Chivalry Even During War!
In December 1943, Charles L “Charlie” Brown, who was only 21 years old at the time, 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 which was named ‘Ye Olde Pub" had sustained serious damage from both flak and eight fighter planes after it dropped its bombs.
The tail-gunner was dead and the pilot, Charlie Brown, was wounded.
One engine was dead and the other was dying and the plane was almost flying at ground level.
In another plane was Franz Stigler, a veteran Luftwaffe fighter pilot who had flown over 400 missions and had 28 kills to his name.
And on the day that ‘Ye Olde Pub’ was shot to bits, Stigler had already downed two Allied aircraft.
Mercy and Chivalry
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 in fact that he clearly saw both the damage and, through the holes in the plane’s side, crew members trying to help their wounded.
Stigler Did Not Fire!
Instead of easily downing the B17 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.
A Final Salute!
Stigler then flew near Brown’s plane and escorted the crippled, helpless B-17 toward England and when they reached the North Sea, Stigler saluted Brown and turned around, and headed back home.
Brown managed to fly the remaining 250 miles and land his plane at RAF Seething, home of the 448th Bomb Group.
At the after-flight debriefing Brown informed his officers about how a German pilot had let him go.
He was told not to repeat this to the rest of the unit so as not to build any positive sentiment about enemy pilots.
"Someone decided you can’t be human and be flying in a German cockpit?".
Avoiding A Court Martial
Stigler later reported that the plane had been shot down over the sea, which was a wise choice since he could have been court-martialled for his actions.
Top Secret And Case Closed
The American 8th Air Force classified the incident as top secret for decades, and the German military sealed the record as well.
Franz was ordered never to speak of the act again, at risk of facing a firing squad.
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".
After The War
After the war, Brown remained in the Air Force until he retired in 1972 as a Lieutenant Colonel but remained 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 until finally a notice in a newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots resulted in a response from Franz Stigler.
A Joyful Reunion
Stigler had emigrated to Canada and was living near Vancouver, British Columbia and after exchanging letters the two men met for a reunion.
"He almost broke my ribs, he gave me a big bear hug".
Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler became close friends and remained so until their deaths within several months of each other in 2008.
* Franz Stigler passed away on March 22, 2008 and his former enemy and later friend, Charlie Brown, passed away on November 24, 2008.