The Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler incident happened on December 20, 1943, when German fighters severely damaged Charles "Charlie" Brown's B-17 Flying Fortress (named "Ye Olde Pub") following a successful bomb run on Bremen. Despite having the chance to bring down the damaged bomber, Luftwaffe pilot and ace Franz Stigler chose to let the crew return to their airfield in England for humanitarian reasons. The two pilots eventually crossed paths 40 years later after a thorough search by Charlie Brown, and the friendship they formed lasted until their deaths.
Farm boy from West Virginia and 2nd Lt. Charlie Brown flew the B-17F for the 379th Bomber Group of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) at RAF Kimbolton in England. Franz Stigler, a veteran Luftwaffe fighter pilot from Bavaria who had previously flown for an airline, was a member of Jagdgeschwader 27 at the time and had amassed 22 victories. With one more enemy aircraft brought down, he would qualify for the coveted Knight's Cross.
Brown's B-17 started its 10-minute bomb run at 27,300 feet, in minus 60 °C of outside air. Accurate anti-aircraft fire damaged the bomber's Plexiglas nose, disabled the number two engine, and further damaged the number four engine, which had to be throttled back to avoid overspeeding before the bomber released its bomb load. Due to the bomber's slowing down from the damage, Brown was unable to stay with his formation and retreated as a straggler, where he would be subject to continuous enemy attacks.
Attacks by fighters
Now, for more than ten minutes, more than a dozen enemy fighters—a mix of Bf-109s and FW-190s—attacked Brown's lone B-17. Additionally, the number three engine, which could only produce half power, suffered damage (meaning the aircraft had at worst 40 percent of its total rated power available). Internal oxygen, hydraulic, and electrical systems of the bomber were also compromised. The bomber's two dorsal turret guns and one of its three forward-firing nose guns were its sole remaining defensive armament (from eleven available). The majority of the crew were now injured (the tail gunner had died), and Brown had a shoulder injury.
When Brown ran out of oxygen, he passed out. When he awoke, the bomber was remarkably flying level at a height of about 1000 feet. He regained the controls and started the long journey home in the wrecked bomber.
Germans on the ground, including Franz Stigler, who was refueling and arming at an airfield, noticed Brown's damaged bomber. He quickly accelerated in his Messerschmitt Bf-109 and caught up to Brown's aircraft. Stigler was able to see the hurt and helpless crew clearly through the bomber's damaged air frame. The crippled bomber was not attacked by Stigler, which surprised the American pilot.
During his time fighting in North Africa, Gustav Rödel recalled the advice of one of his commanding officers from the Jagdgeschwader 27: "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."
Stigler made two attempts to convince Brown to either land his aircraft at a German airfield and surrender or to make a U-turn and land in nearby neutral Sweden, where he and his crew would receive medical care but would also be interned and forced to sit out the rest of the war. Brown objected and carried on. Then Stigler flew close to Brown's aircraft, escorting it until they reached the North Sea, and then he took off while saluting.
Brown was able to fly his aircraft the 250 miles across the North Sea and land it at RAF Seething, home of the 448th Bomb Group. He then told his officers about how a German pilot had let him go during the post-flight debriefing. In order to avoid creating a favorable impression of enemy pilots, he was instructed not to mention this to the other members of the unit. While Stigler was aware that a German pilot who spared the enemy while in battle risked execution, Brown remarked that "someone decided you can't be human and be flying in a German cockpit." Stigler kept the incident a secret from his commanding officers.
Lt. Brown went on to complete a combat tour.
Post-war and meeting of pilots
Charlie Brown returned to West Virginia after the war, attended college there, and then enlisted in the Air Force once more in 1949, serving there until 1965. Later, he traveled to Laos and Vietnam a lot while serving as a Foreign Service Officer for the State Department. But he decided to become an inventor in Miami in 1972, so he gave up his job as a government employee.
In 1953, Stigler moved to Canada and established a prosperous business.
Colonel Charlie Brown, who had just retired, was asked to give a speech in 1986 at the "Gathering of the Eagles," a gathering of combat pilots. After being questioned about his most memorable missions from World War II, Brown took a moment to reflect and remembered the tale of Stigler's escort and salute. Brown then made the decision to look for the unidentified German pilot.
Brown had spent four years looking in vain for American and West German Air Force records that might provide some insight into the identity of the other pilot, but he had not found much. Then he sent a letter to the newsletter of a group of combat pilots. Brown got a letter from Stigler, who was residing in Canada, a few months later. It declared, "I was the one. Stigler gave Brown all the information he needed to know to identify him as the German fighter pilot when they spoke on the phone about his plane, including the escort and salute.
Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown became close friends between 1990 and 2008, and they remained so until their deaths a few months apart in 2008.