The Amazing Tale of a Desperate World War II Pilot’s Encounter With a German Flying Ace

On Dec. 20, 1943, a young American bomber pilot named Charlie Brown found himself somewhere over Germany, struggling to keep his plane aloft with just one of its four engines still working. They were returning from their first mission as a unit — the successful bombing of a German munitions factory. Of his crew members, one was dead and 6 were wounded, with 2nd Lt. Brown alone in the cockpit. Meanwhile, 3 unharmed men tended to the others. Brown’s B-17 had been attacked by 15 German planes and left for dead. Brown had been knocked out in the assault, but regained consciousness just in time to pull the plane out of a near-fatal nose dive. Then he glanced to his right and thought he was hallucinating. A lone German was flying beside him, pointing frantically and mouthing things that Brown couldn’t begin to comprehend. Gripped with fear, Brown craned his neck and yelled back to his top gunner to shoot the German out of the sky. Before the gunner could squeeze off his first round, the German did something even stranger: He looked Brown in the eye and gave him a salute, before peeling off. What just happened? That question would haunt Brown for more than 40 years, until he finally met the German pilot, Franz Stigler. As Stigler explained, he remembered what his commanding officer, Lt. Gustav Roedel, had told him: To shoot the enemy when vulnerable went against the code of chivalry and honor. Stigler felt he had to do what was right, so he signaled Brown to land. In 1990, Brown, who was still deeply traumatized by the incident, decided to search for the German soldier who had spared his and the lives of his crew. He took out an ad in a newsletter for fighter pilots and before long the two were corresponding by mail, eventually meeting in person. Brown and Stigler both had heart attacks and died in 2008, 6 months apart. Brown was 87, Stigler 92. In their obituaries, each listed the other as “a special brother.”