“He’s 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 Christmas1943, and the fighter had closed in on their crippled American B-17 bomber for the kill.
But when Brown and his Co-Pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke, looked at the Fighter Pilot again, something odd happened. The German didn’t pull the trigger. He stared back at the bomber in amazement and respect. Instead of pressing the attack, he nodded at Brown and saluted. What happened next was one of the most remarkable acts of chivalry recorded during World War Il.
Stigler wasn’t just motivated by vengeance that day. He also lived by a code. He could trace his Family’s 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 wouldn’t shoot down the slow-moving bomber. (The Luftwaffe had B-17’s 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. “You’re in God’s hands now…” Franz Stigler didn’t think the big B-17 could make it back to England and wondered for years what happened to the American Pilot and crew he encountered in combat.
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? 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.
On January 18, 1990, Brown received a letter. He opened it and read: “Dear Charles, All 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 has filled me with indescribable joy…”
It was Stigler.
He 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 couldn’t 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, it’s 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 crew members and their families appears totally inadequate.”
The two Pilots would meet again, but this time in person, in the lobby of a Florida hotel. One of Brown’s Friends was there to record the Summer Reunion. Both men looked like retired businessmen: they were plump, sporting neat ties and formal shirts. They fell into each other’s arms and wept and laughed. 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.”
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.
Brown’s Daughter says her Father would worry about Stigler’s health and constantly check in on him.
“It wasn’t 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 Stigler’s 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.
After he died, Warner was searching through Brown’s library when she 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.
Warner 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 beforeChristmas, 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.