A Look at the Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler Incident
Lt. Charles “Charlie” Brown was piloting a B-17 Flying Fortress over Bremen, Germany on December 20,1943, when the aircraft sustained a significant amount of damage. Brown was unable to remain in formation, leading him and the nine-man crew to become stragglers over enemy territory and making them an obvious target for enemy fighters.
As Brown struggled to reach England, German planes quickly located the aircraft. Over a dozen FW 190s and ME 109s began strafing the bomber, injuring or killing nearly the entire crew. The damaged aircraft, now with only 40 percent of its rated power, started limping over an enemy airfield, and a German fighter decided to try and finish them off.
Franz Stigler, a Luftwaffe fighter pilot, already had 27 victories to his name and needed just one more to be eligible for the Knight’s Cross award. Stigler headed towards the B-17, assuming it would be easy to take down.
However, Stigler recalled the words of a former commanding officer: “If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you myself.” At that moment, Stigler spotted a parachute and decided not to shoot them down.
Stigler took a position alongside the bomber and tried to motion Brown to land. Brown refused, so Stigler flew close to the aircraft to prevent ground crews from having a clear shot with their AA guns and, once they reached the North Sea coast, Stigler saluted Brown before breaking off and returned to his base. He later reported that the American aircraft had crashed into the waters below.
Instead, Brown’s plane actually made it to England and was able to land. While most of the crew were injured, including Brown himself, only one serviceman died during the encounter.
Brown completed his military career in 1965, though he often wondered what happened to the German fighter pilot who showed him mercy. After searching public records, to no avail, Brown told his story to a German magazine for veterans over 40 years after the encounter took place.
Stigler, who was living in Canada by then, happened to read the piece.
After learning of Brown’s whereabouts through the article, Stigler reached out. The pair formed a close bond, ultimately forging a friendship that lasted 20 years, until Stigler passed away in early 2008. Brown passed away the same year, just six months after the death of his friend.