“There are no tales finer than those created by life itself.”
Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875)
This week I came across a beautiful story of compassion that I would like to add to my blog.
“A 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, struggling to stay 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 stared back at the bomber in amazement and respect. Instead of pressing the attack, he nodded at Brown and saluted. What happened next was one of the most remarkable acts of chivalry recorded during World War Il.
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-17’s 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 now.” Franz Stigler didn’t think the big B-17 could make it back to England and wondered for years what happened to the American pilot and crew he encountered in combat.
Brown did survive and late in life he 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 that B-17, did she make it home? Did her crew survive their wounds? To hear of your survival has filled me with indescribable joy.”
It was Stigler. Stigler had lost his brother, his friends, and his country. He was virtually exiled by his countrymen after the war. There were 28,000 pilots who fought for the German Air Force. Only 1,200 survived. The war cost him everything. Charlie Brown was the only good thing that came out of World War II for Franz.
Brown and Stigler became pals. They would take fishing trips together. They would fly to each other homes and take road trips together to share their story at schools and veterans’ reunions. Stigler and Brown died within months of each other in 2008. Stigler was 92, and Brown was 87. Some time before their death Stigler had given the book on German fighter jets to Brown with the following inscription:
“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”
Over the years I collected a number of real stories of compassion from different time periods, cultures and geographic locations. Among them are:
- A story of the German engineer who rescued the 2,000 or so allied prisoners from the Sebastiano Venier
- Other stories of Compassion during World War 2
- Heroism and Compassion: John Rabe
- We have to face the fact…
- Retired Japanese policeman Yukio Shige on mission to prevent suicides
I’m always looking for more stories, so if you know any, please leave a comment. Thanks.