The 21-year-old American B-17 pilot froze when he looked outside his cockpit. He blinked twice more, hoping it was a mirage. But his co-pilot was staring at the same horrifying vision. “This is a nightmare,” the co-pilot exclaimed. The pilot agreed, saying, “He’s going to destroy us.”
A gray German Messerschmitt fighter hovered just three feet off their wingtip. It was five days before Christmas 1943, and the fighter had closed in for the kill on their crippled American B-17 bomber.
Charles Brown, the B-17 pilot, was a 21-year-old West Virginia farm boy on his first combat mission. His bomber had been destroyed by swarming fighters, and his plane was now flying alone in the skies above Germany. Half of his crew had been injured, and the tail gunner had died, his blood frozen in icicles over the machine guns.
But when Brown and his co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke, returned their gaze to the fighter pilot, something strange happened. The German did not fire the shot. In awe and respect, he returned the bomber’s stare. Instead of pressing the attack, he nodded and saluted Brown. What followed was one of the most extraordinary acts of chivalry recorded during World War II.
During World War II, Charles Brown was on his first combat mission when he actually met an enemy unlike any other.
2nd Lt. Franz Stigler was motivated by vengeance rather than honor when he jumped into his fighter on that chilly December day in 1943. Stigler was no ordinary fighter pilot. He was a pro. With one more kill, he’d be awarded the Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest honor for bravery.
But Stigler was motivated by something more than a desire for fame. August, his older brother, was a fellow Luftwaffe pilot who was killed earlier in the war. American pilots had killed Stigler’s comrades and were bombing the cities of his country. When Stigler heard the engine of a bomber, he was standing near his fighter on a German airbase. Looking up, he noticed a B-17 flying so low that it appeared to be about to land. Stigler tossed his cigarette aside, saluted a ground crewman, and took off in pursuit as the bomber vanished behind some trees.
Stigler’s fighter decided to attack the bomber from behind as it rose to meet it. He crept behind the sputtering bomber, squinted into his gun sight, and pressed the trigger. When he hesitated, he was about to fire. Stigler was perplexed. Nobody in the bomber fired a shot at him.
He focused his attention on the tail gunner. He was motionless, his white fleece collar drenched in blood. Stigler craned his neck to inspect the remainder of the bomber. Shells had peeled away its skin and knocked out its guns. One of the propellers wasn’t turning. Another engine’s smoke trailed behind it. He could see men huddled inside the shattered plane, tending to the injuries of other crew members.
Then he pushed his plane up alongside the bomber’s wings and locked gazes with the pilot, whose eyes were wide with shock and horror.
Stigler pressed his hand against the rosary tucked inside his flight jacket. He let go of the trigger with his index finger. He was unable to shoot. It would be a crime.
That day, Stigler was motivated by more than just vengeance. He also followed a code of conduct. His ancestors could be traced back to knights in 16th-century Europe. He had once considered becoming a priest. A German pilot who saved the enemy, on the other hand, faced death in Nazi Germany. He would be executed if someone reported him.
Stigler, on the other hand, could hear the voice of his commanding officer, who once told him: “You follow the rules of war for your own benefit, not the benefit of your adversary. To maintain your humanity, you fight by the rules.”
Stigler changed his mission while alone with the crippled bomber. He nodded to the American pilot and began flying in formation to avoid being shot down by German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground. (The Luftwaffe had its own B-17s, which were shot down and rebuilt for covert missions and training.) Stigler took one last look at the American pilot as he escorted the bomber over the North Sea. Then he saluted him, yanked his fighter away, and flew back to Germany.
“Best of luck,” Stigler thought to himself. “You’re now in God’s hands…” For years, Franz Stigler wondered what happened to the American pilot and crew he encountered in combat.
2nd Lt. Charles Brown wasn’t thinking about the philosophical connection between enemies as he watched the German fighter flee that December day. He was thinking about his chances of survival. He flew his crippled plane back to his base in England, landing with one of four engines knocked out, one failing, and barely enough fuel left. He leaned back in his chair after his bomber came to a halt and placed a hand over a pocket Bible he kept in his flight jacket. Then he sat quietly.
Brown flew a few more missions before the war was over. Life progressed. He married, had two daughters, worked for the US State Department as a foreign aid supervisor during the Vietnam War, and eventually retired to Florida.
The encounter with the German pilot, on the other hand, began to gnaw at him later in life. He began to have nightmares, but there was no mercy in his dreams. He’d wake up just as his bomber was about to crash.
Brown embarked on a new mission. He had to track down that German pilot. What was his name? Why did he do this? He combed through military archives in the United States and England. He went to a pilots’ reunion and told his story. He eventually ran an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots, telling the story and asking if anyone knew who the pilot was.
Brown received a letter on January 18, 1990. He took it out and read: “Dear Mr. Charles, I’ve been wondering what happened to that B-17 all these years; did she make it home? Did her crew recover from their injuries? Hearing about your survival has given me indescribable joy…”
It was Stigler.
After the war, he left Germany and relocated to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1953. He went on to become a successful businessman. Stigler, who is now retired, told Brown that he would be in Florida this summer and that “it sure would be nice to talk about our encounter.” Brown, on the other hand, was ecstatic and couldn’t wait to see Stigler. He dialed the Vancouver directory assistance number and inquired about a Franz Stigler phone number. He dialed the number, and Stigler answered the phone.
“Oh my gosh, it’s you!” Brown screamed, tears streaming down his cheeks. Brown needed to do more. “To say THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU on behalf of my surviving crewmembers and their families appears totally inadequate,” he wrote in a letter to Stigler.
Brown’s friend was there to film the summer reunion. Both men appeared to be retired businessmen: plump, with neat ties and formal shirts. They sobbed and laughed in each other’s arms. They discussed their encounter in a light, jovial tone.
Then, the mood changed. Someone questioned about Stigler’s feelings toward Brown. Stigler sighed, his square jaw clenched. He fought back tears before saying, “I love you, Charlie,” in heavily accented English.
Stigler had lost his brother, friends, and his homeland. Following the war, his countrymen effectively exiled him. The German air force had 28,000 pilots fighting for it. Only 1,200 people survived.
He had lost everything as a result of the war. For Franz, the only good thing that came out of WWII was Charlie Brown. It was the only thing he was proud of. According to Brown’s oldest daughter, Dawn Warner, the meeting aided him as well.
Brown and Stigler became good friends. They used to go fishing together. They would fly across the country to each other’s homes and go on road trips together to share their story at schools and veterans’ reunions. Jackie Brown and Hiya Stigler, their wives, became friends.
Brown’s daughter claims her father was concerned about Stigler’s health and would frequently check in on him.
“It wasn’t for show,” she explains. “They genuinely cared about each other. They discussed meeting once a week.” ” Something else happened to her father as his friendship with Stigler grew stronger, according to Warner, “the nightmares went away.”
Brown had written a letter of thanks to Stigler, but one day, he demonstrated the breadth of his appreciation. He arranged for a reunion of his surviving crew members and their extended families. He invited Stigler to be his honorary guest.
During the reunion, a video was shown that showed all the faces of the people who now lived because of Stigler’s act of chivalry — children, grandchildren, and relatives. Stigler sat in the director’s chair and watched the film.
“Everyone was crying, not just him,” Warner explains.
In 2008, Stigler and Brown died within months of each other. Stigler was 92 years old, and Brown was 87. They had begun as enemies, then became friends, and then something more.
Warner was searching through Brown’s library after he died when she came across a book on German fighter jets. Brown had received the book from Stigler. Both were country boys who enjoyed reading about airplanes.
When Warner opened the book, he discovered an inscription written by Stigler to Brown:
My only brother was killed as a night fighter in 1940. On the 20th of December, four days before Christmas, I had the opportunity to save a B-17 from destruction, a plane that had been so badly damaged that it was a miracle she was still flying. Charlie Brown, the pilot, is as precious to me as my brother was.
Thank you, Charlie.