In World War II, an American aircrew found itself at the mercy of a German fighter and expected to be shot out of the sky. But something else happened entirely . . .
The American aircrew takes a heavy beating
The American crew on their first mission was limping after taking heavy flak damage during a bombing run over Germany on Dec. 30, 1943. It was supposed to be just behind and beside the flight leader in its formation, but it simply couldn't keep up with two of its four engines severely damaged. 2nd Lt. Charles Brown, the pilot, watched his formation pull slowly away.
All alone in German skies, the situation got even worse for the crew when eight German fighters appeared ahead. The B-17 downed at least one of the attackers and possibly a second, but seven more fighters approached from the rear and began another attack.
Brown doesn't remember exactly what happened next but thinks he must have lost oxygen and passed out.
"I either spiraled or spun and came out of the spin just above the ground," he said in an interview on Military.com. "My only conscious memory was of dodging trees but I had nightmares for years and years about dodging buildings and then trees. I think the Germans thought that we had spun in and crashed."
One crew member was dead and Brown was wounded with three others. Thinking the Germans had left after the plane nearly crashed, he ordered the crew in the cockpit to check on the wounded and the state of the plane. In the cockpit with the co-pilot, he looked out the window and saw a German fighter on his wing, a feared Messerschmitt Bf-109.
The German Ace
Oberleutnant Franz Stigler was a skilled pilot for the Luftwaffe. On the day of the incident, he had already shot down two B-17s and would automatically earn the Knight's Cross, Germany's highest military honors, if he got just one more that day. He was smoking a cigarette and watching his plane be rearmed and refueled when he looked up and saw the heavily damaged American bomber fly over him. He leaped into his cockpit and flew up to get the kill.
Approaching from the rear, he lined up his shot on the tail, but was surprised to notice that the tail guns were pointed down like no one was holding them. He abstained from his shot and flew closer. What he found shocked him.
Icicles of blood were hanging from the gun barrels and the tail gunner, dead, was visible through a hole in the tail. The tail itself was nearly half gone. Pulling even with the enemy plane, he saw the rest of the plane was damaged as well. Sunlight was passing through a massive hole in the side and the whole thing was peppered from flak and cannon fire. Still unopposed, he caught up to the cockpit and saw the American pilot.
Stigler could drop back at this moment, take out the plane and become a German war hero.
But, when he was starting his career, his commanding officer had told him that he had to follow the rules of war to protect his own humanity. He told Franz that if he ever heard Franz shot at a pilot descending in a parachute, he'd kill Franz himself. Franz later said that when he saw the extreme damage to the B-17, he couldn't fire. "... for me, it would have been the same as shooting at a parachute," he said in a video. "I just couldn't shoot. I just hoped that he got his wounded men home."
There was a complication though. If Franz was caught letting an Allied plane go, he could be executed on the ground. And the planes were drawing close to German shore defenses that would spot and report him. Also, at any moment the American crew could decide to kill the threat off their wing.
The American reaction
Brown saw the German plane on his right and initially thought he was hallucinating. He squeezed his eyes shut, shook his head, and looked out the window again, expecting to see an empty sky. He did, until he turned to the left and saw that the German had simply switched sides. He was mouthing words and gesturing to the American plane while wildly exaggerating his facial expressions.
After watching this for a few moments, Brown realized that this pilot could kill him at any moment. He screamed back down the plane for the top gunner to get in the turret and shoot down the German. After he gave the order he turned back to look out the window.
Franz, already worried about how close they were getting to the German shore gunners, saw the turret begin to move. He looked Brown in the eyes, saluted the American, and flew away.
They meet again
Brown would wonder for years about what happened, but it wasn't until 1990 that he learned what had become of the German pilot who spared him.
After placing an ad in a magazine for combat pilots, Brown received a letter in reply. He called Franz with a dose of skepticism about whether it was his real savior. Franz quickly convinced him by describing all the details of the event, right down to the salute.
They answered each others questions about the event. Franz explained that he didn't fire because of his own morals in the war, that he had been gesturing and mouthing to try and get the American to fly to Switzerland because he was convinced the plane couldn't make it to England, and that he had finally pulled away from the bomber because he was worried about being spotted by Germans or fired on by the Americans.
Franz had always wondered if the Americans made it back alive, if sacrificing his medal and risking his life had meant anything. Brown confirmed that the crew and the plane made it to England and were able to land. The tail gunner had died in the air, but the rest of them survived.
The two became friends. Franz had moved to Canada in 1953 and Brown lived in America, so they visited each other and fished together. Both died of heart attacks in 2008.
Adam Makos and Larry Alexander wrote a book detailing this incident as well as the men involved, "A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II."