Grace Under Pressure: “Your Brother, Franz”

By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

Author’s Note:  This incredible story of human compassion under the most difficult of circumstances comes  from my friend, Coach Bill Mountjoy. It’s printed verbatim from an email from his friend, John Butler. I think it epitomizes the ongoing series of posts, Grace Under Pressure.

franzThe 21-year old American B-17 pilot glanced outside his cockpit and froze. He blinked hard and looked again, hoping it was just a mirage. But his co-pilot stared at the same horrible vision. “My God, this is a nightmare,” the co-pilot said. “He’s going to destroy us,” the pilot agreed.The men were looking at a gray German Messerschmitt fighter hovering just three feet off their wingtip. It was five days before Christmas 1943, and the fighter had closed in on their crippled American B-17 bomber for the kill.

The B-17 pilot, Charles Brown, was a 21-year-old West Virginia farm boy on his first combat mission. His bomber had been shot to pieces by swarming fighters, and his plane was alone, struggling to stay in the skies above Germany . Half his crew was wounded, and the tail gunner was dead, his blood frozen in icicles over the machine guns. But when Brown and his co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke, looked at the fighter pilot again, something odd happened. The German didn’t pull the trigger. He stared back at the bomber in amazement and respect. Instead of pressing the attack, he nodded at Brown and saluted. What happened next was one of the most remarkable acts of chivalry recorded during World War II.

Charles Brown was on his first combat mission during World War II when he met an enemy unlike any other. Revenge, not honor, is what drove 2nd Lt. Franz Stigler to jump into his fighter that chilly December day in 1943. Stigler wasn’t just any fighter pilot. He was an ace. One more kill and he would win The Knight’s Cross, German’s highest award for valor.

Yet Stigler was driven by something deeper than glory. His older brother, August, was a fellow Luftwaffe pilot who had been killed earlier in the war. American pilots hadcharlie brown killed Stigler’s comrades and were bombing his country’s cities.Stigler was standing near his fighter on a German airbase when he heard a bomber’s engine. Looking up, he saw a B-17 flying so low it looked like it was going to land. As the bomber disappeared behind some trees, Stigler tossed his cigarette aside, saluted a ground crewman and took off in pursuit.

As Stigler’s fighter rose to meet the bomber, he decided to attack it from behind. He climbed behind the sputtering bomber, squinted into his gun sight and placed his hand on the trigger. He was about to fire when he hesitated. Stigler was baffled. No one in the bomber fired at him.

He looked closer at the tail gunner. He was still, his white fleece collar soaked with blood. Stigler craned his neck to examine the rest of the bomber. Its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns knocked out. One propeller wasn’t turning. Smoke trailed from another engine. He could see men huddled inside the shattered plane tending the wounds of other crewmen.

Then he nudged his plane alongside the bomber’s wings and locked eyes with the pilot whose eyes were wide with shock and horror. Stigler pressed his hand over the rosary he kept in his flight jacket. He eased his index finger off the trigger. He couldn’t shoot. It would be murder.

Stigler wasn’t just motivated by vengeance that day. He also lived by a code. He could trace his family’s ancestry to knights in 16th century Europe . He had once studied to be a priest. A German pilot who spared the enemy, though, risked death in Nazi Germany. If someone reported him, he would be executed.

Yet Stigler could also hear the voice of his commanding officer, who once told him: “You follow the rules of war for you — not your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.”

Alone with the crippled bomber, Stigler changed his mission. He nodded at the American pilot and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn’t shoot down the slow-moving bomber. (The Luftwaffe had B-17s of its own, shot down and rebuilt for secret missions and training.) Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot. Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away and returned to Germany .

“Good luck,” Stigler said to himself. “You’re in God’s hands now…” Franz Stiglerdidn’t think the big B-17 could make it back to England and wondered for years what happened to the American pilot and crew he encountered in combat.

As he watched the German fighter peel away that December day, 2nd Lt. Charles Brown wasn’t thinking of the philosophical connection between enemies. He was thinking of survival.

He flew his crippled plan, filled with wounded, back to his base in England and landed with one of four engines knocked out, one failing and barely any fuel left. After his bomber came to a stop, he leaned back in his chair and put a hand over a pocket Bible he kept in his flight jacket. Then he sat in silence.

Brown flew more missions before the war ended. Life moved on. He got married, had two daughters, supervised foreign aid for the U.S. State Department during the Vietnam War and eventually retired to Florida .

Late in life, though, the encounter with the German pilot began to gnaw at him. He started having nightmares, but in his dream there would be no act of mercy. He would awaken just before his bomber crashed.

Brown took on a new mission. He had to find that German pilot. Who was he? Why did he save my life? He scoured military archives in the U.S. and England . He attended a pilots’ reunion and shared his story. He finally placed an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots, retelling the story and asking if anyone knew the pilot.

In January 18, 1990, Brown received a letter. He opened it and read: “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…

It was Stigler.

He had left Germany after the war and moved to Vancouver , British Columbia , in 1953. He

became a prosperous businessman. Now retired, Stigler told Brown that he would be in Florida come summer and “it sure would be nice to talk about our encounter.” Brown was so excited, though, that he couldn’t wait to see Stigler. He called directory assistance for Vancouver and asked whether there was a number for a Franz Stigler. He dialed the number, and Stigler picked up.

“My God, it’s you!” Brown shouted as tears ran down his cheeks.

Brown had to do more. He wrote a letter to Stigler in which he said: “To say THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU on behalf of my surviving crewmembers and their families appears totally inadequate.”

The two pilots would meet again, but this time in person, in the lobby of a Florida hotel. One of Brown’s friends was there to record the summer reunion. Both men looked like retired businessmen: they were plump, sporting neat ties and formal shirts. They fell into each other’ arms and wept and laughed. They talked about their encounter in a light, jovial tone.

The mood then changed. Someone asked Stigler what he thought about Brown. Stigler sighed and his square jaw tightened. He began to fight back tears before he said in heavily accented English: “I love you, Charlie.”

Stigler had lost his brother, his friends and his country. He was virtually exiled by his countrymen after the war. There were 28,000 pilots who fought for the German air force. Only 1,200 survived.

The war cost him everything. Charlie Brown was the only good thing that came out of World War II for Franz. It was the one thing he could be proud of. The meeting helped Brown as well, says his oldest daughter, Dawn Warner.

They met as enemies but Franz Stigler, on left, and Charles Brown, ended up as fishing buddies. Brown and Stigler became pals. They would take fishing trips together. They would fly cross-country to each other homes and take road trips together to share their story at schools and veterans’ reunions. Their wives, Jackie Brown and Hiya Stigler, became friends.

Brown’s daughter says her father would worry about Stigler’s health and constantly check in on him.

“It wasn’t just for show,” she says. “They really did feel for each other. They talked about once a week.” As his friendship with Stigler deepened, something else happened to her father, Warner says “The nightmares went away.”

Brown had written a letter of thanks to Stigler, but one day, he showed the extent of his gratitude. He organized a reunion of his surviving crew members, along with their extended families. He invited Stigler as a guest of honor.

During the reunion, a video was played showing all the faces of the people that now lived — children, grandchildren, relatives — because of Stigler’s act of chivalry. Stigler watched the film from his seat of honor.

“Everybody was crying, not just him,” Warner says.

Stigler and Brown died within months of each other in 2008. Stigler was 92, and Brown was 87. They had started off as enemies, became friends, and then something more.

After he died, Warner was searching through Brown’s library when she came across a book on German fighter jets. Stigler had given the book to Brown. Both were country boys who loved to read about planes.

Warner opened the book and saw an inscription Stigler had written to Brown:

In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying.

The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me, as precious as my brother was. Thanks Charlie.

Your Brother,


Source: Mail Online

~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

24 thoughts on “Grace Under Pressure: “Your Brother, Franz””

  1. What a story! ” You follow the rules of war not for your enemy but for yourself.” When I read those words, I felt a chill. This man saved these “enemy fliers” because it was the right thing to do. He risked all to do so.
    Unfortunately, the US and it leaders have forgotten that by declaring the “rules of war” obsolete we have damaged ourselves and slid down the slippery slope into the kind of cruelty and brutality that we once condemned.

    You follow the rules of war not for your enemy but for yourself. We salute you, Mr. Stigler.

  2. Mark,

    What a heart warming story…. OS, thanks for the US account….. I read a book called “An Honorable German”…. It was about a UBoat commander that surfaced after sinking a civil ship off the coast of Florida…. Knowing the risk of capture… But the rules of engagement would not let his training as a ships captain go unchecked…. Thanks….

  3. Touching war propaganda. I wonder why we can’t enjoy the stories of those who are conscientious objectors to war?

    Probably the cultural amygdala at work for about a century now, guided by propaganda so strong that U.S. skulls are actually changing in shape and configuration.

    My favorite is General Smedley Butler, who coined the 1% and 99% metaphor in 1933.

  4. Franz Stigler’s obituary in the Vancouver Sun as it appeared 29 March 2008. Note the passage I have bolded.

    STIGLER – FRANZ After a long extraordinary life, Franz passed away on March 22, 2008. Predeceased by his parents Franz, Anna and brother Gustel, he is survived by his loving wife Hija; daughter Jovita; grandchildren Melina, Corbin, Jason and Nathan; great grandchildren Mackenzie and Aidan; niece Christiane (Burkhard); special brother Charlie Brown; soul mates Jim, Anne and many friends. No flowers and service by request.

    The location of Franz Stigler’s grave is known only to his family. It is listed as “unknown” in Find-a-Grave.

  5. Thanks so much for posting this it is so wonderful. And thanks Otterary Scribe for the extra info. One of the best things I have ever read and restores my faith in humanity.

    The Charlie Brown / snoopy flying ace coincidence my just be some sort of obtuse partial fractal proof the Universe is coherent and sentient and has an active sense of humor.

  6. good post, Mark.

    it’s good to remember that the people fighting wars are human and have lives apart from the fighting.

    it’s just too bad the b-17 pilot had to go through life with a name like charlie brown.

  7. destruction of the Plexiglas nose, wing damage, and major damage to the number two and four engines, serious damage of the third engine; the complete destruction of the aircraft’s left elevator and stabilizer; the inoperability of the bomber’s oxygen and communications systems; and the complete shredding of the rudder

    Guess Charlie remembered the first several rules of flight: fly the aircraft, i.e. do what’s necessary to keep it in the air.

  8. Amazing story. If all enemy combatants took such action of protecting each other, wars would end.

  9. Slight error above on award ranking relating to the MoH due to getting in a hurry typing. He was awarded the Air Medal with the above citation. However, Charlie Brown received the Air Force Cross long after the war. It was not established until the Air Force became a separate branch of service. It was designed in 1947 and finally authorized by Congress in 1960. It is second only to the MoH for valor in combat.

  10. Lt. Charlie Brown stayed in the Air Force, rising to the rank of Lt. Colonel. He was awarded the Air Medal, which ranks second only to the Medal of Honor. His citation for the Air Medal reads:

    The President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, takes pleasure in presenting the Air Force Cross to Second Lieutenant Charles L. Brown for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an armed enemy of the United States as a B-17 Pilot of the 527th Bombardment Squadron, 379th Bombardment Group (Heavy), EIGHTH Air Force, in action over Germany, 20 December 1943. On this date while attacking a heavily defended target over occupied Germany, Lieutenant Brown’s aircraft sustained severe flak damage, including destruction of the Plexiglas nose, wing damage, and major damage to the number two and four engines. Lieutenant Brown provided invaluable instructions to the copilot and crew requiring the number two engine to be shut down. He then expertly managed to keep the number four engine producing partial power. This action enabled his crew to complete the improbable bombing run and bomb delivery on this important strategic target. Immediately upon leaving the target, severe multiple engine damage prevented maintaining their position in formation. During this extreme duress, the demonstrated airmanship displayed by Lieutenant Brown could only be described as crucially pivotal to the aircraft’s survival and displayed by only more seasoned and experienced aviators during the War. His violent, evasive tactics to counter the multiple enemy efforts to destroy their airplane directly contributed to his crew and his aircraft’s survival. Alone and outnumbered, the aircraft was mercilessly attacked by the enemy in which crew difficulties were compounded when discovered only three defensive guns were operational, the others frozen in the -75 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. The result of this brief, but devastating aerial battle was one crew member dead; another critically wounded that would require amputation of his leg; serious damage of the third engine; the complete destruction of the aircraft’s left elevator and stabilizer; the inoperability of the bomber’s oxygen and communications systems; and the complete shredding of the rudder by enemy fire that produced a death roll of the plane as it spiraled helplessly out of control causing the entire crew to temporarily lose consciousness. Miraculously, prior to ground impact, Lieutenant Brown and the copilot regained consciousness and managed to regain full flight control by pulling the heavily damaged aircraft out of its nose-dive. Although managing to recover this aircraft from certain doom, the crew’s plight was further complicated when a lone German fighter witnessed the maneuver, now attempted to force the crippled aircraft to land. Displaying coolness, courage and airmanship of more senior pilots, he boldly rejected the enemy fighter’s attempts at a forced landing and directed the struggling aircraft to the North Sea. While attempting this improbable, treacherous return to home station, Lieutenant Brown’s command and control was instrumental to the remaining crew’s survival. While in the cockpit, he provided the essential engine control, fuel management, and piloting skills necessary to the cockpit team during their hazardous, yet miraculous return of the aircraft’s perilous crossing of the North Sea back to home station in England. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of the enemy, Lieutenant Brown reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Army Air Corps.

    Note the citation describes the German pilot as trying to force them down. Even then, Charlie Brown and his superiors protected Franz’s actions from being discovered by the Nazi government.

  11. mespo, Thanks for your continuing series of positive posts showing that people are good most of the time, and sometimes great.

  12. Look for the book:

    A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II

    by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander

    Available at most bookstores.

  13. This is a moving story. I knew about it a long time ago. I have an acquaintance, a captain with Air Canada, who knew both men. I was talking with my son about the story yesterday, when it hit me that I am one handshake removed from both these remarkable men. I just wish I had a chance to meet them before they both passed away in 2008. There is a video of them together about the time they first met in person.

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