Many of us want to believe that if it came down to it, we would willingly lay down our lives to save the people we care most deeply for.
However, how many of us would willingly die to save an enemy?
Imagine it’s the height of the Second World War. You’re in your early 20s, barely even an adult, and you’re a crewmember on a brand new B-17 bomber, flying your first combat mission over Germany, in hopes of bringing the war to a quicker end.
You also know you are about to die.
This was the situation a young American bomber pilot by the name of Charlie Brown found himself in on December 20th, 1943. Freshly arrived at the European theater of the war, Brown and the crew of the B-17 heavy bomber Ye Olde Pub would spend their first combat mission in a raid against the German munitions factories at the port city of Bremen.
Things began to go badly right from the start. Struck in the engines and the wings by anti-aircraft shells fired by German military units on the ground, and attacked by German fighters in the air, Ye Olde Pub began to slow down, falling out of the formation of B-17 bombers she was being flown in and losing altitude. Worse, the plane’s rudder had been badly damaged, causing the plane to descend to the earth in a slow spin. On top of all this, the onboard oxygen tanks had been ruptured by bullets, causing the pilot, Charlie Brown, and his co-pilot to lose consciousness. Without the protection provided by gunners on neighboring B-17s, the plane would be easy pickings for the swarms of German fighter planes launched to shoot down the American aircraft. With the crew unconscious due to the lack of oxygen, the plane began to fall from the sky.
Just before the plane could crash into the ground, Charlie regained consciousness and got the plane level again, flying low, directly over a German air base filled with fighter planes being refueled to rejoin the battle.
One of these planes was being flown by German fighter Ace Franz Stigler. After engaging a B-17 in combat earlier in the battle, Stigler had landed at his squadron airbase for repairs when a bullet had become lodged in the radiator of his plane during the fighting. While waiting for the repairs to be completed, Stigler and the ground crews noticed a B-17 flying low right over the air base. Seeing an opportunity, Stigler returned to his fighter and launched, hoping to shoot down the last plane he needed to earn the highly coveted Knight’s Cross — the highest military commendation for German servicemembers during the war.
Catching up to the bomber, Stigler approached from the rear of the plane, locking his gun sights onto the plane and preparing to shoot the aircraft down.
What followed was one of the greatest acts of heroic moral courage of the entire war.
As Stigler approached the plane from behind, something seemed wrong. B-17 Bombers were equipped with a pair of machine guns in the rear of the aircraft to protect the tail of the plane from fighter attacks. And yet, as Stigler drew closer to the bomber, the tail gunner did not shoot at him. He soon discovered why.
He saw the tail of the plane had been partially blown away, and inside the tail gunner lay slumped over — dead, nearly decapitated by an exploding cannon shell. As Stigler recalled, blood had been running down the barrels of the guns and had frozen due to the extreme cold at flying altitudes.
Flying up alongside the bomber, Stigler saw the rudder was almost entirely missing, and sections of the fuselage were blown open, allowing him to see inside the damaged aircraft. Through the opening, Stigler could see several badly injured members of the crew, scared to death and fighting to stay alive as the bomber barely managed to stay in the air. None of the crew seemed to be able to bring the plane’s many machine guns to bear on Stigler’s plane. Because of the extremely cold temperatures inside the B-17, many of the .50 caliber machine guns were frozen and rendered inoperable.
Stigler knew he had a decision to make. If he let the bomber go, he risked his actions being discovered by the Nazi fighter command. German citizens had been killed outright for far less offenses; if Stigler let the bomber go, he would be executed by the Gestapo upon returning to his base.
However, if he shot the bomber down, he would receive the German military’s highest commendation of the time, the Knight’s Cross, and would be hailed a hero. In addition, one less bomber would be used in the war against Germany.
Stigler knew all of this. And yet, by this point in the war, Stigler was a changed man.
Joining the German Air Force early on in the war, Stigler became a fighter pilot instructor. Because of his teaching role, he could have avoided combat in the skies over Europe, at least in the beginning of the war.
That all changed in 1940 when his only brother was killed in combat during the Battle of Britain.
Grieving the loss of his brother, Stigler entered the fighter service, deploying to Northern Africa as part of the German invasion of the continent. While stationed in Africa, he had been approached by his squadron leader, who asked Stigler what he would do if he came across a downed pilot in a parachute, and if he would shoot the pilot. When Stigler answered that he wouldn’t, his squadron leader told him that if he ever saw Stigler shooting at a man in a parachute, he would shoot Stigler down himself.
Seeing Stigler’s surprise at the remark, his squadron leader clarified, stating to Stigler “Honor is everything,” and explaining to Stigler the importance of making decisions that he would be willing to live with for the rest of his life.
Fast forwarding back to 1943, at the height of the air war over Europe, Stigler found himself flying missions against Allied bombers. The American 8th Air Force and British Bomber command had launched a combined campaign to destroy the German Military’s industrial capacity.
The raid over Bremen that found Brown and Stigler flying alongside each other was one such raid. Stigler, seeing the crippled bomber barely flying out of German airspace, realized that downing the plane would be just like shooting a helpless man in a parachute.
Stigler made his decision. Flying up alongside the bomber, Stigler escorted the plane out of Germany and to the coast. Saluting the shocked crew, he turned and flew away, ready to face whatever fate lay in store for him. Lt. Charlie Brown, stunned at the mercy shown by the German fighter pilot, managed to return the plane to the airbase in England, where he debriefed with US military intelligence.
He was ordered to keep the incident a secret, out of fear that other Americans would be shot down by German pilots who didn’t have quite so noble of a disposition. In a bizarre turn of fate, one of the most heroic acts of the Second World War almost never made it to light.
Years passed. The Second World War ended. Germany was in ruins and divided into two separate nations as the world faced an uneasy future. Stigler, having survived the collapse of Germany and wanting to put the horrors of the war behind him, married and relocated to Canada to start a new life. Charlie Brown also survived the war, continuing a career in US Air Force intelligence as the Cold War began to ramp up.
Decades passed, and Brown struggled year after year with the psychological traumas of living through the air war, which included recurring nightmares of his past missions. Eventually, Brown began to seek out the German pilot who had saved him and his crew on that December day, not even knowing if he had survived the war.
Writing a letter to a German veteran’s publication, Brown was stunned one day to receive a letter from Stigler, who explained that he was the fighter pilot who had saved Brown and his crew. In 1990, Brown and Stigler finally met again for the first time. A friend of Brown’s traveled to the meeting, bringing along a video camera to capture the interaction.
In the video, an emotional Stigler explains that upon meeting Brown, he was so happy that he had grabbed Brown and hugged him. While choking back tears, Stigler turns to Brown and says “I love you Charlie.”
The two became firm friends, and their reconnecting proved to be a healing event for both men. Brown recalled that his nightmares stopped, and he finally began to find peace. Stigler felt the same. On a later occasion, both men were invited to a banquet, where Stigler was able to meet the crewmen of the bomber he had saved, along with their children and grandchildren — all of whom were born thanks to his decision to do the right thing that fateful day.
Sometime later, Franz gave a book to Charlie, inside which he had written a note,
“In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night-fighter. On December 20th, 1943, four days before Christmas, I was able to save a B-17 from its destruction. The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me as precious as my brother was.
Thanks Charlie. Your brother, Franz”
The pair would remain close friends until their passing within a few months of each other in 2008.
For further reading about Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown, and about the air war they served in: