The incredible story of Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler
By: Randy Green
In December 1943, a few days short of Christmas, 2nd Lt. Charles “Charlie” Brown was piloting a severely crippled B-17 bomber through the skies of Germany. He was returning to England after a mission over Bremen. During the attack, his Flying Fortress aircraft had been struck by explosive flak and ravaged by enemy fighters. His injured crew struggled to keep the plane aloft.
Unable to keep pace with the retreating formation, the B-17 lumbered toward the coast alone at low altitude. It passed near a German airfield, where a keen-eyed Luftwaffe pilot spotted the beleaguered plane. The pilot was Lt. Franz Stigler, a skilled fighter ace whose brother had been killed in the early days of the war.
Stigler took off and gave chase. His sleek Messerschmitt fighter overtook the bomber in short order. He rolled in for the kill, ready to drop the hammer and send the B-17 to its doom. Instead, what he saw made him hesitate. The aircraft’s fuselage was riffled with bullet holes, and portions of the flight control surfaces had been completely shot away. The torn bomber hung helpless under his guns.
Stigler’s next decision was an incredible act of mercy. Rather than downing the B-17, he pulled alongside and flew close enough to exchange hand signals with Brown. Brown realized in astonishment that Stigler wasn’t going to shoot him down. Instead, Stigler kept his station next to the B-17 and escorted the enemy bomber through German airspace. At the North Sea, Stigler saluted and broke formation. Brown nursed his aircraft safely back to England.
If Stigler had shot down the B-17 that day, no one would have given the encounter a second thought. Brown and his Flying Fortress would have received their due for the Bremen mission, just another casualty among the thousands of aircraft lost in World War II. Instead, Stigler chose mercy.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Mercy is an attitude of compassion that returns grace for offenses. In other words, instead of taking revenge, we forgive and do good to those who hurt us.
We may marvel at how a fighter ace can spare an enemy bomber, but God’s mercy is even more amazing. He spared us when he sent his Son, Jesus, to die in our place on a cross. Every day his mercy continues. The sun rises each morning. The rain comes in its season. These are gifts from God, even if we take them for granted. God shows us mercy, so we treat those around us with grace and kindness, whether we think they deserve it or not.
To be kind to our enemies isn’t an easy thing. We usually keep tally of offenses. We want to roll in, guns blazing, and settle the score whatever the cost. In the Old Testament, Samson toppled a house on himself to kill his enemies. Sometimes we want to do the same thing, hurting ourselves in the process.
The Bible offers a better way: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink (Romans 12:20). These are the attitudes and actions God blesses. Do you want to be blessed by God? Show mercy.
The heroic story of Brown and Stigler didn’t end that winter’s day over the North Sea. Both survived the war. After more than four decades, the men finally met face-to-face. Forever joined by an act of mercy, they began a friendship in their old age that lasted until the day they died.
The story of Brown and Stigler is the subject of the bestseller, “A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War Il,” by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander.