Amazing story about a WW2 encounter over Germany - and battlefield morality (1 Viewer)

superchuck500

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This is a pretty amazing story. Apart from the facts, which are completely profound, I think the idea that battlefield morality serves not to save the enemy but to save the soldier’s humanity is so compelling. If this story doesn’t touch you, I don’t know what would.

Very long article so my quotes will be a bit more lengthy that typical. The article is well worth the read.

(CNN) -- The 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 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 nodded at Brown instead. What happened next was one of the most remarkable acts of chivalry recorded during World War II. Years later, Brown would track down his would-be executioner for a reunion that reduced both men to tears.

. . .

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 had 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. He could see men huddled inside the 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."

. . .

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.

On January 18, 1990, Brown received a letter. He opened it and read: "Dear Charles, All these years I wondered what happened to the B-17, did she make it or not?"

It was Stigler. He had 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.

Two enemies discover a 'higher call' in battle - CNN.com

The article contains much more about how the men became friends and the families of the crew of the B-17 that day all existed because of Stigler’s honorable act. It also contains more discussion about battlefield morality and whether the use of drones and technology may destroy some of the “code.”

Remarkable story.
 

Flipx99

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This is a pretty amazing story. Apart from the facts, which are completely profound, I think the idea that battlefield morality serves not to save the enemy but to save the soldier’s humanity is so compelling.

Agreed. The best instructor/teacher/mentor I ever had at any point in my life was an instructor at an Army school for 2d LT's. He had been a senior NCO in Vietnam and was one of the most intense people I have ever known.

In a snarling voice he would tell us, "you will not allow your soldiers to desecrate the bodies of enemy soldiers, you will not allow them to take trophies. You are not doing this for the enemy -- you are doing it for the sanity of the young soldiers who will have to live with what they do for the rest of their lives."

He acted like the meanest SOB in the world but had a HUGE heart.
 

Bayouman007

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ok there Superchuck... must warn people who are at work that their offices could become dusty after reading.
 

where yat brah

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porculator

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Someone started cutting onions next to me when I read the inscription the German wrote in a book he sent the American:

"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,
Franz"
 

whodat111

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excellent article. it comforts me that there are people like this in the world.
 

mulletslinger

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a man has nothing without his honor. thanks for the link, 500.
 

Norwajun

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Great story. Thank you for posting it.

"The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war."
Douglas MacArthur
 

Yeti

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Damn good article. Repped.
 

FLIPPY

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Great story Chuck, thanks for posting......
 

Taurus

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Reminds me of the story of Robert S. Johnson and his P-47.

June 26, 1943 mission
Early in the morning forty-eight Thunderbolts took off from the advanced base at Manston. Having previously been criticized for going off on his own, this morning Johnson resolved to stay in formation. The three squadrons of the 56th Fighter Group were all up: the 61st (Johnson's), 62nd, and 63rd. Before the mission, Johnson felt the cold fear that he always felt, and which he was able to channel into higher alertness. They flew up, over the Channel, into France, and soon spotted sixteen Fw-190s. Before Johnson could communicate or coordinate with his flight, he was hit. 20mm cannon shells ripped through his plane, smashing the canopy, punching holes in the plane, and inspiring in Johnson an overwhelming urge to bail out. More explosions smashed the plane, and Johnson's frantic "Mayday!" calls drew no response. Fire began to envelope the cockpit.

The Thunderbolt spun crazily out of his control and the twisted and jammed canopy frame resisted his repeated, superhuman, full-body efforts to open it. As he struggled vainly with the canopy, the engine fire miraculously went out, but he could hardly see, as oil spewed back from the battered engine. He tried to squeeze out through the broken glass of the canopy, but the opening was just too small for both him and his chute. Trapped inside the P-47, he next decided to try to crash-land and evade. He turned the plane south, toward Spain - the recommended evasion route. After struggling with hypoxia and hallucinations(?), his thoughts came back into focus and he realized that the aircraft was still flying fairly well. He headed back for England, counting on his high altitude to help him make a long, partially-powered glide back home.

The instrument panel was shattered. The wind constantly blew more oil and hydraulic fluid into his cut up face and eyes. He had neglected to wear his goggles that morning, and any attempt to rub his eyes burned worse than ever. He and his plane were horribly shot up, but incredibly he was still alive. He made for the Channel, desperate to escape the heavily defended enemy territory.

Swiveling constantly, he froze in horror as he spotted a plane approaching him, an Fw-190, beautifully painted in blue with a yellow cowling. Johnson was totally helpless, and just had to wait for the German to get him in his sights and open up. The German closed in, taking his time with the crippled American fighter. Johnson hunched down behind his armor-plated seat, to await the inevitable. The German opened up, spraying the plane with 30-caliber machine gun fire, not missing, just pouring lead into the battered Thunderbolt. Johnson kicked his rudder left and right, slowing his plane to a crawl, and fired back as the German sped out in front of him.

The Focke-Wulf easily avoided the gunfire from the half-blinded Johnson, and circled back, this time pulling level with him. The pilot examined the shattered Thunderbolt all over, looking it up and down, and shook his head in mystification. He banked, pulled up behind Johnson again, and opened up with another burst. Somehow the rugged Republic-built aircraft stayed in the air. The German pulled alongside again, as they approached the southern coast of the Channel. Still flying, Johnson realized how fortunate it was that the German found him after his heavy 20mm cannons were empty.

As they went out over the Channel, the German get behind and opened up again, but the P-47 kept flying. Then he pulled up alongside, rocked his wings in salute, and flew off, before they reached the English coast. Johnson had survived the incredible, point-blank machine gun fire, but still had to land the plane. He contacted Mayday Control by radio, who instructed him to climb if he can. The battered plane climbed, and after more communication, headed for his base at Manston. Landing was touch and go, as he had no idea if the landing gear would work. The wheels dropped down and locked and he landed safely.

Egon Mayer
Johnsonn's opponent that day was the Luftwaffe Ace Egon Mayer: his rank was Oberstleutnant (Lt.Col). My friend, Diego Zampini, supplied the following details on Mayer:

He started to score victories in June 1940 (during the French campaign) with the famous JG 2 "Richthofen," and participated in the Battle of Britain, scoring several kills but being also downed four times. In July 1941 his tally increased to 20, and during only 21 days in the summer of 1942 he shot down 16 British fighters, being promoted to Gruppenkommandeur of III/JG 2.

He was a Major when he met Robert Johnson’s P-47 on June 26 1943 and damaged it very seriously (Mayer at that flew time a Fw 190A-5). On this day the 61st and 56th FG were flying escort for 250 B-17s against Villacoublay airfield, being intercepted by Mayer’s unit, which shot down three B-17s of the 384th BG in head-on attacks. About that time when Mayer and Georg-Peter Eder created the deadly head-on attacks against the B-17s.

On September 16 1943, the recently promoted Oberstleutnant Egon Mayer (now Kommodore of JG 2) shot down three Flying Fortresses in less than 20 minutes. He achieved his 100th kill in February 1944, but he was shot down and killed by a Thunderbolt on March 2 1944 over France while he was trying to attack an Allied bomber. Mayer was only 27 years old.

Robert S. Johnson - Top P-47 Thunderbolt Ace in WW2
 

v3kt0r

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There has always been a sense of honor and chivalry among pilots of WW1, and 2. I love reading about these stories.

Some good ones to watch on the history channel (i think) series Dogfights. It's on Netflix.

One episode....

A German pilot followed an American fighter after a huge air battle and fired into the American's plane but the plane didn't go down. He went in for another pass and hit him again, then again....the plane was still flying...now crippled....but still flying steady towards home.

Still with enough ammo to finish the job, the German pilot flew wing to wing with the American and gave him a incredulous head shake, then a salute. Flew past him, dipped his wings and left.
 

geauxboy

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Here's another WWII story.

My gf's father was born and raised in Italy. His family moved to America when he was about 16. When eligible, he joined and became a bomber pilot. He was soon stationed in the Mediterranean. Soon after arrival, he was ordered to fly over his home town and bomb it to smithereens.

It was the hardest thing for him to ever talk about the war and when he did, you listened. His soon to be wife meantime, was still a teen in Italy and had to carry a pistol if she ever walked the streets of northern Italy. Soon after, she saw Mussolini hung in the square of the town she grew up in near Lake Como.

Fun times indeed.
 

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