The immense canvas of World War II serves also as a mirror on the attitudes and behavior of us human beings. That viewpoint motivates me to read more of the history surrounding the conflict – as I wrote in a recent blog post, here. Almost before that new quest began, a World War II story came to my attention (via a recent Facebook post) which relates a fascinating encounter in the skies over Germany on December 20, 1943. I post this account as a prime example of the complex human attitudes and emotions exhibited in all-out warfare.
The main characters: A German fighter pilot on the hunt for another “kill” to add to his already burgeoning total and the pilot of a crippled and hapless B-17F “Flying Fortress” bomber, barely able to fly and struggling to reach friendly territory. Pilot Charles (Charlie) Brown, his crew, and his torn and tattered plane quickly found themselves in the gunsight of German Luftwaffe ace, Franz Stigler. One press of the “fire button” and Ye Olde Pub and its crew of ten would be history – torn apart by 20 mm cannon shells from the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter.
Charles Brown and Franz Stigler
Pilot Brown and his nine-member crew were flying their very first mission together on that twentieth day of December, 1943. The target: A German aircraft factory in Bremen, Germany. As the B-17 was preparing for its bomb-run on the target, German anti-aircraft fire and its exploding shrapnel found the aircraft and quickly left its deadly imprint upon Ye Olde Pub.
With its Plexiglas nose-dome shattered and its number two engine disabled, the bomber fell out of formation and became a straggler – an easy target for the swarms of Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 fighters which came up to defend the German target area.
While being harassed in retreat for several minutes by German fighter aircraft, the venerable Flying Fortress suffered considerable additional damage. Now flying alone over German territory, the B-17 could barely stay aloft. One of her engines was out, half of her rudder was shot-off, and most of her left horizontal stabilizer (tail) was gone. Most of her guns were disabled and some of the crew badly wounded. The tail gunner was hunched dead and bloody behind his downward-facing guns.
As the B-17 lumbered precariously at low altitude, struggling to make it home back in England, she was spotted passing over a small airfield by a German crew on the ground which was refueling and re-arming the Bf 109 fighter of Franz Stigler. At first surprised by the low-flying bomber, Stigler instinctively jumped into the cockpit of his aircraft and took off after the crippled B-17. In no time at all, the German ace settled in on the tattered tail of the bomber and prepared for the kill. He could afford to take his time in that position, for the tail-guns of the Fortress remained pointed downward during the entire encounter – a sure sign that the gunner was dead or the guns disabled. Pilot Stigler already had 22 air “victories” to his credit; one more and he would earn the coveted Luftwaffe award, the Knight’s Cross. Maneuvering to several vantage points around the lumbering bomber, the German ace could see, through a few gaping holes in the fuselage, that there were badly wounded fliers in the belly of the aircraft. He also sensed that he was relatively safe from any rash behavior on the part of the surviving crew and the one or two operational gun stations, but he was taking a chance, nevertheless, by closing in for a better look.
A German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter like that of Franz Stigler
As Stigler trailed the hapless bomber while considering his options, he recalled a comment made by Gustav Rodel, his Luftwaffe Commanding Officer: “If I ever hear of any of you shooting at someone in a parachute (a helpless flyer who had bailed-out), I’ll shoot you myself.” Rejecting his inbred instincts as a fighter pilot, Franz Stigler heeded a higher call – namely, his personal humanity. Stigler slipped into a “10 o’clock” position over the B-17, and proceeded to escort the bomber over hostile territory toward open water. He gestured from his cockpit to the astonished bomber pilot to turn and head for Sweden and safe, neutral territory. Instead, Brown opted to continue on the longer course to England, hoping to make it back home. At that point, Stigler saluted to Charles Brown and peeled off, leaving the bomber and her crew in the hands of fate.
It is that moment which is so beautifully captured in the aviation artwork of artist John Shaw. Given the quality of the piece and its depiction, it is no wonder that limited editions of those prints sold out and are hard to locate, today.
Franz Stigler answered “a higher call” in showing mercy to the hapless bomber and its helpless crew. Despite the obvious difficulties one has with the nature of Nazi Germany, we are reminded that many who fought on that side earnestly felt they were defending the motherland – an essentially patriotic attitude. Franz Stigler assumed huge personal risk in not summarily dispatching the helpless bomber. His was an action for which he could have been executed had it been reported to German authorities. One could easily imagine a second German fighter pilot happening upon the scenario described and formulating many pointed questions! At an altitude of only a few thousand feet, the incident could have been observed on the ground, as well.
Second Lieutenant Charles Brown went on to complete a full tour of duty as a bomber pilot. After the war, Brown returned home to West Virginia, went to college, and – following stints in the newly created Air Force and the U.S. State Department – retired in 1972. The harrowing episode of Ye Olde Pub and its crew remained indelibly etched in Brown’s memory, and, in 1986, he decided to try to find the German pilot who spared the lives of him and his crew.
After numerous efforts, Brown finally received a letter responding to his outreach attempts. Stigler, living in Canada since 1953, wrote that he was the one, and he verified his claim by describing the entire episode in detail – right down to the departing salute to Brown and his hapless bomber. The two met, and developed a great, ongoing friendship from 1990 until 2008, the year in which they both passed away within several months of one another.
Franz Stigler’s enlistment in the Luftwaffe began in 1939. In 1940, his brother was killed in action, an event which he hoped to avenge through his personal wartime contributions. Long after it was all over and the two protagonists of this story were reunited, Stigler inscribed a book to his former enemy, Charles 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.
I have seen the YouTube video account of the story, including film footage of the reunited flyers reminiscing together at the time of their initial meeting. In one touching scene with Franz, the stoic German fighter ace, visibly struggling to hold back multiple emotions which had suddenly descended upon his brow like a dark cloud, he turns to Brown and blurts out, “I love you Charlie!” A higher call, indeed, and such a poignant commentary on humans at war.