Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler Incident Anniversary:
War is a crime and war stories are horrific, but any story of mercy is a great story; any story that humanizes an enemy is a great story; and any story of friendship is a great story. This story is triply great.
-The Voice before the Void
“Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler incident”
The Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler incident occurred on the 20th of December, 1943, when, after a successful bomb run on Bremen, 2nd Lt. Charles “Charlie” Brown’s B-17 Flying Fortress (named “Ye Olde Pub”) was severely damaged by German fighters. Luftwaffe ace Franz Stigler had the opportunity to shoot down the crippled bomber, but for humane reasons, he decided to allow the crew to fly back to England. After an extensive search by Brown, the two pilots met each other over 40 years later and developed a friendship that lasted until Stigler’s death in March 2008.
2nd Lt. Charles L. “Charlie” Brown (“a farm boy from Weston, West Virginia,” in his own words) was a B-17F pilot with the 379th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces’ 8th Air Force, stationed at RAF Kimbolton in England. Franz Stigler, a former airline pilot from Bavaria, was a veteran Luftwaffe fighter pilot attached to Jagdgeschwader 27; at the time, he had 22 aerial victories to his name and would be eligible for the coveted Knight’s Cross with one more downed enemy bomber.
2. Bremen mission
The mission was the Ye Olde Pub crew’s first and targeted the Focke-Wulf 190 aircraft production facility in Bremen. The men of the 527th Bombardment Squadron were informed in a pre-mission briefing that they might encounter hundreds of German fighters. Bremen was guarded by 250 flak guns, operated by the elite Officer Candidate School of gunners. Brown’s crew was assigned to fly “Purple Heart Corner,” a spot on the edge of the formation that was considered especially dangerous.
Brown’s B-17 began its 10-minute bomb run at 8,300 m with an outside air temperature of −60 °C. Before the bomber released its bomb load, accurate flak shattered the Plexiglas nose, knocked out the number two engine, and further damaged the number four engine, which was already in questionable condition and had to be throttled back to prevent overspeeding. The damage slowed the bomber and Brown was unable to remain with his formation and fell back as a straggler – a position from which he came under sustained enemy attacks.
Attacks by fighters
Brown’s straggling B-17 was now attacked by over a dozen enemy fighters (a mixture of Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s) of JG 11 for over 10 minutes. Further damage was sustained, including damage to the number three engine, which would produce only half power (meaning that the aircraft had at best 40% of its total rated power available). The bomber’s internal oxygen, hydraulic, and electrical systems were also damaged, and the bomber lost half of its rudder and its port elevator, as well as its nose cone. Many of the gunners’ weapons then jammed, probably as a result of improper pre-mission oiling, leaving the bomber with only two dorsal turret guns and one of three forward-firing nose guns (from eleven available) for defense. Most of the crew were wounded: the tail gunner, Eckenrode, had been killed by a direct hit from a fighter shell, while Yelesanko was critically wounded in the leg by shrapnel, Pechout had been hit in the eye by a shell fragment, and Brown was wounded in his right shoulder. The morphine syrettes onboard froze, complicating first aid efforts by the crew, while the radio was destroyed and the bomber’s exterior heavily damaged.
Brown’s damaged bomber was spotted by Germans on the ground, including Franz Stigler, who was refueling and rearming at an airfield. He soon took off in his Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-6 (which had a .50 caliber Browning machine gun bullet embedded in the radiator, which risked the engine overheating) and quickly caught up with Brown’s plane. Through the bomber’s damaged airframe Stigler was able to see the injured and incapacitated crew. To the American pilot’s surprise, Stigler did not open fire on the crippled bomber. Stigler recalled the words of one of his commanding officers from Jagdgeschwader 27, Gustav Rödel, during his time fighting in North Africa, “If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you myself.” Stigler later commented, “To me, it was just like they were in a parachute. I saw them and I couldn’t shoot them down.”
Twice, Stigler tried to get Brown to land his plane at a German airfield and surrender, or divert to nearby neutral Sweden, where he and his crew would receive medical treatment and be interned the remainder of the war. Brown and the crew of the B-17 did not understand what Stigler was trying to mouth and gesture to them and so flew on. Stigler then flew near Brown’s plane in formation on the bomber’s port side wing, so German antiaircraft units would not target it; he then escorted the damaged B-17 over the coast until they reached open water. Brown, unsure of Stigler’s intentions at the time, ordered his dorsal turret gunner to point at Stigler but not open fire in order to warn him off. Understanding the message and certain that the bomber was out of German airspace, Stigler departed with a salute.
Brown managed to fly the 400 km across the North Sea and land his plane at RAF Seething, home of the 448th Bomb Group and at the postflight debriefing informed his officers about how a German fighter pilot had let him go. He was told not to repeat this to the rest of the unit so as not to build any positive sentiment about enemy pilots. Brown commented, “Someone decided you can’t be human and be flying in a German cockpit.” Stigler said nothing of the incident to his commanding officers, knowing that a German pilot who spared the enemy while in combat risked execution. Brown went on to complete a combat tour.
3. Post war and meeting of pilots
After the war, Brown returned home to West Virginia and went to college, returning to the newly-established U.S. Air Force in 1949 and serving until 1965. Later, as a State Department Foreign Service Officer, he made numerous trips to Laos and Vietnam. But in 1972, he retired from government service and moved to Miami to become an inventor.
Stigler moved to Canada in 1953 and became a successful businessman.
In 1986, the then-retired Lieutenant Colonel Brown was asked to speak at a combat pilot reunion event called a “Gathering of the Eagles” at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Someone asked him if he had any memorable missions during World War II; Brown thought for a minute and then recalled the story of Stigler’s escort and salute. Afterwards, Brown decided he should try to find the unknown German pilot.
After four years of searching vainly for U.S. Army Air Forces, U.S. Air Force, and West German Air Force records that might shed some light on who the other pilot was, Brown had not come up with much. He then wrote a letter to a combat pilot association newsletter. A few months later, Brown received a letter from Stigler, who was now living in Canada. “I was the one,” it said. When they spoke on the phone, Stigler described his plane, the escort, and salute, confirming everything Brown needed to hear to know he was the German fighter pilot involved in the incident.
Between 1990 and 2008, Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler became close friends and remained so until their deaths within months of each other in 2008.