he B-17 pilot was 21 years old, a farm boy from Weston, W. Va., on his first combat mission over the German heartland. His adversary, a former Bavarian airline pilot from Regensburg, Germany, was now a crack pilot for the Luftwaffe, with 22 kills to his credit. He was one victory away from winning the celebrated Knight’s Cross. The date: Dec 20, 1943.
The B-17F “Ye Olde Pub” and crew braved an outside temperature of -70 degrees at an approximate altitude of 27,300 feet. As they started their initial 10-minute bomb run over Bremen, German antiaircraft flak blew apart the Plexiglas nose, damaged the No. 4 engine and knocked out the No. 2 engine. Unable to maintain a tight formation, Pilot Charles “Charlie” Brown and his 8th Air Force crew were forced to desert their communal protective cover. “Ye Olde Pub’”became an easy target, a “straggler” to be quickly devoured by the deadly wolves of the German Luftwaffe.
The wolves spotted their prey and formed a pack of 15 enemy fighters. A combination of Bf-109s and FW-190s pounced on the helpless victim and ripped the B-17F to shreds. The tail gunner was dead, spilled blood frozen as red icicles to the .50 caliber machine guns. The right elevator was missing, as was half the rudder. The hydraulic and electrical systems had been demolished, but even more indispensable, the B-17Fs internal oxygen supply was ravaged. Without oxygen, the crew lost consciousness; “Ye Olde Pub” was now pilotless, spinning and spiraling out of control.
Lt. Brown and co-pilot Spencer “Pinky” Luke regained consciousness when the bomber was less than 5,000 feet from obliteration. Both grabbed the controls and wrestled the disabled bomber to a precarious, wobbly flight path less than 1,000 feet from the ground.
Brown stated several years later, “My only conscious memory was dodging trees, but I had nightmares for years about dodging buildings and then trees.”
As if snake-bitten, the crippled bomber flew directly over a German airfield, where Luftwaffe fighter ace Oberleutnant Franz Stigler was refueling his Messerschmitt Bf109. Seeing “Ye Olde Pub’” limp by, severely damaged and smoldering, Stigler extinguished his cigarette and crawled back into the cockpit of his Bf-109. Already credited with two bomber kills that day, which hoisted his war kills to 22, Stigler was only one victory away from earning Germany’s highest award for bravery, the Knight’s Cross. Aloft and quickly catching up with “Ye Olde Pub,” Stigler moved in for the kill.
The Bf-109’s deadly guns remained silent; Stigler’s hand pressed against the rosary he kept in his flight vest, and his index finger eased off the trigger. The man who once studied for the priesthood simply could not shoot at an aircraft that shouldn’t even be airborne. Stigler clearly saw the dead tail gunner, and through gaping holes in the bomber’s fuselage, he saw a few uninjured airmen treating their wounded. The bomber’s nose was missing; one engine was down, and the other three were smoking or spurting, leaving the B-17F with less than 40 percent of available power. Stigler didn’t know it, but a bullet fragment had lodged in Lt. Brown’s right shoulder and only two of the 11 machine guns aboard the B-17F were of any use.
One of Stigler’s commanding officers, Gustav Rodel, once told his brash, fledgling fighter pilots, “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 commented in later years, “To me, it was just like they were in a parachute. I saw them and I couldn’t shoot them down.”
Aboard “Ye Olde Pub’,” Lt. Brown and his co-pilot were horrified to see the Bf-109 less than 10 feet from their wingtip. Their bomber was a sitting duck, an easy kill for the German airman.
“My God,” Luke said. “This is a nightmare.” Pilot Charlie Brown agreed, “He’s going to destroy us.” Incredibly, the German pilot nodded at Brown and saluted. Thus began one of the most noteworthy gestures of compassion recorded during a world war.
Through hand signals, Stigler finally managed to get the B-17E to turn in the right direction. With navigation equipment and compass wrecked, the bomber was flying deeper into Germany. Then Stigler signaled for Brown to land “Ye Olde Pub,” either in Germany or neutral Sweden. The B-17F crew, pilot and co-pilot included, was stunned and unbelieving of events unfolding in time of war. “Ye Olde Pub” kept plugging along in the direction of the North Sea, hopefully home to England.
The Germans actually had a few B-17s of their own, seized after forced landings and refurbished for Intelligence and undercover work with an English-speaking German crew. Stigler knew this. He escorted “Ye Olde Pub” all the way to the North Sea as the chaperone of a phony German bomber, thus preventing antiaircraft batteries or other German fighters from pouncing on the stricken B-17F. According to Adam Mako in his book “A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of WWII,” once the odd two-plane formation reached the North Sea, Stigler rendered Brown another salute and peeled off for his own home base in Germany. Without radio communication, Stigler muttered to himself, “Good luck. You’re in God’s hands now.”
Virtually on a wing and a prayer, “Ye Olde Pub” lumbered the 250 miles across the North Sea at altitudes as low as 250 feet. With one engine out, one smoking, the bomber a shredded mess, and out of fuel, Brown set the bomber down at the RAF base at Seething, England. After “Ye Olde Pub” came to a stop, Brown sat back in silence with his hand over a pocket Bible in his flight vest.
Military Intelligence covered up the incident for fear that Allied pilots would develop a “friendly attitude” toward the enemy, and Franz Stigler never reported the event from fear of being court-martialed and shot.
One pilot always questioned, “Who was that German pilot, and why did he help us?’” The other pilot always pondered, “I wonder if that bomber ever made it back to England?”
Brown, needing to put his nightmares to rest, began an intensive search for records and information concerning the event. On Jan. 18, 1990, Brown received a letter from British Columbia. The author was Stigler.
“Dear Charles, all these years I wondered what happened to that B-17, did she make it home? Did her crew survive their wounds? To hear of your survival has filled me with indescribable joy.”
The two old warriors became close friends, flying to visit each other and taking road trips together with their wives, Hiya Stigler and Jackie Brown. Fishing trips together became a cherished pastime. Brown passed away at the age of 87; Stigler at the age of 92, within months of each other in 2008.
Approximately 28,000 pilots flew for the Luftwaffe in World War II. Fewer than 1,200 survived. Perhaps God rewarded one of those survivors because of his humanity amidst the inhumanity of war.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at aveteransstory@gmail. com or aveteransstory.us.