At the age of 26, Franz Stigler was an Ace. The Luftwaffe pilot of a Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter, some of his kills had been revenge, payback for the death of his brother August earlier in the war. But this man was no Nazi. He was a German Patriot with 22 confirmed kills. On December 20, 1943, he needed one more for a Knight’s Cross. He tossed his cigarette aside and climbed into his fighter as the crippled American B17 bomber lumbered overhead. This was going to be an easy kill.
21-year-old Charles Brown was at the throttle of that B17, a plane named “Ye Olde Pub”. The earlier attack on the munitions factory in Bremen had been a success, but the pilot and crew paid a heavy price for it. Their aircraft had been savaged by no fewer than 15 German fighters. Great parts of the air frame were torn away, one wing severely damaged and part of the tail torn away. The aircraft’s Plexiglas nose was shattered and the #2 engine seized. Six of the ten-man crew were wounded and the tail gunner dead, his blood frozen in icicles over silent machine guns. Brown himself had been knocked out at one point, coming around just in time to avert a fatal dive.
The aircraft was completely alone and struggling to maintain altitude, the American pilot well inside German air space when he looked to his left and saw his worst nightmare. Three feet from his wing tip was the sleek gray shape of a German fighter, the pilot so close that the two men were looking into one another’s eyes.
Brown’s co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke said “My God, this is a nightmare.” “He’s going to destroy us,” came the reply. This had been Brown’s first mission, he was sure it was about to be his last.
Before his first mission, Stigler’s commanding officer, Lt. Gustav Roedel, had said “Honor is everything here. If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you down myself”. Stigler must have remembered those words as he watched the wounded, terrified US airmen inside the B17, some still helping one another with their injuries. “You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy, Roedel had said. “You fight by rules to keep your humanity”.
The German had to do something. The Nazis would surely shoot him for treason if he was seen this close without completing the kill. One of the American crew was making his way to a gun turret as the German made his decision. Stigler saluted his adversary, motioned with his hand for the stricken B17 to continue, and then peeled away. Ye Olde Pub made it, crossing 250 miles of the frozen North Sea before finally landing in Norfolk.
More than 40 years later, the German pilot was living in Vancouver, Canada, when Brown took out an ad in a fighter pilots’ newsletter. It said that he was searching for the man ‘who saved my life on Dec. 20, 1943.’ Stigler saw the ad, and the two met for the first time in 1987. “It was like meeting a family member”, Brown said at their first meeting, “like a brother you haven’t seen for 40 years”.
The two became close friends and occasional fishing buddies until their passing in 2008, six months apart. Stigler was age 92 and Brown 87. Their story is told in a book called “A Higher Call”, if you want to know more about it. In their obituaries, both were mentioned as the other man’s “special brother”.