This Day in History: The Charlie Brown & Franz Stigler incident
On this day in 1943, a German ace bypasses an opportunity to shoot down a U.S. Army Air Forces pilot. Second Lt. Charles “Charlie” Brown was struggling just to keep his crippled B-17 in the air!
“I look out the right window,” Brown would later describe, “and there parked on my right wing is a German BF-109 . . . . I closed my eyes and shook my head as you would with a nightmare. If I close my eyes and open them again, he’ll be gone. Well, I opened them again and he was still there.”
Inexplicably, Luftwaffe pilot Franz Stigler never fired on Brown. Instead, he escorted the Americans out of German air space, enabling the B-17 to continue on to a safe landing in England.
Both men survived and would find each other many decades after World War II. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Brown and Stigler would spend the last years of their lives as dear friends.
It all started one cold day in December 1943. Brown was returning from a bombing run on a German factory. Brown’s plane was badly damaged during the effort and was trying to return home. One of his crew was dead and several more were injured. At one point, Brown himself had lost consciousness, sending the plane into a deep nose dive. Brown had recovered just in time to save the plane.
When Stigler caught up to the plane, he thought it the “most heavily damaged aircraft I ever saw that was still flying.”
Stigler was in an odd position. He’d already downed two bombers that day. One more would earn him one of his nation’s highest awards: the Knight’s Cross. Perhaps even more persuasively, a decision not to attack the American plane would have been considered such a terrible offense that he could be executed for it. Yet he looked at the plane, saw the wounded men struggling to survive, and he found that he simply couldn’t take action against them.
“I cannot kill these half-dead people,” he thought. “It would be like shooting at a parachute.”
Stigler wanted Brown to land his plane, but Brown had no intention of landing in German territory. Stigler tried to wave Brown toward Sweden, which would have been neutral territory. Stigler didn’t think Brown had any chance of making it to England. For his part, Brown was mostly terrified. Why was the German pilot waving at him like that? Did he want Brown to surrender? Before too long, he’d had enough. He was limited in his ability to fire on Stigler, but he motioned at his gunner to try.
By then, Stigler was getting worried that he’d either be shot by the Americans or discovered by another German plane. He looked at Brown, saluted and turned around. Safely out of German airspace, Brown would make it back to England, but just barely.
What had happened? It would be nearly 50 years before Brown got a real answer to his question. In 1986, he began looking for the mysterious German pilot who’d spared his life. In 1990, he finally found him.
The two men were friends practically before they met. “It was like meeting a family member, like a brother you haven’t seen for 40 years,” Stigler would later say. A video of him meeting Brown for the first time shows him fighting back tears. “I love you, Charlie,” he says.
The two men ended up collaborating on a book together. And they would end up passing away within months of each other in 2008.
“The war left them in turmoil,” observed a co-author of their book. “When they found each other, they found peace.”
Primary Sources & Further Reading
Adam Makos & Larry Alexander, A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II (2012)
Ian Darling, Amazing Airmen: Canadian Flyers in the Second World War (2009)
John Blake, Two enemies discover a ‘higher call’ in battle (CNN; March 2013)
John L. Frisbe, When an Enemy Was a Friend (Air Force Magazine; January 1997)
Joan MacDonald, Our Mornings May Never be: Memoirs of a WAAF Sergeant—and Beyond (2002)
Video: Bf 109 pilot Franz Stigler and B-17 pilot Charlie Brown’s first meeting