunion, together with 25 people who are alive now – all because Franz never fired his guns that day. For the rest of their lives, Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler became close friends. Both also felt that they should tell their story to as many people as would hear it, not for money but to make people realize that there’s always another way that the world could be infinitely better than it was. Stigler and Brown both had heart attacks and died in 2008, six months apart. Stigler was 92; Brown, 87.
In their obituaries, each was listed the other as “a special brother.
The complete story can be found in a book written my Adam Makos and Larry Alexander entitled A Higher Call.