Saturday, 9 November 2013

BROTHERS IN ARMS

During quieter times when I'm sort of killing (read: wasting?) time, I like to browse through sites like Google and YouTube and see what's out there. Being a pilot myself, and having an interest in vintage aircraft, I often search out old training videos on aircraft such as the P-51 Mustang or the B-17 Flying Fortress. One day I was on YouTube searching for a video on the B-17 that I had watched before when I came across an image that had been taken from a painting. It showed a B-17 in flight with a German Bf-109 fighter flying beside it. At first glance it didn't look all that significant but upon closer scrutiny, it was obvious that the B-17 had seen better times.

The bomber was riddled with holes from 20 mm cannon fire, flak and smaller caliber bullets. Huge craters had been punched all along the fuselage; half the rudder was missing with the remaining part in tatters. The rear portside (left) horizontal stabilizer had been almost completely shot off; with one engine shut down it was amazing that the airplane was still able to fly.

I clicked on the title and was presented with an ad for a book; a story that touches me deeply every time I revisit the site or pick up the book and read it.

December 20, 1943, and a bomber, piloted by 24 year old Lt. Charlie Brown had been on a run deep into Germany. They had received heavy fire and the plane was extensively damaged. The plane and crew were desperately limping home. Their tailgunner was dead and a couple of waistgunners had been hit badly. Lt. Brown was battling sluggish controls and doing his best to keep the plane aloft and get his crew out of Germany. Besides the airplane being so heavily damaged, there was still the German shore defenses to deal with but Lt. Brown was trying to cope with one problem at a time.

As he was fighting the controls he became aware of something off to the starboard side. He and his co-pilot gaped at the sight a Messerschmidt Bf-109E that had moved in and was flying beside them. The 109 pilot looked at them then lifted up and dropped down beside the portside of the bomber and he and Lt. Brown locked eyes.

Charlie would later recount that when he first saw the 109 he closed his eyes thinking that this was an illusion and would be gone when he opened his eyes again but there it was plain as day, an enemy fighter almost close enough to touch.

But the 109 didn't attack; it flew alongside the crippled bomber, escorting it past the German antiaircraft batteries with their bewildered crews staring at the two airplanes, and stayed with Charlie and his crew until they were out over the North Sea. The fighter pilot then waved and peeled away.

The B-17 was steadily losing altitude but managed to remain in the air until it made it safely back to England and was escorted to the nearest airfield. When they became Feet Dry (over land) their altitude was only 250 feet ASL. Luckily they were able to set the plane down without any further troubles. The wounded were taken away and the crew was debriefed. Eventually, the crew, along with two new members, would fly together again.

For many years nothing would ever be said about that German fighter pilot.

Some years later, Charlie Brown, now a successful inventor, was approached by a journalist to tell him about that incident. All that was in the report was that his ship had sustained heavy damage and they had made it back in (almost) one piece. Charlie was regarded as a hero who had managed to save the lives of all but one of his crew. He had flown a plane that had officials scratching their heads over trying to figure out how that plane flew at all, and gotten back.

Charlie responded saying that he wasn't a hero at all; the real hero was that unknown fighter pilot, who had risked everything to escort them out of Germany when he was duty bound to shoot them down. The journalist was rather astonished to think that Charlie was giving someone else, especially an enemy pilot, the credit. It was then that Charlie told him about the encounter; it was then, in 1987, that Charlie needed to find out who this pilot was.

It took him three years but Charlie Brown managed to locate the lone pilot, now living in Canada, after moving there some eight years after the war ended.

Lt. Franz Stigler had flown for over ten years; flown for the Luftwaffe for six. He had begun the war as a flying instructor, then was able to convince his superiors to transfer him to an actual battlefront. He was first stationed in North Africa then, when the tides began to turn against Germany, he was transferred back home to help defend the Fatherland.

Stigler's commanding officer was a veteran of the Great War. The man was a fierce warrior and an accomplished ace but he also fought by a code; a code of chivalry and honor. He told his pilots never to shoot at someone who couldn't shoot back. 'If I ever catch you shooting at a parachute, I'll shoot you down myself!' He told them, and they believed he'd do just that.

That was a code that Stigler would adhere to for the rest of the war.

As he would later recount, he first saw the B-17 fly overhead, in a northerly heading, obviously trying to get out of the country. He flew up to intercept it and that's when he saw how crippled the bomber was. He could see that there was no tail-gunner as the guns were hanging down. Along the fuselage were numerous jagged craters through which he could see crewmen attending to the wounded.

A quick burst from his 20 mm cannon would've ended the bomber's pitiful life right then and there but Franz made an important decision. 'It would've been like shooting at a parachute,' he would later say; he couldn't shoot it.

So he just escorted it out of Germany. He thought the B-17 would try for Sweden which was a lot closer but being a neutral country, the bomber crew would have no choice but to wait out the war. That might've been OK for Germany's plight but Lt. Stigler could see that the crew, even though badly beaten up, still had a job to do.

And this was not going to be their day to die. He just saluted them and wished them well.

Like Lt. Brown, he would never say anything about that incident until many years later.

Charlie and Franz met at a hotel in Seattle, Washington in 1990. There reunion could only be described as one of mutual respect and brotherly love. Charlie would recount that it was like meeting a brother you hadn't seen in forty years.

For the next 18 years the two of them would share a friendship that would last until they were taken to their eternal rewards. They met often and attended air shows and programs all over the continent; they were hailed as heroes by veterans and families of veterans from both sides of the conflict.

Franz passed away in 2008 at the age of 94. His obituary would read that in addition to his wife and family, he was also survived by his special brother, Charlie Brown. Charlie would pass away later that same year.

Their story is recounted in the book, A Higher Call, by Adam Makos. It shows that no matter the conflict, there are good people on both sides. Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler fought on opposite sides; they took orders and carried them out with the hopes that the ones ordering them into battle knew what they were doing. But in the end, what really mattered is that the fighting stopped and peace reigned supreme.

Charlie and Franz became best friends despite the odds. So, on this Veterans' Day/ Remembrance Day, as I pause to remember those who gave everything in the fight for our freedom, I will also remember two fighting men who became brothers during a dark time in history when war engulfed the world.

May God bless them all...