On 20 December 1943, Lt Charles “Charlie” Brown was pilot of an American B-17 Flying Fortress on a mission over Bremen, Germany. Flak over the target area had damaged his aircraft and, as a result, he was unable to keep up with his formation. He, along with his nine crewmembers, became lone stragglers over enemy territory – every bomber crew’s worst nightmare. They would be easy pickings for enemy fighters.
Predictably, they were soon attacked by German planes as they struggled for England. More than a dozen ME 109s and FW 190s relentlessly strafed the nearly helpless bomber. German bullets shredded the plane’s crew, as well as vital flight control and propulsion systems. When the attacks subsided, nearly every member of the crew was injured or dead and the plane had only 40% of its rated power. As they flew low over an enemy airfield, an ace German fighter pilot went up to finish them off.
Franz Stigler was a veteran Luftwaffe fighter pilot credited with 27 victories. With the downing of one more bomber, he would be eligible for the coveted Knight’s Cross. He quickly caught up to Brown’s crippled bomber and found it barely airworthy – downing it would be easy. He recalled, however, something a former commanding officer once said to his squadron: “If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you myself.” To Stigler, he was now staring at parachute. He couldn’t bring himself to shooting them down.
Stigler flew alongside Brown and motioned for him to land, but the American pilot refused and flew on. So Stigler simply flew close to the B-17 to prevent ground crews from attacking them with AA guns. Once they reached the coast of the North Sea, Stigler saluted Brown as if to wish him good luck, and returned to his home base. He would report to his commander that the American bomber crashed into the sea.
Amazingly, Brown’s plane made it back to England and landed. Despite the horrific attacks, only one crewmember died, but most were injured. Brown would recover from his injuries and retired from the military in 1965. He would later retire from government civil service in 1972 and relocate to Miami. But he always wondered about that German pilot who mercifully let him live — wondered if the man survived the war. After a fruitless search of public records, Brown outlined his story to a German veteran’s magazine and, more than 40 years after that encounter over Germany, Franz Stigler would read it. He was by this time in Canada and reached out to Brown.