Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler incident
|Air combat summary|
|Date||20 December 1943|
|Summary||Bomber v Fighter Dogfight|
|Site||Over Germany and German-occupied Europe|
|Total injuries (non-fatal)||9 (aboard B-17)|
|Total fatalities||1 (B-17 tail gunner)|
|Type||B-17 Flying Fortress|
|Operator||United States Army Air Forces (USAAF)|
|Flight origin||RAF Kimbolton|
|Type||Messerschmitt Bf 109|
21 August 1915|
|Died||22 March 2008
Surrey, B.C., Canada
|Years of service||1939–1945|
15 April 1922|
Weston, West Virginia, USA
|Died||25 November 2008
Miami, Florida, USA
|Buried at||Woodlawn Park Cemetery, Miami|
|Service/branch|| United States Army (1939-1947)
United States Air Force (1947-1965)
|Years of service||1939–1965|
|Unit||527th Bombardment Squadron of the 379th Bomber Group (Heavy) (8th Air Force)|
|Battles/wars||World War II|
The Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler incident occurred on 20 December 1943, when, after a successful bomb run on Bremen, Charles 'Charlie' Brown's B-17 Flying Fortress (named "Ye Olde Pub") was severely damaged by German fighters. Luftwaffe ace Franz Stigler was ordered to shoot down the crippled bomber, but instead, for humane reasons, decided to allow the crew to fly back to their airfield in England. The two pilots met each other 40 years later after an extensive search by Charlie Brown and the friendship that the two developed lasted until Franz's death in March 2008.
2nd Lt. Charlie Brown ("a farm boy from Weston, West Virginia", in his own words) was a B-17F pilot with United States Army Air Forces (USAAF)'s 379th Bomber Group stationed at RAF Kimbolton in England. Franz Stigler (a former airline pilot from Bavaria) was a veteran Luftwaffe fighter pilot attached to Jagdgeschwader 27; at the time, he had 22 victories to his name and would be eligible for the coveted Knight's Cross with one more downed enemy bomber.
The mission was the Ye Olde Pub crew's first, and targeted the Focke-Wulf 190 aircraft production facility in Bremen. The men of the 527th Bombardment Squadron were informed in a pre-mission briefing that they might encounter "five hundred... or more" German fighters. Bremen was guarded by 250 flak guns, operated by the elite Officer Candidate School (OCS) of gunners. Brown's crew was assigned to fly "Purple Heart Corner," a spot on the edge of the formation that was considered especially dangerous.
For this mission, Ye Olde Pub's crew consisted of:
- Second Lieutenant Charlie Brown: pilot.
- Second Lieutenant Spencer "Pinky" Luke: co-pilot.
- Second Lieutenant Al "Doc" Sadok: navigator.
- Second Lieutenant Robert "Andy" Andrews: bombardier.
- Sergeant Bertrund "Frenchy" Coulombe: top turret gunner and flight engineer.
- Sergeant Dick Pechout: radio operator.
- Sergeant Hugh "Ecky" Eckenrode: tail gunner.
- Sergeant Lloyd Jennings: left waist gunner.
- Sergeant Alex "Russian" Yelesanko: right waist gunner.
- Sergeant Sam "Blackie" Blackford: ball turret gunner.
Brown's B-17 began its 10-minute bomb run at 27,300 ft (8,300 m) with an outside air temperature of −60 °C (−76 °F). Before the bomber released its bomb load, accurate anti-aircraft flak shattered the Plexiglas nose, knocked out the number two engine and further damaged the number four engine, which was already in questionable condition and had to be throttled back to prevent overspeeding. The damage slowed the bomber, and Brown was unable to remain with his formation and fell back as a straggler – a position from which he would come under sustained enemy attacks.
Attacks by fighters
Brown's straggling B-17 was now attacked by over a dozen enemy fighters (a mixture of Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s) of JG-11 for over 10 minutes. Further damage was sustained, including damage to the number three engine, which would produce only half power (meaning the aircraft had at best 40% of its total rated power available). The bomber's internal oxygen, hydraulic and electrical systems were also damaged, and the bomber lost half of its rudder and its port (left side) elevator, as well as its nose cone. The gunners' weapons then jammed, likely due to improper pre-mission oiling, leaving the bomber with only two dorsal turret guns and one of three forward-firing nose guns (from eleven available) for defense. Most of the crew were wounded: the tail gunner, Eckenrode, had been killed by a direct hit from a fighter shell, while Yelesanko was critically wounded in the leg by shrapnel, Pechout had been hit in the eye by a shell fragment, and Brown was wounded in his right shoulder. The morphine syrettes onboard froze, complicating first-aid efforts by the crew, while the radio was destroyed and the bomber's exterior was heavily damaged.
Brown's damaged bomber was spotted by Germans on the ground, including Franz Stigler, who was refueling and rearming at an airfield. He soon took off in his Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-6 (which had a .50 BMG bullet embedded in the radiator which risked the engine overheating) and quickly caught up with Brown's plane. Through the damaged bomber's airframe Stigler was able to see the injured and incapacitated crew. To the American pilot's surprise, Stigler did not open fire on the crippled bomber. Stigler recalled the words of one of his commanding officers from Jagdgeschwader 27, Gustav Rödel, during his time fighting in North Africa, “You are fighter pilots first, last, always. If I ever hear of any of you shooting at someone in a parachute, I'll shoot you myself." Stigler later commented, "To me, it was just like they were in a parachute. I saw them and I couldn't shoot them down."
Twice, Stigler tried to get Brown to land his plane at a German airfield and surrender, or divert to nearby neutral Sweden, where he and his crew would receive medical treatment and be interned the remainder of the war. Brown and the crew of the B-17 didn't understand what Stigler was trying to mouth and gesture to them and so flew on. Stigler later told Brown he was trying to get them to fly to Sweden. Stigler then flew near Brown's plane in a formation on the bomber's port side wing, so German antiaircraft units would not target it; he then escorted the damaged B-17 over the coast until they reached open water, where he departed with a salute.
Brown managed to fly the 250 mi (400 km) across the North Sea and land his plane at RAF Seething, home of the 448th Bomb Group and at the after-flight debriefing informed his officers about how a German pilot had let him go. He was told not to repeat this to the rest of the unit so as not to build any positive sentiment about enemy pilots. Brown commented, "Someone decided you can't be human and be flying in a German cockpit." Stigler said nothing of the incident to his commanding officers, knowing that a German pilot who spared the enemy while in combat risked execution. Brown went on to complete a combat tour.
Post war and meeting of pilots
After the war, Brown returned home to West Virginia and went to college, returning to the Air Force in 1949 and serving until 1965. Later, as a State Department Foreign Service Officer, he made numerous trips to Laos and Vietnam. But in 1972, he retired from government service and moved to Miami to become an inventor.
Stigler moved to Canada in 1953 and became a successful businessman.
In 1986, the then-retired Colonel Brown was asked to speak at a combat pilot reunion event called "Gathering of the Eagles". Someone asked him if he had any memorable missions during World War II; Brown thought for a minute and recalled the story of Stigler's escort and salute. Afterwards, Brown decided he should try to find the unknown German pilot.
After four years of searching vainly for U.S. and West German Air Force records that might shed some light on who the other pilot was, Brown hadn't come up with much. He then wrote a letter to a combat pilot association newsletter. A few months later, Brown received a letter from Stigler, who was living in Canada. "I was the one", it said. When they spoke on the phone, Stigler described his plane, the escort and salute confirming everything Brown needed to hear to know he was the German fighter pilot involved in the incident.
The incident was the subject of Adam Makos' book, A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II, published 19 December 2012.
In popular culture
- As of May 2014, a film adaptation of the Adam Makos book on Stigler and Brown's encounter, A Higher Call is in development by Tom Stoppard and Solipsist films who optioned the property. Tom Stoppard and son Will Stoppard have teamed up with Stephen L'Heureux to produce the project which reportedly will have an $85 million (£50 million) budget. Pilot and screenwriter, John Marckesano is writing the adaptation.
- The incident is the subject of the song "No Bullets Fly" by metal band Sabaton, on their 2014 album Heroes (a theme album about various war heroes).
- Video of Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown discussing their encounter during their first reunion on YouTube
- Makos, Adam; Alexander, Larry (2012). A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II (1 ed.). New York: Berkley Caliber. p. 127. ISBN 978-0-425-25286-4.
- Makos & Alexander 2012, p. 371.
- Honour in the skies
- "Two enemies discover a 'higher call' in battle", CNN (9 March 2013)
- Brent Gilbert. "WW2 German fighter pilot saved U.S. bomber crew". CTV News. Retrieved 4 April 2011.
- Makos & Alexander 2012, p. 192.
- Makos & Alexander 2012, p. 159-162.
- Makos & Alexander 2012, p. 135.
- Makos & Alexander 2012, p. 136.
- Makos & Alexander 2012, p. 144.
- Makos & Alexander 2012, p. 166.
- Makos & Alexander 2012, p. 149.
- Makos & Alexander 2012, p. 151.
- Makos & Alexander 2012, p. 150.
- Chivalry in the Air
- Makos & Alexander 2012, p. 181.
- Makos & Alexander 2012, p. 184-185.
- Makos & Alexander 2012, p. 186-189.
- "Charles L. Brown Obituary". The Miami Herald. 7 December 2008. Retrieved 13 May 2011.
- "A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II", Goodreads, viewed online 6 January 2013.
- "Heroic World War II Story, "A Higher Call," To Be Produced By Tom Stoppard And Solopsist Films". Film Rise. May 7, 2013. Retrieved May 8, 2014.