German fighter saved Allied bomber
IN December 1943, a B-17 Flying Fortress of the 379th Flying Group out of Kimbolton, England, named Ye Old Pub and commanded by 21-year-old Lt Charles L ‘Charlie’ Brown, took heavy damage during a mission to bomb factories in Bremen, Germany.
His plane had been hit by flak and fighters.
While attempting to fly back to England, some 250 miles (400km) away, with a crippled plane and three badly injured crew members, Brown encountered a German flying an ME-109 Messerschmitt fighter plane who, rather than shoot down the crippled B-17, saluted the crew and later disappeared.
Franz Stigler, a fighter ace with over two dozen enemy kills to his name, was the pilot of the ME-109 and almost 50 years later, the two pilots met at a reunion of the 379th Flying Group in Seattle, Washington, USA.
On his return flight to England, Brown had flown his crippled bomber directly over a German Luftwaffe airfield where Stigler was stationed.
Stigler was ordered to take off and shoot down the bomber.
When he got near the B-17, he could not believe his eyes. In his own words, he ‘had never seen a plane in such a bad state’.
“The tail and rear section was severely damaged, and the tail gunner wounded,” he said.
“The top gunner was all over the top of the fuselage. The nose was smashed and there were holes everywhere.”
Despite having ammunition, Stigler flew to the side of the B-17 and looked at Charlie Brown, the pilot. Brown was scared and struggling to control his damaged and blood-stained plane.
Stigler escorted the stricken plane to, and slightly over, the North Sea towards England. He then saluted Charlie Brown and turned away, back to Europe.
Charlie Brown and the remains of his crew told all at their briefing, but were ordered never to talk about it.
Brown served in the US Air Force until his retirement in 1972 as a Lt Col. However, the 1943 incident involving the German who had not shot down a beaten enemy haunted him throughout the years.
He became determined to find the enemy pilot who had saved him and his crew. Brown wrote numerous letters to German military with little success.
Finally, a letter in a newspaper seeking former Luftwaffe pilots elicited a response from Franz Stigler. As it turned out, he was the ‘angel of mercy’ in the skies over Germany just before Christmas, 1943.
It had taken 46 years but in 1989, Brown found his man. They met in the US at a 379th Bomber Group reunion, together with 25 people who are alive now - all because Franz never fired his guns that day.
When asked why he didn’t shoot them down, Stigler later said”“I didn’t have the heart to finish off those brave men.
“I flew beside them for a long time. They were trying desperately to get home and I was going to let them do it.
“I could not have shot at them. It would have been the same as shooting at a man in a parachute.”
Stigler had immigrated to Canada and was living near Vancouver. After exchanging several letters, Brown flew there for a reunion. The two visited each other several times and appeared before military audiences in both Canada and the USA.
In his first letter to Brown, Stigler wrote: “All these years I wondered what happened to the B-17. Did she make it or not?”
She made it, just barely.
Franz Stigler passed away on 22 March, 2008. Charles Brown passed away on 24 November, 2008.