WW2 German Ace escorts crippled B-17 home. Warfare is not really a place for humanity, ethics and morals, but the Christmas Truce of WWII was a true example of a moment of humanity. The heroic actions of a German Luftwaffe fighter pilot, Franz Stigler, got nine men home for Christmas on 20 December 1943.
Lt Charlie Brown of the USAAF was on his first mission flying a B-17 on a bombing undertaking over Bremen. His bomber flanked the extremely dangerous left of the formation, sometimes known as the Purple Heart Corner. A large squadron of fighters and well-manned flak guns protected him.
Two B-17s were quickly struck by heavy flak, and many went down. Brown’s bomber was hit at least once in the left wing. The crew had to shut down an engine which took them out of the formation. Soon they were met by about eight enemy fighters that took the fight to the bomber as bullets tore through the plane causing severe damage to the electrical, hydraulic and oxygen systems.
The tail gunner, sergeant Hugh Eckenrode, died as the tail was systematically shot apart and nine crewmen were injured, some of them seriously wounded.
Brown was badly wounded in the shoulder. Oxygen deprivation and wounds caused him to black out momentarily as the bomber spiraled towards the earth. Brown woke up and said that his first memory was of dodging trees. With his memory still hazy he managed to get some altitude just as the German pilot Franz Stigler was refueling his ME109. Stigler saw the bomber and quickly take of to get above and behind it.
Stigler was a veteran pilot who had over 400 combat missions in nearly every front of the war. He was one bomber kill away from earning the high honor of the Knight’s Cross.
Stigler observed the bomber, waiting for the tail gunner to raise his guns. Seeing the limp rear guns, he moved closer and saw the massive amount of damage. Bullet holes were present all over the aircraft. Stigler knew that most of the men had to be badly wounded. Taking a risk, considering the guns could fire at any time, Stigler flew up to be next to the cockpit.
Looking at each other, Brown closed his eyes for a moment and hoped for everything just to be over and Stigler hoped to persuade Brown to land. But Brown’s oxygen starved brain and wounded body could only focus on getting back to England.
Stigler saw that the bomber was heading towards England and had every opportunity to shoot them down.
Instead, he escorted the bomber over the open waters. Stigler had no way of knowing if enemy escort fighters were on the way to rescue the English bomber but he still escorted Brown over the channel. He wisely turned back before he came too close to England, though not before giving Brown a salute. Stigler would never speak of his actions during the war. Had he done so he fully believed that a court-martial would follow.
Brown’s memory of the incident were hazy and he was encouraged after the war to find the German who saluted him to fill in the rest of the memory and make sure it wasn’t a dream or hallucination. After writing letters to German pilots he finally received word back from the pilot who spared his life.
Stigler filled in the blanks of the story and proved that he was the right pilot in a phone call and they met in person afterwards. They have been friends ever since.
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