By Chris Gibbons
Seventy years ago, on Dec. 20, 1943, First Lt. Charles "Charlie" Brown was desperately trying to keep his heavily damaged plane, a B-17F bomber known as Ye Olde Pub, aloft over Germany.
The Pub had just completed a bombing run on the Focke-Wulf airplane manufacturing plant in Bremen, but it was attacked by a swarm of Messerschmitts and ground-based antiaircraft guns, according to an account in A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II, by Adam Makos with Larry Alexander. The crew fought back, even shooting down one of the German fighters. But the bomber's nose, wings, and fuselage were riddled with gaping holes, and it was leaking oil and hydraulic fluid. Half of its rudder was missing, and one of its engines was out. When Brown asked for a damage report, one of the crew replied, "We're chewed to pieces."
Nearly half the Pub's crew were wounded, their blood splattered throughout the plane's interior. The ball turret gunner, Hugh "Ecky" Eckenrode, was dead, his body slumped over the machine gun. His dripping blood formed icicles in the freezing air that now rushed in through the shattered turret's Plexiglas.
At one point, the 21-year-old Brown told his crew he was going to try to fly back to England. If they wanted to bail out, they should do so while still over land. Brown knew their chances of making it back were slim, but he still had hope. They all decided to stay with their commander.
As the bomber limped toward the North Sea, a dark shape just off the right wing of the B-17 caught Brown's attention. It was a Bf 109 piloted by Luftwaffe ace Franz Stigler. The plane was close enough for the pilots to see each other. "He's going to destroy us," Brown told copilot Spencer "Pinky" Luke.
Initially, Stigler was prepared to fire on the battered B-17. He was one more air victory from qualifying for the prestigious Knight's Cross, and also sought vengeance for his older brother, August, who had been killed earlier in the war.
But as he closed on the stricken bomber, he couldn't believe it was still flying. He could see the dead tail gunner and his bloodstained jacket. Through the holes in the fuselage, he could see the crew caring for their wounded.
Stigler, a Catholic who once studied to be a priest, placed his hand on his jacket pocket and felt the rosary beads inside. He remembered the words of his former commander: "You follow the rules of war for you - not your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity." In that moment, he chose not to fire on Brown's plane, thinking, "[I] would not have this on my conscience for the rest of my life."
Stigler pulled up alongside the bomber, waving and mouthing the word Sweden. It was a neutral country and only 30 minutes away. But neither Brown nor Luke could understand what Stigler was doing. They expected an attack, and would go down fighting. Brown ordered one his gunners to prepare to fire.
Finally realizing that the Americans would never understand, Stigler saluted Brown, said, "Good luck, you're in God's hands," and veered away. The image of Stigler saluting him before he peeled away stayed with Brown for the rest of his life.
The crew made it back to England and survived the war. Brown would marry, raise two daughters, and work for the State Department before retiring to Florida. In the 1980s, he started to have nightmares about the incident with Stigler, and decided to try and find the German pilot. He diligently searched military records, attended pilot reunions, and placed an ad in a newsletter for former German World War II pilots.
Stigler, who moved to Canada in 1953, saw the ad and sent Brown a letter in 1990, saying that he was the German pilot who spared his crew. As Brown read the letter, tears streamed down his cheeks. When the two finally met in a Florida hotel lobby, they embraced and wept.
Franz and Charlie became great friends, fishing together and speaking at schools and other events. When Charlie organized a reunion of the Pub crew, it was featured in a CBS This Morning segment. When a video of the crew's children and grandchildren was played for Franz, the message was obvious. He broke down in tears. "The war cost him everything," Makos said in a CNN interview. "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."
Franz died in March 2008, and Charlie passed away eight months later. On a book he once gave Charlie, Franz wrote a note. It not only revealed his love for the American pilot, but, on Christmas Day, reminds us of what love really means:
In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, five 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. Thanks, Charlie.