A Higher Call : Humanity Trumps Hate in the Skies Over Germany

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.

 Higher Call PS_2A sure “kill” is spared: Aviation artwork by John Shaw

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.

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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.

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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.

91y6AaiYq7L._SL1500_[1]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.

Thanks Charlie,
Your Brother,
Franz

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.  

The Sky Warriors: In Memoriam

Monday, May 27, is Memorial Day, a time to reflect on those living and dead who have served our country. Our debt of gratitude is great to all of them. I am particularly intrigued by those who took to the skies in the Second World War; that period has always fascinated me. As I write this, I am currently reminded of the intrepid sky warriors of that war by the unusual sounds heard overhead the last few days, the unmistakable heavy drone of multi-engine aircraft periodically flying over the house. When not engaged in something pressing, I more often than not drop what I am doing and run out the front or patio door to gawk once more at what I know to be the source – one of the iconic heavy bombers from the 1940’s. I have been doing this drill for some years, now.

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The Collings Foundation is back in town for several days with it’s “Wings of Freedom” tour, part of an annual pilgrimage across the country. The tour features one of the few flyable examples left in the world of both the mighty B-17 Flying Fortress and the once ubiquitous B-24 Liberator. It is difficult to resist the urge to run outside to see one of these legendary “warbirds” lumbering fairly low over the neighborhood on early approach to the runway at nearby Moffett Field. The foundation, true to its mission, keeps these icons flying (no small task) by touring the country and charging a nominal admission to walk through the aircraft or $400 for a brief ride in one of them.

 Linda and I made the short trip to Moffett Field a few years ago to see these planes up-close and personal. We chose a weekday, early in the morning when there were few other people out and about other than the daily commute. We were rewarded with a leisurely and thought-provoking, self-guided experience clambering around within the bowels of each of these legendary airplanes. Unlike so many typical “airshow experiences” where the sheer press of people in line behind you necessitates a hurried look before quickly moving on, we were able to linger in the bellies of these beasts and truly visualize, to the limited extent possible, what those intrepid flyers must have felt each and every time they clambered aboard their aircraft for yet another dangerous bombing mission.

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For many, it was to be their last. Death came quickly in the skies, usually in the form of German fighter aircraft in the skies over Europe or shrapnel from the deadly flak-shell explosions which enveloped these aircraft as they lumbered to and from their targets. Many a crew was lost when a tail or wing was sheared off by shrapnel. In such a situation, the plane quickly spun wildly out of control as it plunged to earth literally pinning the crew within its confines and rendering their parachutes useless.

 What stories they tell, those who survived the overall experience! I recall quite vividly one evening in the mid-1950’s when a very good friend of my father came one evening to visit. He, like dad, was employed at United Airlines and was working his way up the ladder. They had enrolled together in a calculus night class at San Mateo Junior College some years prior. He happened to be in San Francisco on business and was invited to the house for dinner that evening. At my parent’s urging, he recounted his war experiences during dinner. He was flying a B-24 Liberator on a critical and quite famous bombing mission over German territory. Their target was the German oil supply and the Ploesti oil fields.

 His aircraft was shot down by flak as I recall. He parachuted safely down only to be captured by the Germans and held for a considerable period of time. I cannot recall whether he escaped from the prison camp or was ultimately set free after the war. I was but a young teenager at the time of his visit, but I listened intently to his story and asked some questions about his experiences. As interested as I was, it seemed to me at the time that the Second World War was already ancient history, yet what I was hearing had happened a mere ten years prior – oh, the time-warp of youth. Would that I could talk to him today! He later worked his way up the ranks at United Airlines and became a vice-president stationed in Chicago; alas, we rarely saw him after that.

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Linda and I had the good fortune to meet a volunteer at Moffett Field who, like my dad’s good friend, had plenty of war stories to relate to a gathering throng beneath a wing of the Collings B-24J, Witchcraft, the only one still flying of the original 6,687 J-type aircraft built by Consolidated. He was a bombardier aboard a similar Liberator during the war. You can bet that the appreciative crowd kept him very engaged for the hour-plus we spent listening…and that is how it should be! These flyers, their stories, and their lessons-learned (also known as wisdom and a mature world-view) should be heard, appreciated, and their experiences recorded for future generations. And – just as important – future generations should be encouraged by parents, teachers, and mentors to read these histories and reflect on what such veterans went through. Let us not forget the soldiers and sailors as well; they have their own stories to tell.

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I just heard in the news that the final reunion of the Doolittle flyers has been held this year. Only three or four remain alive and able to travel. The daring early raids on Tokyo were conducted by Jimmy Doolittle and his men flying medium-range B-25 bombers from the deck of an aircraft carrier in April, 1942 – an unheard-of feat. Although these brave flyers are almost all gone, their stories will live on. Let us not forget such momentous history. 

Have a relaxing and meaningful Memorial Day weekend!

 As a postscript for those interested, Linda has alerted me to a currently best-selling book titled Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini who went down in a B-24 Liberator over the Pacific and was held prisoner by the Japanese. Linda has read it and raved about it as has everyone else, apparently. The aviation aspect is only a portion of the total story of this amazing man who still lives in Southern California. So many stories surface in that one life that it is hard to believe, even though they are verified and well documented. I plan to read it.

Memphis Belle Crew]

For you aviation fans and for anyone with an interest in the history, there is a brief documentary (in color) made by the government during the war about the famous B-17,  Memphis Belle – not to be confused with the Hollywood movie of the same name. This one is actual footage filmed in color during her crew’s last (and successful) bombing mission over Germany. Twenty-five such missions got you a ticket home from the war, and this is the documentary story of the B-17 that brought her crew safely back each time. Ride along on that last mission, and you will begin to understand what it was like! I highly recommend it. If you have difficulty finding this, let me know by leaving a reply (comment). I can tell you where I ordered my DVD copy.

 As always, I have no connection with any product which I endorse (other than my own book). My recommendations are based strictly on merit for the benefit of you, the readers.