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December 20, 1943. A German munitions factory, the target of the day had been successful but Charlie Brown’s B-17F bomber had been attacked by roughly 15 planes, a crew member dead and multiple wounded. Brown himself had been knocked out by an explosion and regained consciousness just as his plane went into a dangerous nose dive. His B-17 was severely damage and he was desperately trying to make it back into Allied territory. The danger was not over for him.
Brown had another major problem. Directly next to him was a German plane flying on his own, so close that the pilot was looking him directly in the eyes. The pilot was Franz Stigler, a 26 year old ace who had 22 kills to his name and was also awarded the Knight’s Cross. As his Bf-109 closed in on the US bomber he noticed something was wrong. The enemy plane was not engaging with him and unknown to Brown, the plane had lost it’s tail gun and one wing was in ruins. As Stigler came in for a closer look he saw the gunner covered in blood, and how part of the plane’s outside had been ripped off. He saw the wounded, shell shocked US airmen inside, trying to help one another with their wounds.
It was then he remembered the words of his commanding officer Lt Gustav Roedel. ‘Honour is everything here,’ he had told a junior Stigler before his very first mission. His commanding officer also added ‘If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you down myself. You follow the rules of war for you, not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.’
‘For me it would have been the same as shooting at a parachute, I just couldn’t do it,’ Stigler later said. He ended up escorting them for several miles out over the North Sea and when he saw a German gun turret coming into view he realized he needed to make a decision. Stigler made his decision, he saluted Brown and his crippled B-17, motioned for him to fly away from German territory and pulled away.
The shot up B-17 did make it across 250 miles of the North Sea and landed at Seething in Norfolk. As soon as he landed, Brown told his commanding officer about the German pilot but he was instructed not to tell anyone else for fear of spreading positive stories of the enemy.
In 1987, more than 40 years after the incident, Brown who was still traumatized by the events of that day. He began searching for the man who saved his life, unsure if he survived the war. Brown bought an ad in a newsletter catering to fighter pilots, saying only that he was searching for the man ‘who saved my life on Dec. 20, 1943.’ Stigler saw the ad in his new hometown of Vancouver, Canada, where he had moved after the war.
‘It was like meeting a family member, like a brother you haven’t seen for 40 years,’ Brown said at the pair’s first meeting. Stigler told Brown how he had been trying to escort them to safety and had pulled away when he thought he had come under fire. Their story, told in the book A Higher Call, ended in 2008 when the two men died within six months of one another, Stigler at age 92 and Brown 87.