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The Covington News - - A VETERAN'S STORY -

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.

PETE MECCA

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