When Charlie Brown was just 21 years old and still “a farm boy from West Virginia,” the young lieutenant was given command of a B-17 and on Dec. 20, 1943, he and a flight crew of nine guys he hardly knew took off from Kimbolton air field in England on a bombing raid over Germany. It was his very first sortie and you can only image what was going through Charlie’s mind as he flew into Germany, this just four days before Christmas.
During the pre-flight briefing, the pilots were told the city of Bremen was guarded by 250 anti-aircraft flak installments and that they would doubtlessly encounter heavy fighter resistance. Charlie’s Flying Fortress, with “Ye Old Pub” gaily painted on its nose, was first assigned the “Purple Heart Corner” in the formation – the Germans always fired at the edges of the Allied attacks – but when another bomber was forced back with mechanical problems, “Ye Old Pub” was ordered to the front of the pack.
As the 10-minute bombing run over Bremen commenced, Lt.
Brown leveled his plane at 27,300 feet and the vicious artillery shells began to tear his airplane and his crew to pieces. The Plexiglas nose was shattered, the No. 2 engine knocked out, the No. 4 engine hit. At ‘altitude’ over Bremen in December the outside temperature is -60 degrees. The B-17 quickly lost speed and was forced to fall out of formation.
German fighter planes repeatedly swarmed the straggler, unmercifully chopping it to bits, the paralyzing cold air swirling inside the aircraft. Miraculously Brown and co-pilot “Pinky” Luke kept it going. The bitter cold jammed the guns, soon only four were functional, even the Morphine syrettes froze solid. The heating wires in the ball turret gunner’s flight suit were hit and his feet were frozen within minutes.
The rear gunner was decapitated. The waist gunner was critically injured, the radio operator’s eye was blown away. The oxygen, hydraulic and electrical systems were badly damaged and, with the radio destroyed and less than 40-percent power, the 21-year-old pilot – himself shot in the shoulder – was fighting to get the wreck back to England.
Suddenly Charlie’s co-pilot screamed, “My God!” and the pilot looked at the horrified man’s face. His eyes were focused behind Charlie’s neck in the cockpit. Brown’s whirled to see and he was speechless. A German Messerschmitt Bf109 … its right wing mere inches from the B-17’s cockpit window … was just seconds from knocking the B-17 from the sky. “He’s going to destroy us!”
Luftwaffe Major Franz Stigler had been refueling and re-arming when he spied the crippled plane from the tarmac as it was struggling mightily towards England. Stigler already had 29 “kills” and needed only one more to earn the coveted German Flying Cross. He caught the B-17 in a matter of minutes and, as he closed it, could hardly believe it could still fly.
Catching the B-17 from behind, Stigler could see half the rudder was gone, two props were not turning, and the port elevator (the tailwing) was missing. Its turret guns dysfunctional, the shocked German could actually see the wounded airmen through the gaping huge holes in the fuselage and the frozen blood still visible inside the tail turret.
So Stigler edged his fighter to the cockpit and took his finger off the trigger, instead reaching inside his flight jacket for his Rosary. Charlie could see the German’s face easily. What the Americans didn’t know was that Stigler once had a commanding officer who told him two of life’s rules. “You follow the rules of war for you – not your enemy. You fight by your rules to keep your humanity.” The German commander also said, “If I hear of you ever shooting a man in a parachute, I will personally shoot you myself.”
Years later, Stigler would explain. “When I saw them, it was as though each was in a parachute. To shoot down the plane would have been to commit murder. When I saw them, I believed they would never get home.”
So Franz Stigler eased his Messerschmitt slowly into a very visible and very tight formation with the crippled B-17, knowing the guns on the ground or other fighters would not fire for fear of hitting his German plane. Franz flew beside Charlie until the two aircraft were over the North Sea. He then eased his plane once again over the B-17 wing, where he could look Charlie Brown in the eye and, with crisp salute and an-ever slight wiggle of his wings, Stigler and his lethal Messerschmitt peeled off to return to Germany.
God only knows how Charlie guided the erratic and hard-to-handle “Ye Old Pub” for the next 250 miles over the North Sea. Bucking headwinds as his co-pilot desperately searched charts, they finally managed a scary landing at RAF Seething air field. As ground crews and others from the 448th Bombing Group, flooded around the shell of the plane, the fuel tanks were found to be down to fumes.
Charlie Brown, a 21-year-old farm boy from West Virginia, had completed his first mission. After bringing the 75-foot-long heavy bomber to a stop, Charlie remained seated in the cockpit, reached for the New Testament he carried in his shirt pocket, and held it to his heart as he had himself a good cry.
In Hollywood, this is when they’d start the violin music and begin to roll the credits but ‘real life’ hardly works like that. Charlie told his commanders about the German that had let the “Ye Old Pub” go in his debriefing but was ordered to tell no one, else his fellow pilots might go soft on the Nazis. Of course Franz told no one – in the Luftwaffe it would have meant an instant execution for allowing the enemy loose.
Over the next 40 years, Charlie Brown stayed in the Air Force, retiring as a Colonel with the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Force Cross before working with the state department. Franz Stigler, after losing loved ones and everything he held dear in the war, moved to Canada where he became very adept in business. Both men raised families and were equally successful in life before both retired.
That’s when Charlie’s nightmares started.
The dreams were horrible. They replayed all of the horrors of that first bombing run, bullets tearing through his crew, but instead of Stigler reaching for his Rosary, the Luftwaffe pilot pulled his fighter plane’s trigger. Shells exploded. There was fire aboard. Total chaos. Every time, just before he crashed with his crew screaming, Charlie would wake up in a pool of sweat. As part of his treatment, it was suggested he might look for the man whose name he didn’t know and perhaps thank him for one of the greatest acts of chivalry ever known.
It was akin to a needle in a haystack. He searched war records, told the story at pilots’ reunions, all to no avail. Because the chivalry was a secret, no one had ever heard the story told. Finally, after several years, the retired Colonel found out about a newsletter shared by Luftwaffe pilots. He got help so he could place an ad in the German language, giving his address in Miami. He held out hope – only 1,200 of 28,000 Nazi pilots survived World War II. Yet, on January 18, 1990, a letter arrived, from Canada.
“Dear Charles, All of these years I wondered what happened to that B-17, did she make it home? Did her crew survive their wounds? To hear of your survival filled me with indescribable joy. It was me. – Franz Stigler.”
Charlie immediately called Directory Assistance in Vancouver and could barely keep his hands from trembling as he dialed the given number. “My God, it’s you!” The two talked through tears. Later, Charlie wrote effusive letters and, as it sometimes happens in life, the nightmares abruptly stopped.
Soon he learned Franz would be coming to Florida. The two men and their wives had a splendid reunion. They went deep-sea fishing. But, oh, there is more. Their friendship grew to become legend in several short years. The Browns vacationed with the Stiglers in Canada. The Stiglers loved fishing with the Browns in Florida. The couples took trips together. They stayed in constant contact. Their wives adored one another. A reporter asked Stigler about his American friend and in guttural English the great fighter pilot fought emotion. “I love Charlie Brown.”
The highlight of their friendship was one brilliant weekend in Florida. Brown arranged for his B-17 crew, who all survived except the tail-gunner, to bring their extended families – everybody – to Florida to meet Franz and his wife, Hiya. And everybody came!
Charlie had Franz sit in a special Chair of Honor. It was a joyous feast with stories and drinks and jokes galore. And, then Charlie lowered the lights, showing a carefully produced video that showed each member of the crew, all the members of each of their families, along with grandchildren and dogs and horses and birthday parties and graduations … each and all only alive because one day a certain Luftwaffe ace didn’t pull the trigger.
Believe this: Everybody wept.
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Charlie Brown died in 2008 and Franz Stigler several months later. Charlie’s oldest daughter was going through her dad’s library later that year and came across a book on German fighter planes that Franz had given him. Written on the inside cover were these words: “In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder she was still flying. The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me as precious as my brother was. Thanks Charlie.
“Your brother, Franz.”