A pilot glanced outside his cockpit and froze. He blinked hard and looked again, hoping it was just a mirage. But his co-pilot stared at the same horrible vision. "My God, this is a nightmare," the co-pilot said. "He's going to destroy us," the pilot agreed.
The men were looking at a gray German Messerschmitt fighter hovering just three feet off their wingtip. It was five days before Christmas 1943, and the fighter had closed in on their crippled American B-17 bomber for the kill.
Brown's Crippled B-17 Stalked by Stigler's ME-109
B-17 Pilot, Charles Brown, was a 21-year-old
when Brown and his co-pilot, Spencer "Pinky" Luke,
looked at the fighter pilot again, something odd happened. The German
pull the trigger. He stared back at the bomber in amazement and
Instead of pressing the attack, he nodded at Brown and saluted. What
next was one of the most remarkable acts of chivalry recorded during
pressed his hand over the rosary he kept in his flight
jacket. He eased his index finger off the trigger. He
couldn't shoot. It
would be murder. Stigler
wasn't just motivated by vengeance that day. He also lived by a code.
trace his family's ancestry to Knights in 16th century
with the crippled bomber, Stigler
changed his mission. He nodded at the American pilot and began flying
formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn't shoot
slow-moving bomber. (The Luftwaffe had B-17's of its own, shot down and
for secret missions and training.) Stigler escorted the bomber over the
luck," Stigler said to
himself. "You're in God's hands now." Franz Stigler didn't think the
big B-17 could make it back to
Charles Brown, with his wife, Jackie (left), with Franz Stigler, with his wife, Hiya.
he watched the German fighter peel
away that December day, 2nd Lt. Charles Brown wasn't thinking of the
philosophical connection between enemies. He was thinking of survival.
his crippled plane, filled with wounded, back to his base in
flew more missions before the war ended. Life moved on. He
got married, had two daughters, supervised foreign aid for the U.S.
Department during the Vietnam War, and eventually retired to
Late in life, though, the encounter with the German Pilot began to gnaw at him. He started having nightmares, but in his dream there would be no act of mercy. He would awaken just before his bomber crashed.
took on a new mission. He had to
find that German Pilot. Who was he? Why did he save my life? He scoured
Military Archives in the
On January 18, 1990, Brown received a letter. He opened it and 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."
It was Stigler.
had had left
"My God, it's you!" Brown shouted as tears ran down his cheeks.
Brown had to do more. He wrote a letter to Stigler in which he said: "To say THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU on behalf of my surviving crew members and their families appears totally inadequate."
two pilots would meet again, but this time in person, in the
lobby of a
The mood then changed. Someone asked Stigler what he thought about Brown. Stigler sighed and his square jaw tightened He began to fight back tears before he said in heavily accented English, "I love you, Charlie."
Stigler had lost his brother, his friends, and his country. He was virtually exiled by his countrymen after the war. There were 28,000 pilots who fought for the German Air Force. Only 1,200 survived. The war cost him everything. Charlie Brown was the only good thing that came out of World War II for Franz. It was the one thing he could be proud of. The meeting helped Brown as well, says his oldest daughter, Dawn Warner.
They met as enemies but Franz Stigler, on left, and Charles Brown, ended up as fishing buddies.
Brown and Stigler became pals. They would take fishing trips together. They would fly cross-country to each other homes and take road trips together to share their story at schools and veterans' reunions. Their wives, Jackie Brown and Hiya Stigler, became friends.
Brown's daughter says her father would worry about Stigler's health and constantly check in on him. "It wasn't just for show," she says. "They really did feel for each other. They talked about once a week." As his friendship with Stigler deepened, something else happened to her father, Warner says "The nightmares went away."
Brown had written a letter of thanks to Stigler, but one day he showed the extent of his gratitude. He organized a reunion of his surviving crew members along with their extended families. He invited Stigler as a Guest of Honor.
During the reunion, a video was played showing all the faces of the people that now lived--children, grandchildren, relatives--because of Stigler's act of chivalry. Stigler watched the film from his Seat of Honor.
"Everybody was crying, not just him," Warner says.
Stigler and Brown died within months of each other in 2008. Stigler was 92, and Brown was 87. They had started off as enemies, became friends, and then something more.
After he died, Warner was searching through Brown's library when she came across a book on German fighter jets. Stigler had given the book to Brown. Both were country boys who loved to read about planes.
opened the book and saw an
inscription Stigler had written to Brown:
"In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged, it was a wonder that she was still flying. The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me as precious as my brother was.
Your brother, Franz