Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler incident
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|Date||20 December 1943|
|Summary||Bomber v. fighter dogfight|
|Site||Over Germany and German-occupied Europe|
|Total fatalities||1 (B-17 tail gunner)|
|Total injuries||9 (aboard B-17)|
|Type||Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress|
|Operator||United States Army Air Forces (USAAF)|
|Flight origin||RAF Kimbolton|
|Type||Messerschmitt Bf 109G-6|
The Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler incident occurred on 20 December 1943, when, after a successful bomb run on Bremen, 2nd Lt Charles "Charlie" Brown's B-17 Flying Fortress (named "Ye Olde Pub") was severely damaged by German fighters. Luftwaffe pilot Franz Stigler had the opportunity to shoot down the crippled bomber but did not do so, and instead escorted it over and past German-occupied territory so as to protect it. After an extensive search by Brown, the two pilots met each other 50 years later and developed a friendship that lasted until Stigler's death in March 2008. Brown died only a few months later, in November of the same year.
2nd Lt Charles L. "Charlie" Brown ("a farm boy from Weston, West Virginia", in his own words) was a B-17F pilot with the 379th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces' (USAAF) 8th Air Force, stationed at RAF Kimbolton in England. Franz Stigler, a former Lufthansa airline pilot from Bavaria, was a veteran Luftwaffe fighter pilot attached to Jagdgeschwader 27.
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 hundreds of German fighters. Bremen was guarded by more than 250 flak guns. Brown's crew was assigned to fly "Purple Heart Corner," a spot on the edge of the formation that was considered especially dangerous because the Germans targeted the edges, instead of shooting straight through the middle of the formation. However, since three bombers had to turn back because of mechanical problems, Brown was told to move up to the front of the formation.
For this mission, Ye Olde Pub's crew consisted of:
- 2nd Lt Charles L. "Charlie" Brown (October 24, 1922 - November 24, 2008): pilot / aircraft commander
- 2nd Lt. Spencer G. "Pinky" Luke (November 22, 1920 - April 2, 1985): co-pilot
- 2nd Lt. Albert A. "Doc" Sadok (August 23, 1921 - March 10, 2010): navigator
- 2nd Lt. Robert M. "Andy" Andrews (January 14, 1921 - February 23, 1996): radio operator & bombardier
- Sgt. Bertrand O. "Frenchy" Coulombe (March 1, 1924 - March 25, 2006): top turret gunner and flight engineer
- Sgt. Richard A. "Dick" Pechout (September 14, 1924 - January 5, 2013): radio operator
- Sgt. Hugh S. "Ecky" Eckenrode (August 9, 1920 - December 20, 1943): tail gunner
- Sgt. Lloyd H. Jennings (February 22, 1922 - October 3, 2016): left waist gunner
- Sgt. Alex "Russian" Yelesanko (January 31, 1914 - May 25, 1980): right waist gunner
- Sgt. Samuel W. "Blackie" Blackford (October 26, 1923 - June 16, 2001): ball turret gunner
Brown's B-17 began its ten-minute bomb run at 8,320 m (27,300 ft) with an outside air temperature of −60 °C (−76 °F). Before the bomber released its bomb load, accurate flak shattered the Plexiglas nose, knocked out the #2 engine and further damaged the #4 engine, which was already in questionable condition and had to be throttled back to prevent overspeeding. The damage slowed the bomber, Brown was unable to remain with his formation and fell back as a straggler, a position from which he came under sustained enemy attacks.
Brown's struggling B-17 was now attacked by over a dozen enemy fighters (a combination of Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s) of JG 11 for more than ten minutes. Further damage was sustained, including to the #3 engine, reducing it to only half power (meaning the aircraft had effectively, at best, 40% of its total rated power available). The bomber's internal oxygen, hydraulic and electrical systems were also damaged, and had lost half of its rudder and port (left side) elevator, as well as its nose cone. Several of the gunners' weapons had jammed, most likely as a result of the loss of on-board systems, leading to frozen firing mechanisms. This left the bomber with only two dorsal turret guns plus one of the three forward-firing nose guns (from 11 available) for defense. Many of the crew were wounded: the tail gunner, Eckenrode, had been decapitated by a direct hit from a cannon shell, while Yelesanko was critically wounded in the leg by shrapnel, Blackford's feet were frozen due to shorted-out heating wires in his uniform, Pechout had been hit in the eye by a cannon shell and Brown was wounded in his right shoulder. The morphine syrettes carried onboard had also frozen, complicating first-aid efforts by the crew, while the radio was destroyed and the bomber's exterior heavily damaged. Miraculously, all but Eckenrode survived. The crew discussed the possibility of bailing out of the aircraft, but realized Yelesanko would be unable to make a safe landing with his injury. Unwilling to leave him behind in the plane, they flew on.
Brown's damaged, straggling bomber was spotted by Germans on the ground, including Franz Stigler (then an ace with 27 victories), who was refueling and rearming at an airfield. He soon took off in his Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-6 (which had a .50-cal. Browning machine gun bullet embedded in its radiator, risking the engine overheating) and quickly caught up with Brown's plane. Through openings torn in the damaged bomber's airframe by flak and machine gun fire, Stigler was able to see the injured and incapacitated crew. To the American pilot's surprise, the German did not open fire on the crippled bomber. Stigler instead recalled the words of one of his commanding officers from Jagdgeschwader 27, Gustav Rödel, during his time fighting in North Africa: "If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will 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 persuade 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 for the remainder of the war. However Brown and the crew of the B-17 did not 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. He then flew near Brown's plane in close formation on the bomber's port side wing, so that German anti-aircraft units would not target it, and escorted the damaged B-17 across the coast until they reached open water. Brown, still unsure of Stigler's intentions, ordered his dorsal turret gunner to target his guns on Stigler but not open fire, to warn him off. Understanding the message and certain that the bomber was finally out of German airspace, Stigler 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 postflight debriefing informed his officers about how a German fighter 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, lest other damaged bombers hold their fire on incoming fighter planes hoping to be rescued, only to be shot down. 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 a court-martial. Brown went on to complete a combat tour. Franz Stigler later served as a Messerschmitt Me 262 jet-fighter pilot in Jagdverband 44 until the end of the war.
Postwar and meeting of pilots
After the war, Brown returned home to West Virginia and went to college, returning to the newly established U.S. Air Force in 1949 and serving until 1965. Later, as a U.S. State Department Foreign Service Officer, he made numerous trips to Laos and Vietnam. In 1972 he retired from government service and moved to Miami, Florida to become an inventor.
Stigler moved to Canada in 1953 and became a successful businessman.
In 1986, the retired Lt. Col. Brown was asked to speak at a combat pilot reunion event called a "Gathering of the Eagles" at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Someone asked him if he had any memorable missions during World War II; he 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. Army Air Forces, U.S. Air Force and West German air force records that might shed some light on who the other pilot was, Brown had come up with little. He then wrote a letter to a combat pilot association newsletter. A few months later he received a letter from Stigler, who was now 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 that Brown needed to hear to know he was the German fighter pilot involved in the incident.
The incident was later recorded by Adam Makos in the biographical novel A Higher Call (released in 2012). The Swedish Power Metal band Sabaton wrote a song for their seventh studio album Heroes, the second track "No Bullets Fly". Franz's daughter and grandson both heard the song playing shortly after the release of the album, and sent a video to the band thanking them for honoring the story. They later met Sabaton in person.
- "Two enemies discover a 'higher call' in battle", CNN (9 March 2013)
- "Charles L. Brown Obituary". The Miami Herald. 7 December 2008. Retrieved 8 October 2020.
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- Brent Gilbert. "WW2 German fighter pilot saved U.S. bomber crew". CTV News. Archived from the original on 9 June 2011. Retrieved 4 April 2011.
- Makos & Alexander 2012, p. 192.
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- Makos & Alexander 2012, p. 166.
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- Makos & Alexander 2012, p. 151.
- Makos & Alexander 2012, p. 150.
- "Chivalry in the Air – Chivalry Today".
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- "Charles L. Brown Obituary". Miami Herald. 7 December 2008. Retrieved 13 May 2011.
- 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.
- on YouTube