Skip to comments.German pilot in WWII spared an American B-17 pilot over Germany only to reunite 40 years later
Posted on 03/18/2013 10:18:04 AM PDT by robowombat
German pilot in WWII spared an American B-17 pilot over Germany only to reunite 40 years later and become fishing buddies March 12, 2013 at 21:45
The pilot glanced outside his cockpit and froze. He blinked hard and looked again, hoping it was just a mirage. But his co-pilot stared at the same horrible vision.
My God, this is a nightmare, the co-pilot said.
Hes going to destroy us, the pilot agreed.
The men were looking at a gray German Messerschmitt fighter hovering just three feet off their wingtip. It was five days before Christmas 1943, and the fighter had closed in on their crippled American B-17 bomber for the kill.
The B-17 pilot, Charles Brown, was a 21-year-old West Virginia farm boy on his first combat mission. His bomber had been shot to pieces by swarming fighters, and his plane was alone in the skies above Germany. Half his crew was wounded, and the tail gunner was dead, his blood frozen in icicles over the machine guns.
But when Brown and his co-pilot, Spencer Pinky Luke, looked at the fighter pilot again, something odd happened. The German didnt pull the trigger. He nodded at Brown instead. What happened next was one of the most remarkable acts of chivalry recorded during World War II. Years later, Brown would track down his would-be executioner for a reunion that reduced both men to tears.
Living by the code
People love to hear war stories about great generals or crack troops such as Seal Team 6, the Navy unit that killed Osama bin Laden. But there is another side of war thats seldom explored: Why do some soldiers risk their lives to save their enemies and, in some cases, develop a deep bond with them that outlives war?
And are such acts of chivalry obsolete in an age of drone strikes and terrorism?
Charles Brown was on his first combat mission during World War II when he met an enemy unlike any other.
Those are the kinds of questions Browns story raises. His encounter with the German fighter pilot is beautifully told in a New York Times best-selling book, A Higher Call. The book explains how that aerial encounter reverberated in both mens lives for more than 50 years.
The war left them in turmoil, says Adam Makos, who wrote the book with Larry Alexander. When they found each other, they found peace.
Their story is extraordinary, but its not unique. Union and Confederate troops risked their lives to aid one another during the Civil War. British and German troops gathered for post-war reunions; some even vacationed together after World War II. One renowned American general traveled back to Vietnam to meet the man who almost wiped out his battalion, and the two men hugged and prayed together.
What is this bond that surfaces between enemies during and after battle?
Its called the warriors code, say soldiers and military scholars. Its shaped cultures as diverse as the Vikings, the Samurai, the Romans and Native Americans, says Shannon E. French, author of Code of the Warrior.
The code is designed to protect the victor, as well as the vanquished, French says.
People think of the rules of war primarily as a way to protect innocent civilians from being victims of atrocities, she says. In a much more profound sense, the rules are there to protect the people doing the actual fighting.
The code is designed to prevent soldiers from becoming monsters. Butchering civilians, torturing prisoners, desecrating the enemies bodies are all battlefield behaviors that erode a soldiers humanity, French says.
The code is ancient as civilization itself. In Homers epic poem, The Iliad, the Greek hero Achilles breaks the code when his thirst for vengeance leads him to desecrate the body of his slain foe, the Trojan hero Hector.
There is something worse than death, and one of those things is to completely lose your humanity.Most warrior cultures share one belief, French says:
The code is still needed today, French says.
Thousands of U.S. soldiers returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some have seen, and have done, things that are unfathomable.
A study of Vietnam veterans showed that those who felt as if they had participated in dishonorable behavior during the war or saw the Vietnamese as subhuman experienced more post-traumatic stress disorder, French says.
Drone warfare represents a new threat to soldiers humanity, French says.
The Pentagon recently announced it would award a new Distinguished Warfare Medal to soldiers who operate drones and launch cyberattacks. The medal would rank above the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, two medals earned in combat.
At least 17,000 people have signed an online petition protesting the medal. The petition says awarding medals to soldiers who wage war via remote control was an injustice to those who risked their lives in combat.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended the new medal at a February news conference.
Ive seen firsthand how modern tools, like remotely piloted platforms and cybersystems, have changed the way wars are fought, Panetta says. And theyve given our men and women the ability to engage the enemy and change the course of battle, even from afar.
Still, critics ask, is there any honor in killing an enemy by remote control?
French isnt so sure.
If [I'm] in the field risking and taking a life, theres a sense that Im putting skin in the game, she says. Im taking a risk so it feels more honorable. Someone who kills at a distance it can make them doubt. Am I truly honorable?
The German pilot who took mercy
Revenge, not honor, is what drove 2nd Lt. Franz Stigler to jump into his fighter that chilly December day in 1943.
Stigler wasnt just any fighter pilot. He was an ace. One more kill and he would win The Knights Cross, Germans highest award for valor.
Yet Stigler was driven by something deeper than glory. His older brother, August, was a fellow Luftwaffe pilot who had been killed earlier in the war. American pilots had killed Stiglers comrades and were bombing his countrys cities.
Stigler was standing near his fighter on a German airbase when he heard a bombers engine. Looking up, he saw a B-17 flying so low it looked like it was going to land. As the bomber disappeared behind some trees, Stigler tossed his cigarette aside, saluted a ground crewman and took off in pursuit.
As Stiglers fighter rose to meet the bomber, he decided to attack it from behind. He climbed behind the sputtering bomber, squinted into his gun sight and placed his hand on the trigger. He was about to fire when he hesitated. Stigler was baffled. No one in the bomber fired at him.
He looked closer at the tail gunner. He was still, his white fleece collar soaked with blood. Stigler craned his neck to examine the rest of the bomber. Its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns knocked out. He could see men huddled inside the plane tending the wounds of other crewmen.
Then he nudged his plane alongside the bombers wings and locked eyes with the pilot whose eyes were wide with shock and horror.
Franz Stigler wondered for years what happened to the American pilot he encountered in combat.
Stigler pressed his hand over the rosary he kept in his flight jacket. He eased his index finger off the trigger. He couldnt shoot. It would be murder.
Stigler wasnt just motivated by vengeance that day. He also lived by a code. He could trace his familys ancestry to knights in 16th century Europe. He had once studied to be a priest.
A German pilot who spared the enemy, though, risked death in Nazi Germany. If someone reported him, he would be executed.
Yet Stigler could also hear the voice of his commanding officer, who once told him:
You follow the rules of war for you not your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.
Alone with the crippled bomber, Stigler changed his mission. He nodded at the American pilot and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldnt shoot down the slow-moving bomber. (The Luftwaffe had B-17s of its own, shot down and rebuilt for secret missions and training.) Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot. Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away and returned to Germany.
Good luck, Stigler said to himself. Youre in Gods hands.
What creates the bond between enemies?
Stigler was able to recognize the common humanity of the enemy when he locked eyes with Brown. It caused him to take mercy.
That sudden recognition can spring from many sources in battle hearing the moans of a wounded enemy; sharing a common language; or opening the wallet of an enemy and seeing pictures of his wife and children.
That respect for the enemys humanity typically starts at the top, some scholars say. A leader sets the tone, and the troops get the message. A military leader who embodied this approach was one of Germanys greatest World War II commanders, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, also known as the Desert Fox.
One time, a group of British commandos tried to sneak behind enemy lines and assassinate Rommel in the North African desert. They failed. But Rommel insisted the commandos be buried in the same graveyard as the German soldiers who died defending him, says Steven Pressfield, author of Killing Rommel.
There were battle zones during World War II where that type of magnanimity was almost impossible. On the Eastern Front, German and Russian soldiers literally hated one another. And in the South Pacific, U.S. Marines and Japanese soldiers took no prisoners.
At times, the terrain can force soldiers to follow the code. The North African desert during World War II was one such place, Pressfield says.
Fortunes turned quickly because so many battles were fought by fast-moving tanks and mobile units. A German unit that captured British soldiers could end up surrendering to them minutes later because the battle lines were so fluid. Also, the desert sun was so harsh that both sides knew if they left enemy prisoners stranded or mistreated, they would quickly die, Pressfield says.
Some British and German soldiers never forgot how their enemy treated them and staged reunions after the war.It was not unusual for German and British doctors to work together while taking care of wounded soldiers from both sides, Pressfield says.
The Germans and the British used to get together for soccer matches, Pressfield says. It was the Desert Foxes versus the Desert Rats.
These soldiers werent just engaging in nostalgia. They shared a sense of hardship. They had survived an ordeal that most people could not understand.
In many ways, a soldier feels more of a bond with the enemy theyre fighting than with the countrymen back home, Pressfield says. The enemy theyre fighting is equally risking death.
That bond could even lead to acts of loyalty after the war, says Daniel Rolph, author of My Brothers Keepers.
Once, when a Union officer mortally wounded a Confederate captain during the Civil War, the Union man sang hymns and prayed with his enemy as the man took his last breaths. Before the captain died, he asked the Union officer to return his sword and revolver to his family a request the soldier honored after the war ended, Rolph says.
I even have an article from The New York Times in 1886 where Union soldiers who were on the pension rolls of the federal government were actually trying to transfer their money toward Confederate soldiers, Rolph says.
These bonds can even form between enemies who do not share a language or a culture.
Harold Moore Jr. was a U.S. Army colonel who led a desperate fight depicted in the 2002 Mel Gibson film, We Were Soldiers Once And Young. In 1965, Moore lost 79 of his men fighting against a larger North Vietnamese force. It was one of the first major battles in the Vietnam War.
In 1993, Moore led some of his soldiers back to Vietnam to meet their former adversaries on the same battlefield. When they arrived, Moore met the Vietnamese officer who led troops against him, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Huu An.
Charles Brown, with his wife, Jackie (left), found peace after his reunion with Franz Stigler, with his wife, Hiya.
An held out his arms and greeted Moore by kissing him on both cheeks. Moore gave him his wristwatch as a token of friendship.
Moore described in an essay what happened next:
I invited all to form a circle with arms extended around each others shoulders and we bowed our heads. With prayer and tears, we openly shared our painful memories.
An died two years after meeting Moore. Moore traveled to Vietnam to pay his respects to his former enemys family. While visiting their home, Moore spotted a familiar object displayed in the viewing case of Ans family shrine: It was his wristwatch.
A reunion of enemies
As he watched the German fighter peel away that December day, 2nd Lt. Charles Brown wasnt thinking of the philosophical connection between enemies. He was thinking of survival.
He flew back to his base in England and landed with barely any fuel left. After his bomber came to a stop, he leaned back in his chair and put a hand over a pocket Bible he kept in his flight jacket. Then he sat in silence.
Brown flew more missions before the war ended. Life moved on. He got married, had two daughters, supervised foreign aid for the U.S. State Department during the Vietnam War and eventually retired to Florida.
Late in life, though, the encounter with the German pilot began to gnaw at him. He started having nightmares, but in his dream there would be no act of mercy. He would awaken just before his bomber crashed.
Brown took on a new mission. He had to find that German pilot. Who was he? Why did he save my life?
On January 18, 1990, Brown received a letter. He opened it and read:He scoured military archives in the U.S. and England. He attended a pilots reunion and shared his story. He finally placed an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots, retelling the story and asking if anyone knew the pilot.
Dear Charles, All these years I wondered what happened to the B-17, did she make it or not?
It was Stigler. He had had left Germany after the war and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1953. He became a prosperous businessman. Now retired, Stigler told Brown that he would be in Florida come summer and it sure would be nice to talk about our encounter.
Brown was so excited, though, that he couldnt wait to see Stigler. He called directory assistance for Vancouver and asked whether there was a number for a Franz Stigler. He dialed the number, and Stigler picked up.
My God, its you! Brown shouted as tears ran down his cheeks.
Brown had to do more. He wrote a letter to Stigler in which he said: To say THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU on behalf of my surviving crewmembers and their families appears totally inadequate.
The two pilots would meet again, but this time in the lobby of a Florida hotel.
One of Browns friends was there to record the summer reunion. Both men looked like retired businessmen: they were plump, sporting neat ties and formal shirts. They talked about their encounter in a light, jovial tone.
The mood then changed. Someone asked Stigler what he thought about Brown. Stigler sighed and his square jaw tightened. He began to fight back tears before he said in heavily accented English:
I love you, Charlie.
Years later, author Makos says he understands why Stigler experienced such a surge of emotions.
Stigler had lost his brother, his friends and his country. He was virtually exiled by his countrymen after the war. There were 28,000 pilots who fought for the German air force. Only 1,200 survived, Makos says.
The war cost him everything, Makos says. Charlie Brown was the only good thing that came out of World War II for Franz. It was the one thing he could be proud of.
The meeting helped Brown as well, says his oldest daughter, Dawn Warner.
They met as enemies but Franz Stigler, on left, and Charles Brown, ended up as fishing buddies.
Brown and Stigler became pals. They would take fishing trips together. They would fly cross-country to each other homes and take road trips together to share their story at schools and veterans reunions. Their wives, Jackie Brown and Hiya Stigler, became friends.
Browns daughter says her father would worry about Stiglers health and constantly check in on him.
It wasnt just for show, she says. They really did feel for each other. They talked about once a week.
As his friendship with Stigler deepened, something else happened to her father, Warner says:
The nightmares went away.
Brown had written a letter of thanks to Stigler, but one day, he showed the extent of his gratitude. He organized a reunion of his surviving crew members, along with their extended families. He invited Stigler as a guest of honor.
During the reunion, a video was played showing all the faces of the people that now lived children, grandchildren, relatives because of Stiglers act of chivalry. Stigler watched the film from his seat of honor.
Everybody was crying, not just him, Warner says.
Stigler and Brown died within months of each other in 2008. Stigler was 92, and Brown was 87. They had started off as enemies, became friends, and then something more.
Makos discovered what that was by accident while spending a night at Browns house. He was poking through Browns library when he came across a book on German fighter jets. Stigler had given the book to Brown. Both were country boys who loved to read about planes.
Makos opened the book and saw an inscription Stigler had written to Brown:
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 that she was still flying.
The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me, as precious as my brother was.
So you would have had no problem with the Confederacy in killing all the Union soldiers it had captured? And conversely, you would have had no problem with the Union killing all the Confederate soldiers it had captured?
The captured analogy would be to parachuting, not a plane returning to base.
Sorry kid, but there is more to war than just killing everyone in your sights, especially those who are no longer a military threat. Hopefully one day you'll be able to experience it for yourself rather than pontificate about it in the comfort of your nice New York Jewish neighborhood.
Your analogies don't apply. If you think that a plane returning to base is a prioner, then you lack perspective.
>>War is not analogous to crimes. There are no cops. <<
Oh yes it is. The cops come around in the middle of the night when everyone else is sleeping and reminds you of the crimes you saw and those you committed. Those are nightmares that you will never forget.
There is an immense difference between defending your life from an armed attacker and murdering a defenseless soldier who can do you no harm.
I will pray that you never see combat.
I had a friend whose Father had a large farm in Alabama. During WWII He had a large group of German POWs from the Africa Corps, who worked on his farm.
He would give each of the prisoners a coca cola and a pack of cigarettes every day which was above what he was required to pay them. These German prisoners would get Red Cross packs from Germany. One of the items in them would be ersatz cigarettes. He said the first thing they would do was throw away their German cigarettes.
The old farmer became good friends with a bunch of them and traded letters and Christmas cards with some until he died.
My Father watched German POWs being loaded into trucks. There was only one guard per truck. As he tried to step up to the trucks body, he handed one of the prisoners his Garand and the German helped pull gun up.
It was the G model that had the chin turret. I knew a man who was a B-17 ball-turret gunner. Man was that guy lucky. That was the ‘’dead mans’’position. You had to cram yourself into that thing without a parachute and it was hydraulic operated. If the hydraulics were shot out you were toast. There wasn’t anyway to manually crank it up. Many a poor guy in that position ended up a red smear on the runway if it had to make a belly landing.
I have the book, I think he had a conscience, and was very frank. He also meet with enemy pilots after the war. I believe if he lived by a code, then he may have spared an enemy pilot. He had the same compassion for a shot up enemy fighter plane.
many of the pilots of both nations failed to survive the war the 1st 4 months of pacific war.
In pacific late 1941, B17C and D models were still in operation. The new E/F model were just entering service.
(by mid 42 they had replaced and were in full operation, in Europe a little later because philosphy there was LARGE formation use, where as in Pacific they were used piece meal).
War is brutal and atrocities were(will be) commit ed by both sides. But, it is acts of compassion that reflect true humanity.
Many in the German army were professionals. They believed in the code.
Stigler’s action was not unique,but I have no doubt, he never regretted his decision!!
Thanks for your remarks
Mercy trumps sacrifice!!!!
You’re welcome however any German soldier conducted himself personally its important to never lose sight of the fact that every German soldier, flier or Kreigsmariner who did his duty that soldier made it possible every month, everyday day, every hour for some unfortunate to be shoved into a gas chamber. This is and will forever be the awful legacy of that generation of Germans who served Fuhrer und Vaterland’’.
One of the sad ironies of WW2 is that German prisoners in the South were given passes to go into towns and basically have a good time for themselves. It was galling for sure to see Germans be able to go to movie theaters and get front row seats while African-Americans had to sit in the balcony.
I talked to a GI one time who told me that when he was a guard at one of those hastaly-built POW camps, the POWs lived in heated barracks while the GIs guarding them still lived in tents before their own barracks were erected.
The US policy then was to be real nice to the German POWs hoping the Germans would respond in kind. The only thing the US did do was attempt to identify the real hard-core Nazis among the POWs and keep them in separate higher security facilities.
The average German 'Grunt' was treated very well, and even allowed to hold jobs in the local area on farms etc. They were treated like 'trusties' in a civilian prison. They just had to report back at the appointed time. Some of them left the POW camps after the war with a lot of savings.
It might have been humane on the part of the Japanese commander to do what he did. It might however been a matter of practicality too. Leave your enemy to be rescued by his own comrades and your enemy lives to fight another day. To see the real face of Japanese treatment of Allied prisoners look up the “Hell Ships’’ and the nightmare that was for so many unfortunate Allied prisoners. John Toland’s excellent book “The Rising Sun’ is a good place to start.’. From the Bataan Death March, the “Hell Ships’’’ to the Thai-Burma Railway the Japs were brutal captors.
The B-17E and later had tail gunners. There were very few B, C and D models. The Pearl Harbor B-17s were D models, IIRC and didn’t have tail gunners. All the B-17s in Europe were E or later and B-17Fs were the first to do large scale bombing in Germany.
The same could be said about our current armed forces and the present administration. (sarc)
Also then, we (WE, US) share the same responsibility for the millions (unborn) of innocent that have been slain since Roe vs Wade.
That is a terrible burden.
I will give the ordinary soldier some mercy and benefit of doubt for their ignorance.
I too served in ignorance,but at least it was under Reagan, and not the last few poor excuses. (sarc)
Thanks, you still make good points.
Not all Japanese combatants were brutal. There were some acts of kindness, even at Bataan. Though it WAS not the practice of Japanese Military to treat POW humanely, there are many accounts of Humane acts.
On the the high seas as well as the desert of N. Africa, soldiers still had a code.
Americans have been known to strafe pilots in parachutes as well. (not to mention the B-25/ A20 that strafed merchant ships in Solomons).
So, war brings out the best and worse in mankind.
The Godless Nations will always lean to the Beastly side.
(and cruelty to their own people as well, Pol Pot, Stalin.)
see post 66, close
My maternal grandfather was a college history professor and a veteran of World War Two and Korea, so I learned a great deal of history on his knee. After he passed away several years ago, I inherited his collection of history books. I had to build a whole new wall of shelves to house them, and I still have a bunch that are languishing in boxes because I don't have a spare wall right now.