Dan O'Donnell

Dan O'Donnell

Common Sense Central is edited by WISN's Dan O'Donnell. Dan provides unique conservative commentary and analysis of stories that the mainstream media...Read More

 

The Enemy's Escort


War is a tragic constant of the human experience. For all of human history, we have been fighting one another over territory, ideology, or whatever reason we can find. But our common humanity is stronger even than our deepest divisions and, ultimately, compassion can triumph over conflict.

This is the Forgotten History of the Enemy’s Escort.

Charles Brown’s bomber was going down, and going down quickly. The young pilot was over enemy airspace, and Nazi anti-aircraft guns had taken out all but one of the engines on his B-17 Flying Fortress and badly injured much of his nine-man crew.

German fighter jets surrounded them and fired on them for more than 10 minutes as Brown tried to pilot his men out of danger. One of them was too badly hurt to parachute out, so they had no choice but to press on, even though it meant almost-certain death for them all. They were going down and they knew it.

On the ground, German fighter pilot Fritz Stigler—an ace with 27 confirmed kills—spotted the damaged B-17 and hopped in his plane. Within minutes, he had caught up and prepared to finish the Americans off. But as he approached, he noticed something odd: The Flying Fortress’ rear gun didn’t move to fire on him. In fact, it didn’t move at all.

Stigler flew closer to see what was going on. Through a massive hole in the fuselage, he could see the Americans frantically tending to what looked to be badly wounded men. They weren’t trying to fight back or defend themselves at all. They were sitting ducks.

Suddenly, Stigler remembered his days flying missions in North Africa. His commanding officer, Gustav Rodel, was a man of honor and told his pilots, “If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you myself.”

Stigler could never fire on a defenseless enemy, and as he peered through the fuselage, he realized that these men were just like parachutists. He couldn’t bring himself to finish them off. Instead, he pulled up beside them and tried to get their attention. When they spotted him, he gestured to the ground and tried to mouth instructions to bring their plane down in nearby Sweden, where they would be safe from capture or worse.

But the men in Brown’s plane couldn’t understand what Stigler was trying to tell them, and Brown flew on. But instead of abandoning them, Stigler flew in formation with their plane—concealing himself so that anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn’t realize what he was doing—and escorted them to safety.

Once they were safe over the waters of the North Sea, Brown—still unsure what Stigler was doing—ordered his turret gunner to train the weapon on Stigler’s plane as a message that he could leave them. When Stigler saw this, he understood and, giving a salute to the injured men, flew off back toward his base in Germany.

Brown managed to safely land the plane at a British airfield. All but one of his men had survived and couldn’t believe how. Had a Nazi really escorted them to safety? Brown’s superiors ordered him never to breathe a word of what had happened: If other pilots ca ught wind of a Nazi fighter showing such compassion, it would humanize the enemy and make them far more difficult to shoot down.

Brown never spoke of the incident again. Neither did Stigler, who knew if anyone ever learned what he had done, he would be court martialed or even executed for treason. When the war ended, Stigler was so disgusted with what the Nazis had done to his country that he left it for good, moving to Canada and becoming a successful businessman. Brown served in the newly-formed US Air Force until 1965 and as a State Department foreign service officer for an additional seven years before moving to Miami and becoming an inventor.

Neither man spoke of their encounter for years until 1986, when Brown was asked to attended a combat pilot reunion event, where he was asked if anything unusual had ever happened to him on a bombing run. Brown thought for a moment and, for the first time in decades, recounted the story of the compassionate enemy pilot who had escorted his men to safety.

Brown then decided that he needed to find out who this man was so that he could properly thank him for saving their lives. He pored through American and German records but couldn’t find anything. He was stumped. As a last ditch-effort, he wrote a letter to a newsletter that was widely read by combat pilots.

A few months later, he received a response. He eagerly called the phone number the letter-writer had provided and, after talking a few minutes, Brown realized that Fritz Stigler was the man who had heroically spared his life. The two talked for hours and wrote letters to each other for months. They visited as often as possible and became like a pair of old war buddies.

For 18 years, from the time they reunited until their deaths—just months apart in 2008—they were as close as two friends could be; bound together for eternity by an act of extreme compassion that proves that the ties of humanity are stronger even than the horrors of war.


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