It’s easy to demonize the enemies and paint a generalized image of them as ruthless, evil, killing machines in flesh and bones. It is somehow understandable, given all the sufferings, chaos, and death that the men and women in the war had to face every single day they were there, and the haunting scenes that kept on playing in their minds even after the war was far over.
However, there are still tales that make us restore our faith in humanity. During those times, we receive help and kindness from those we least expect it from — our enemies. It happened during World War II between a US B-17 pilot and a Luftwaffe ace.
Charlie Brown’s Point of View
On Dec. 20, 1943, Charlie Brown, a young American pilot, was returning from his first mission as a unit with his crew members after they attempted to bomb an aircraft production facility in Germany. Things were not looking good for them. One of the crew members was dead, while the other six were wounded. 2nd Lt. Brown was by himself in his cockpit because those three unharmed were tending to the others. His B-17 had just been attacked by some 15 German planes, leaving only one of its four engines working. Brown himself had fallen unconscious but regained consciousness just in time before the B-17 nose-dived into their death.
He struggled to keep his plane running because he knew they had to make it to England if they wanted to survive. Heading down meant being caught and probably killed by the Nazis, which was not an option for them. He kept thinking until he noticed a German pilot flying to his right. Could he be hallucinating? He made the dramatic closing and opening of his eyes to ensure that what he saw was real. When the Luftwaffe did not disappear, he knew it was not just a product of his tired and confused mind. They’re done for, he thought.
“He’s going to destroy us,” he said.
The German flew over to Brown’s left and was pointing, mouthing things, and making these huge wild gestures that he could not comprehend. There’s only one thing that he understood, though, that the guy was an enemy and that they should shoot him down before the German shoots them down first. So Brown yelled for his top gunner to get up in his turret and shoot the Luftwaffe. But, before his gunner could, the man did something weird that he would never forget for the next forty years of his life: He looked Brown in the eyes, gave him a salute, and then peeled away.
Long after he survived the war, got married, and settled in Miami, he could not stop thinking about that Nazi. What was he up to that day?
Franz Stigler’s Point of View
From his first day on base, Stigler was taught by his commanding officer, Lt. Gustav Roedel, to fight with honor and as much humanity as possible. A lesson that he would apply throughout his military career.
On Dec. 20, 1943, Stigler was on the ground in Oldenburg, Germany, waiting for his Messerschmitt 109 to be re-armed and refueled when he heard a low-flying aircraft nearby. Just a few miles away, he saw an American bomber, not dropping a single bomb. Stigler immediately stood, ready to pursue the US plane. When the crew unhooked the hoses from his aircraft, he started the pursuit. It would be his 23rd confirmed victory had he successfully down this one, enough for him to be awarded the Knight’s Cross.
He followed the B-17 and flew just close enough on its tail so he could hit it with ease. As he was squinting through his gunsight, ready to pull the trigger, he noticed that the plane he was aiming for had no tail guns. Its left stabilizer was gone, too. That’s when he saw that it didn’t also have a tail-gun compartment. The gunner’s collar of the plane was soaked in red with the icicles of blood hanging from the guns’ barrels. That’s when he knew what was going on. He drew beside the B-17 and noticed that the nose of the plane was nonexistent, too. More than blowing the plane off, he was now wondering how the thing was still up in the air.
Stigler pointed to the ground when he saw the pilot had noticed his presence. The US pilots shook their heads, obviously not willing to be taken as prisoners. At this point, he was not only worried about the enemy crew but his safety, too. If the Nazis would spot his plane, they would surely kill him. However, he knew he had to do the right thing. They were nearing the Atlantic wall, and if the flak gunners spotted the German and American planes flying alongside each other, they were not sure what was going on.
As for Stigler, he decided to pull away before things got worse for him, too. He gave the enemy pilot a salute and went his way, keeping the story to himself and serving through the end of World War II in fear that what he did would soon be discovered. He could not feel at home in Germany anymore, so in 1953, he decided to relocate to Vancouver, Canada.
Against All Odds
Both men rarely spoke about the incident, aside from telling it to their respective wives. It was understandable for Stigler, as treason was punishable by death. To Brown, he told his commanding officer about the encounter but was instructed to keep it classified, perhaps not wanting to humanize the adversaries.
In January 1990, Brown took out an ad in a newsletter specifically for fighter pilots, searching for the one “who saved my life on Dec. 20, 1943.” He left one key detail on the ad: where the German pilot had abandoned his bomber plane.
Just like the minimal chance that the B-17 would make it back home safely, the ad found Stigler in his home in Vancouver. He yelled to his wife, “This is him! This is the one I didn’t shoot down!”
He wasted no time and wrote a letter to Brown, who, upon receiving it, was too impatient to read, so he just dialed Stigler’s number to talk to him directly.
“When I let you go over the sea, I thought you’d never make it,” were Stigler’s first words.
“My God, it’s you,” were the only words Brown mustered to say, with tears falling down his face. But, on the other line, Stigler could not hold his tears too.
He explained everything when Brown asked where he was pointing that day. He told him how he knew Brown had no idea how bad the plane’s condition was. He first pointed to Germany and then away while mouthing “Sweden.” He attempted to escort them to safety but had to fly away when he saw the gun swing from the turret, and while he was steering away, he whispered, “Good luck, you’re in God’s hands.”
That was the start of their friendship, and the two wanted the world to know their story to make people realize that the world could be better than it was.
Both of them died from heart attacks in 2008, six months apart. Brown was 87, while Stigler was 92.
Both felt that they should tell their story to as many people as would hear it, not for money but make people realize that there’s always another way, that the world could be infinitely better than it was.
In their obituaries, each was listed to the other as “a special brother.”