The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.” Norman Schwarzkopf
December 20, 1943 – Somewhere Over Germany: U.S. Air Force 2nd Lieutenant Charlie Brown glanced outside the cockpit of his crippled B-17 bomber. He closed his eyes and shook his head, hoping he was hallucinating. He wasn’t. A sleek, black German Messerschmitt 109 fighter flew 10 feet from the bomber’s right-wing tip. Nodding towards the enemy plane, he yelled to his co-pilot, “My God, he’s going to destroy us.” Then he touched the New Testament in his pocket and breathed a prayer.
Charlie, a 21-year-old West Virginia farm boy, had joined the Army right after high school with the goal of flying bombers. Now on his first combat mission over Germany his B-17 had been shot to pieces by a dozen German fighters. Six of his 10-member crew were wounded, and the tail gunner was dead. Struggling to maintain an altitude of 3,000 feet, he was flying at 135 knots, just above stall speed. Charlie ordered the remaining crew to don their parachutes.
German Luftwaffe 2nd Lt. Franz Stigler, the pilot of the Messerschmitt had flown for Lufthansa Airlines before the war. His older brother, a fellow Luftwaffe pilot, had been killed earlier in the war. Franz wasn’t just any pilot. He was an ace. There were 22 white slashes on the tail of his plane, one for each kill. Franz had shot down two American bombers just that morning. One more bomber and he would earn the distinguished Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest medal for valor.
When Franz spotted Charlie’s B-17, he approached it from the rear. He had his finger on the trigger of the 20mm machine gun and was about to shoot when he hesitated. Looking more closely, he saw the large bullet holes in the fuselage. The bomber’s left stabilizer was gone; the tail gun section was obliterated, and the aircraft was flying on only one of four engines. How was it still flying?
After tailing the bomber for a short distance, Franz pulled the fighter alongside the B-17’s right wing. He had never seen a bomber so severely shot up still in the air. He locked eyes with Charlie, then nodded at the frightened pilot. Franz, who had once studied to be a priest, couldn’t shoot down a defenseless bomber. He knew, though, if he let the American bomber go and his superiors found out, he would be shot by a firing squad. He made his decision.
The German Messerschmitt flew in formation beside the defenseless American Bomber so German anti-aircraft gunners would not shoot down the low flying target. Franz escorted the bomber 30 miles out over the North Sea, then saluted Charlie Brown, tipped his wings, and headed back to Germany. “Good luck,” Franz said to himself. “You are in God’s hands.”
Charlie flew on toward England, 200 miles away. The plane now limped along at 1,000 feet. To lighten the load, the crew tossed everything that wasn’t nailed down. As the bomber approached the English coast, American P-47 Thunderbolts escorted it to a 2,000-foot runway at the American Base at Seething. When the plane rolled to a stop, Charlie sat in the cockpit holding his Bible and wondering what had just happened.
Years passed and life moved on for both men after the war. Charlie married, had two daughters and worked in the U.S. State Department before retiring to Miami. He continued to have nightmares of being shot down over Germany only to wake up just before the plane crashed. He had to find the German pilot.
Charlie finally placed an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots. On January 8, 1990, he received a reply. The letter began, “Dear Charles, for all these years, I wondered what happened to the B-17.” It was from Franz, who had moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, after the war and was a successful businessman.
Their chance encounter in the skies over Germany had haunted both men for almost 50 years. They had a tearful reunion at a Florida hotel a few months later and ended up becoming best friends and fishing buddies for years.
The WWII veterans died within a few months of each other in 2008. Franz was 92 and Charlie, 87. They had flown together for 10 minutes four days before Christmas 1943. Charlie Brown found his Christmas Angel. Franz Stigler never got the Knight’s Cross, but he says, “I got something better, a brother.”