For Charlie Brown, a farm boy from West Virginia, and his crew of “greenhorns” flying a B-17 Flying Fortress of the 379th Bomb Group named “Ye Olde Pub”, their very first combat mission to the German city of Bremen was looking almost certain to be their last mission as well. One damaged engine had already been shut down and another was surging; the aircraft had been so severely shot up that most control surfaces were shredded and there were holes you could have driven a wheel barrow through. Even with the help of co-pilot “Pinkey” Luke, the plane was barely controllable and losing altitude rapidly. The tail gunner “Eckey” Eckenrode was already either dying or dead, trapped in his cramped position, while radioman Dick Pichout and waist gunner Lloyd Jennings were trying to save gunner “Russian” Yelesanko from bleeding to death in the rear fuselage. What’s more all of the fortress’s guns were frozen and unable to defend the wallowing bomber from further attack by the Focke Wulf’s momentarily left behind. “Ye Olde Pub” seemed doomed even as the cold Atlantic coast became visible in the distance. At an altitude of only 2,000 feet and with badly wounded crewmen, it was already getting late to consider abandoning ship, even if the crew had been willing; and worse, they had blundered into the airspace over a German airfield near the town of Jever.
To Luftwaffe fighter pilot Franz Stigler waiting for repairs to be completed on his Messerschmitt Bf-109G, the sound of an obviously damaged and low-flying enemy bomber overhead sounded like a gift from the gods. Already an Ace, and one of Germany’s most experienced fighter pilots, Franz needed only one more American bomber victory to wear the coveted “Knight’s Cross” around his neck. With cannons charged, he quickly took off and closed in on the stumbling B-17, wondering why the tail gunner failed to send defensive fire his way. Carefully circling the crippled ship, he was amazed that such a sieved and shattered airplane could still be flying, noting as well the blood-stained crew members staring at him from behind silent guns. Finally settling his fighter within a few feet of Charlie Brown’s watching eyes, he motioned with a pointing finger toward the Swedish border, hoping the American would fly to a neutral haven. Failing that, Franz made a decision saying to himself, “I will not have this on my conscience for the rest of my life”.
In the end, and at the personal risk of court martial and a firing squad, Franz Stigler guided the crippled B-17 through Germany’s most deadly network of defensive anti-aircraft installations (known as The Atlantic Wall”), and set them on a correct course for England before giving a final salute and heading home. No Knight’s cross, but true to a lifelong sense of honor and respect for humanity.
After negotiating a wild North Sea crossing just feet above the waves, American P-47s finally led “The Pub” to a safe landing at a newly-created B-24 base at Seething, England.
Charlie Brown and his crew would survive 27 combat missions to become one of the most decorated bomber crews in history, while Oberleutnant Franz Stigler ended up as one of a handful of Luftwaffe pilots to fly the vaunted, but highly dangerous, ME-262 jet fighters, along with his friend, iconic General Adolph Galland (known personally to Al Cooper), surviving more than 500 combat missions with at least 17 planes shot out from under him. (Of the 28,000 Luftwaffe fighter pilots to see combat in WWII, a mere 1,200 lived to see the end of hostilities. 160,000 Allied airmen lost their lives in those same European skies.)
Forty-one years after their unforgettable encounter over Germany, Franz Stigler, then living in Vancouver, Canada and Charlie Brown finally hunted each other down to form a brother-like friendship which became the richest mutual experience of their long lives, traveling together in order to tell the story of their tearful get-together and firm bonding to aviation reunions and interested audiences in North America and abroad. In their 80s, they died within months of each other in 2008.
Between Lt. Colonel Charles L. Brown, USAF (Ret) and members of the “Olde Pub” crew, at least 100 children, grand-children and great grand-children are alive today because of the decision made by 1st Lt. Franz Stigler in the skies over Germany on December 20th, 1943.
NOTE: The whole story of this unusual series of events and their powerful meaning is captured in splendid detail by author Adam Makos in his best-selling book, A HIGHER CALL whose meticulous research spanned four years and miles of international travel.
“A HIGHER CALL” © Valor Studios and John D. Shaw,