“...in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
- Anne Frank
A few days ago I posted a story about two ships. Today it is a story about two planes, a story that renews faith in the goodness of the human spirit. It tells of two men, enemies in a war, who for a brief moment ceased trying to kill each other to become brothers.
(Click on images to enlarge)
Artwork by Ernie Boyett
It was December 1943. Lt Charles L “Charlie” Brown, although aged only 21, was in command of a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber that had taken off from England to bomb an aircraft factory in Bremen. The bomber was called Ye Olde Pub and had sustained heavy damage from both flak and 8 fighter planes after it dropped its bombs. The tailgunner was dead; the pilot, Charlie Brown, was wounded; one engine was dead and the other dying. The plane was practically at ground level.
Lt Charles L “Charlie” Brown
In another plane was Franz Stigler, a veteran Luftwaffe fighter pilot who had flown over 400 missions and who had 28 kills to his name. On the day that Ye Olde Pub was shot to bits, Stigler had already downed two Allied aircraft.
Fighter pilot Franz Stigler
Stigler saw the low flying crippled B-17 and headed in for his third kill of the day. It would be an easy kill, the B-17 had no means of defence or evasion, it was a wonder that it was even still flying. Stigler came close to the b-17, so close that he clearly saw both the damage and, through the holes in the plane's side, crew members trying to help their wounded.
To the surprise of the American crew, Stigler did not fire.
Stigler tried twice to get Brown to land his plane at a German base and surrender, but Brown refused because his wounded comrades were in urgent need of medical assistance.
Stigler then flew near Brown's plane and escorted the crippled, helpless B-17 towards England. When they reached the North Sea, Stigler saluted Brown and turned around, heading back towards Europe.
Stigler reported that the plane had been shot down over the sea, a wise choice. He could have been court-martialled for his actions.
Brown did report the charity and assistance of the German pilot as part of his de-briefing but was told to forget about it, saying afterwards "Someone decided you can't be human and be flying in a German cockpit.”
After the war, Brown remained in the Air Force until he retired in 1972 as a Lieutenant Colonel. Determined to find the pilot of the German fighter plane that had spared him and his crew, he wrote numerous letters to German military sources but without success. A notice in a newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots resulted in a response from Franz Stigler.
Stigler had emigrated to Canada and was living near Vancouver, British Columbia.
The two men exchanged letters and then met for a reunion.
After an exchange of letters, the two men met for a reunion. "He almost broke my ribs, he gave me a big bear hug," said Brown.
The two men became close friends and met each other frequently.
B-17 pilot Charlie Brown and German Ace Franz Stigler re-enact their WW2 meeting.
Franz Stigler passed away on 22 March 2008. His former enemy and later friend, Charlie Brown, passed away on 24 November 2008.
Asked why he had not shot down the B-17, Stigler had once said:
“I didn’t have the heart to finish off those brave men. I flew beside them for a long time. They were trying desperately to get home and I was going to let them do it. I could not have shot at them. It would have been the same as shooting at a man in a parachute.”