A German Pilot Protects a Damaged US Bomber
When we think of war, we typically think of man's inhumanity to man. Thankfully, there are more than a few stories proving the opposite. Today, we'll look at one of those stories.
During World War II, the Allies sent thousands of bombers into Nazi held territory to destroy the Nazi war machine from the air.
On December 20th, 1943, the 527th Bombardment Squadron of the 8th US Air Force was assigned to bomb the Focke-Wulf 190 factory in Bremen, Germany. The area was heavily guarded by 250 anti-aircraft guns. One of the bombers, Ye Olde Pub, was assigned to a portion of the formation called the "Purple Heart Corner" due to danger. This was Ye Olde Pub's first mission.
As the B-17 reached the target, it was hit by anti-aircraft fire. The Plexiglass in the nose was shattered, engine #2 was knocked out and engine #4 was damaged. They dropped their bombs on the target and turned for home. The pilot, 2nd Lt Charles L. "Charlie" Brown, was unable to stay with the rest of the formation and started to fall behind.
Ye Olde Pub was swarmed by a dozen German fighters. The resulting attack damaged engine #3, the oxygen supply, the rudder, the hydraulic and electrical systems. The cold air (at least −76 °F) flowing in through the damaged nose caused several of the machine guns to freeze. They were down to 3 out of 11 guns. Many of the crew were wounded, and the tail gunner was killed. The crew talked about bailing out, but worried that one of them would not be able to land safely.
The damaged bomber was sighted by Oberleutnant Franz Stigler, whose fighter was being refueled and rearmed. He took off and quickly caught up with Ye Olde Pub. When he reached the bomber, Stigler could see the wounded crew though huge holes in the side of the bomber. He reached into his flight jacket and touched the beads of his rosary. He had once studied to be a priest. The moral code he's been taught wouldn't allow him to murder these helpless men. The Americans were shocked when Stigler didn't fire on them.
Stigler tried to get Lt. Brown to land at a German airfield or fly to neutral Sweden. However, Brown didn't understand what Stigler was trying to communicate and kept flying for home. Stigler brought his Messerschmitt Bf 109 alongside the bomber, so German anti-aircraft guns could not target the bomber.
(The Germans had captured a number of B-17s and used them to train fighter pilots and for long range transports.) He continued to fly alongside until they reached open water. Stigler gave them a salute and returned to base.
The bomber continued across the North Sea for 250 miles and landed at an RAF airfield. Brown told his commander about the German fighter pilot who saved them, but was told to keep it a secret. Stigler couldn't tell anyone what happened for fear of being court-martialed and executed for saving the enemy.
After the War
For many years, Brown wondered about the German pilot who had saved their lives. He checked the military archives and told the story at pilot reunions. Finally, he put an ad in a newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots. In January of 1990, Brown received a letter from Stigler. (After the war, Stigler had moved to Canada and become a successful businessman.) The letter 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."
After reading the letter, Brown used directory assistance to find Stigler's phone number. Within minutes, the two pilots had connected over the phone. The two men shared details of the event.
Later that year, the two men met in person at a hotel in Florida. The meeting led to a close friendship between the two men. Over the years, they would visit each other and go on fishing trips together. They attended pilot reunions together. Stigler had discovered a brother after losing family, friends, and country. The two pilots passed away within a few months of each other in 2008. Stigler was 92, and Brown was 87.
Why This Story is Cool
When we think of World War II, we think of evil Nazi soldiers. However, not every German soldier was a Nazi or even a fan of the Nazi movement. There were actual humans wearing German uniforms. Humans who took pity on their enemy and helped them survive. We need to remember that, regardless of the conflict.
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