“Once in a while, you hear an old war story that restores your faith in humanity. Usually it involves a moment of quiet in the midst of chaos; some singing or the sharing of a few condiments. But how many of them take place in mid air?”
Those are not my words. They are the introductory words to a fascinating story sent to me by our Managing Editor, Dr. Clarissa Estés.
Although I have read a similar rendition of this story of heroism, chivalry and compassion in the midst of war, I was once again captivated by it.
Perhaps it is because the story involves a B-17 bomber flying over hostile territory during World War II, reminding me of a good friend — a World War II B-17 bombardier — who presently needs our prayers.
Perhaps it is because our wars, especially our “conflicts” in the Middle East seem to be more brutal than ever, as if wars were not already the epitome of brutality.
Perhaps it is because these days we dearly need an uplifting story: “some singing or the sharing of a few condiments.”
By the way, the author of this particular version, Benjamin Preston, appropriately links “some singing” to an article about how German and British soldiers during the so-called “Christmas Truce” in World War I, would cross trenches to “exchange seasonal greetings,” talk and sing Christmas carols.
When Preston mentions the “sharing of a few condiments,” he is referring to how soldiers from both sides in our nation’s most costly war in terms of casualties and human suffering — the Civil War — still managed to find the humanity to not only share jokes and shout “pleasantries” at each other across the Rappahannock River, but also to send “sailboats across with coffee in exchange for tobacco and vice versa.”
Some call these phenomena of goodwill and humanity “fraternization.”
What occurred in the skies over Germany a few days before Christmas of 1943 went much deeper and had a much larger and longer-term impact.
It is the remarkable story of an American B-17 “Flying Fortress” piloted by Second Lieutenant Charlie Brown on a bombing run to hit an aircraft factory near Bremen, Germany. The aircraft, named Ye Olde Pub is severely damaged by anti-aircraft fire during its bombing run and subsequently pretty much mortally wounded by withering attacks by German fighters.
As the author says, “[t]hings went from bad to worse for Brown and his crew…the damage they sustained was immense. The tail gunner was killed and four were injured, including Brown, who caught a bullet fragment in his right shoulder. The only defensive guns left in service were the top turret and the nose gun, and the bomber’s hydraulics and oxygen systems had also been knocked out. The plane went into a spiral, plummeting earthward.”
Somehow, Brown and his brave crew — what remained of them — are miraculously able to recover at the last moment and Ye Olde Pub starts limping back towards the sea and towards England in what seems to be “mission impossible.” It would have been an impossible mission but for an act of gallantry and humaneness by a German Luftwaffe Fighter Forces pilot.
Seeing the crippled B-17 approach, German fighter ace Oberleutnant L. Franz Stigler takes off in his Messerschmitt Bf 109 from a German airfield in hot pursuit of the B-17, ready to make this B-17 kill the third one that day and thereby earn Germany’s highest military award, the Knight’s Cross.
But then, as another author and artist, John D. Shaw, writes:
As he approached the virtually helpless American plane, however, he saw the faces of the dead and wounded crewmen. Then, Stigler’s eyes met those of pilot Charles Brown. Despite the potentially severe consequences of letting an enemy plane escape, Stigler felt that he had to answer a higher call of honor…mercy.
And he did.
Please read the rest of this fascinating, true story here.
Read, also, how the two pilots — once mortal enemies — fared after the war and, more important, how the two men found each other almost 50 years later and “became like brothers.”
Adam Makos has written a book about the Brown-Stigler rendezvous — A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story Of Combat And Chivalry In The War-Torn Skies Of World War II, available at Amazon.com and bookstores worldwide.
Finally, please watch an emotional interview with the two pilots, below, courtesy the Diahne Rehm Show.
CODA: Thank you “Dr. E.” for pointing this great, uplifting story out and wish you well.
Lead image: Screen grab “An Incredible Christmas Story from World War II”
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.