Do You Think You Could Spare These Pilots The Way This Man Did?
This story is about something that has itched in the back of my mind for many years now. It is about a paradox, that is, surprisingly moral acts done between enemies within the context of war. When we hear stories like this we may tend to disbelieve them, but history is full of such stories. And they define the better angels of our humanity. They stand out like a beautiful bas relief against the frighteningly ugly backdrop of true horror. This is one of those stories. It is a story of chivalry in its purest sense. This is one of those stories.
Part I: Prelude
What most people do not understand, or even know, is that since the beginning of civilization itself, there has been among those who have gone to war, an unspoken, unwritten code. This code has often been recognized in the annals of war. It is called, the “Warrior Code.” The great irony of this code is that it is designed to protect the victor and the vanquished. It prevents those who are called upon to fight wars from becoming monsters.
Those who have lived by this code have come to realize that there is something worse than death…
…and that is to lose one’s humanity.
Sure, it is true that this is not always the case. There are surely some examples of those who have lost their humanity in the horrible frenzy of combat, who became, if for a brief moment in time, monstrous. Achilles comes to mind. If you remember the scene in The Iliad where Achilles becomes a monster, defying any semblance of the Warriors Code as he dragged the dead body of the Trojan hero, Hector, around the walls of Troy again and again in his rage.
It seems that modern films concentrate solely on this kind of behavior.
We have become used to thinking of war in this way. In our natural hatred of war we often paint the warriors who are sent off to fight our wars in this dark fashion. Vietnam veterans know what that is like intimately. Maybe this is why we are so shocked when we encounter stories about individual actions taken by warriors who, even in the midst of battle, have acted in unbelievably moral ways that honor this warrior’s code, this code of the soul. Those who have experienced this know something that most human beings will never know, a human bond unlike any other in human experience.
The following story is an example of both the Warrior’s Code and the strange bond that sometimes happens between warriors who were once blood enemies.
Part II: The Warrior’s Code
On December 20, 1943, Charles Brown was a 21 year old B17 pilot from a West Virginia. He was flying his first combat mission. During the bombing mission his plane had been shot to pieces by swarms of German fighters. The entire ship was riddled with holes. A section of the right wing had been sheared off, half of his crew were wounded. His tail gunner’s dead body was sprawled awkwardly over his machine guns in the badly mangled tail section of the big bomber, his blood freezing in horrific icicles over his guns. It was a miracle that the plane was still flying. And the danger was not yet over, for they were still in German air space.
Suddenly, to pilot Charlie Brown and his copilot’s horror, a sleek German Messerschmitt fighter flew up alongside the B17.
Continue part II of Charles Brown’s story…
Suddenly, to pilot Charlie Brown and his copilot’s horror, a sleek German Messerschmitt fighter flew up alongside the B17…
It was piloted by 2nd Lt. Franz Stigler. He was not just any German pilot; he was an Ace. He needed only one more kill to receive the Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest award for valor. When Stigler had lifted off in pursuit of the bombers involved in this raid, his emotions were for revenge. He had already lost his brother, another Luftwaffe fighter pilot, to the Americans sometime before this. He approached the bomber from the rear, but was struck by the fact that none of the guns on the big, well-armed bomber were firing at him. Focusing, he saw the carnage at the rear of the B17 and the body of the tail gunner there. He then looked more closely at the plane and saw how unbelievably damaged it was.
He pulled alongside and could see through the skin of the B17. He saw that every one of its guns were inoperable. He could see crewmembers bent over and tending their wounded colleagues. He pulled ahead and looked over at the pilot of the B17. Their eyes locked. Stigler could see the shock and horror in Charlie Brown’s eyes. Something happened to him. He put his hand over the pocket of his flight jacket where he kept his rosary and he took his finger off of the trigger of his guns. He couldn’t shoot. It would be murder.
At that moment, without thinking about it, but by the strength of his own faith and conscience, he honored the Warrior’s Code. He flew in formation with the big B17 until they were over the North Sea. Then he looked at the pilot of the bomber, nodded, saluted, and peeled off to head back to Germany.
What makes this a real act of moral courage, in accord with the Warrior’s Code, was that Franz Stigler could be have been executed for this action. Why did he do it? Stigler says that at that moment when he looked into the B17 pilot’s eyes, he remembered his flight commander’s earlier words to him:
“You follow the rules of war (the Warrior Code) for you not your enemy. You fight by the rules to keep your humanity.”
We should all have a voice like that echoing in the back of our consciences. There is no experience more conducive to temporarily losing our humanity than war. This is why it is so important to be reminded of the Warrior’s Code when we are sent off to war.
Part III: The Reunion
Charles Brown’s plane and surviving crewmembers were able to limp back to England. Charles would fly many more missions before the war was over. He would come home, get married and raise two daughters. But he could never forget what that German pilot did that December day.
Almost 50 years later, in 1990, he decided to put an add in a German Luftwaffe veterans newsletter describing the incident and inquiring as to whether anyone knew of a pilot who would recognize that story. Some time later that year he received a letter from British Columbia, Canada. It read in part: “Dear Charlie, All these years I wondered what happened to the B17, did she make it, or not?” Franz Stigler had emigrated to Canada in 1953. He became a prosperous business man and was now retired. Charles Brown was so excited he looked up the telephone directory and got Franz Stigler’s telephone number and called him. Tears ran down his face as they talked. Brown then wrote Stigler a letter in which he said:
“To say THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU on behalf of my surviving crew members and their families appears totally inadequate.”
They eventually met each other in person in the lobby of a hotel in Florida. They would go on to become not just friends, but fishing partners. Brown would later put together a reunion of his crew members and families and would invite Franz Stigler as the guest of honor. During an interview with the two of them present, Stigler was asked to speak about the story and how he felt. He teared up and looked over at Charlie and said, “I love you, Charlie.” They were both in tears.
Warriors who have been enemies do not reunite out of some sense of nostalgia, but out of a shared experience of life threatening hardship. They have survived something most people cannot imagine or understand. In many ways soldiers who have had such an experience, either during battle, or in the years afterward, feel more of a bond with the enemy they fought against than with their own nonveteran countrymen. They had shared and faced the same ultimate risk. After a few brief years of deep friendship, Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler would die within months of each other in 2008.
One of the authors of a book about these former enemies called A Higher Call ran across a note in a book that Stigler had kept. It read:
“In 1940 I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, four days before Christmas, I had the chance to save a B17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder she was still flying. The pilot, Charles Brown, is for me, as precious to me as my brother was. Thanks Charlie, Your brother, Franz.”
Such a brotherhood seems impossible in the heat of battle. But the philosopher, George Santayana once wrote that, “Even in the midst of war there is room for thoughts of love.” Charles Brown and Franz Stigler are an example of that maxim. Though fate would bring them together as mortal enemies in the midst of war, their humanity, and the honoring of the Warrior Code would forge a brotherhood unlike any other.
We here at The Veterans Site wish to honor the memories of these two fine men who were enemies once, but who teach us something about how to keep our humanity even in the midst of war, and how to deepen it long after the wars are over. Thank you for showing us the better angels of our nature, Charles Brown and Franz Stigler.