It happened 5 days before Christmas, 70 years ago. German Oberleutnant Franz Stigler in a Messerschmitt Bf-109 stalked Lieutenant Charlie Brown’s American B-17 bomber. Stigler, a fighter pilot with 22 kills, had every reason to hit the trigger button – his beloved brother, also a pilot, was shot down and killed in the Battle of Britain. The B-17 had just bombed Bremen, Germany. With one more kill Stigler would get the coveted Knight’s Cross.
But as he closed to within 20 meters of the strangely silent tail guns of the American bomber, he saw the gunner slumped over his guns, his blood dripping down the barrels and streaming through the air. The B-17 bomber was a flying wreck, engines dead or dying, tail shredded, huge holes blown through the wings and fuselage by anti-aircraft guns and other German fighters. Through a tear in the fuselage, Stigler saw crewmen trying to save a man whose leg had been blown off.
Stigler remembered the warning of his Jagdgeschwader 27 commander, Gustav Rödel. “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 escorted the enemy bomber past the German coast, saluted the American pilot, and dove away.
He never found out if the American airplane made it back to England.
Then, in 1990, he got a phone call.
Every pilot with a sense of history knows the story. Stigler had never wanted to fly in combat, but felt compelled to defend his country. His brother had joined the Luftwaffe against their parents’ wishes.
Brown survived the war and served in the US Foreign Service, in Laos and Vietnam. After retirement, he spoke at a veteran’s event and was reminded of the German pilot.
Brown spent four years searching. Finally he put an ad in a publication for Luftwaffe veterans, seeking the man who spared his life.
Months later, Brown got a letter: "Dear Charles, All these years I wondered what happened to the B-17, did she make it or not?"
It was from Franz Stigler.
Brown called Stigler, who had moved to Vancouver. Stigler confirmed details from that encounter over the North Sea that only he could know.
Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown found a deep, spiritual friendship. One year, Brown organized an emotional reunion of the survivors of his 10-man B-17 crew and their extended families – children, grandchildren, relatives – people who were born and now lived only because Stigler did not shoot down the B-17.
Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown died within months of each other, in 2008. Stigler was 92; Brown was 87.
Stigler’s commanding officer again: “You follow the rules of war for you — not your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.”
Merry Christmas to all our readers here in Flying in Crosswinds. Both Carlo and I have been extremely busy. We were not personally affected by the typhoon that devastated part of the Philippines. Our country needs cheering up.
Carlo and I are both on Christmas leave from our jobs. Today we flew together for an hour. And we prepared the airplane – it seems to have volunteered for a logistics role tonight… .
Posted from Manila, December 24, 2013
Other links and references:
An interesting interview with Franz Stigler: