Saturday, September 29, 2012

A WWII Story

This story has been around a few years, but that doesn't detract from it.

Look carefully at the B-17 in this painting and note how shot up it is - one engine dead, tail, horizontal stabilizer and nose shot up. It was ready to fall out of the sky. (This is a painting done by an artist from the description of both pilots many years later.) Then realize that there is a German ME-109 fighter flying next to it.
Charlie Brown was a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot with the 379th Bomber Group at Kimbolton, England.  His B-17 was called 'Ye Old Pub' and was in a terrible state, having been hit by flak and fighters.  The compass was damaged and they were flying deeper over enemy territory instead of heading home to Kimbolton.  They were lost. 

After the B-17 wandered over an enemy airfield, a German pilot named Franz Steigler was ordered to take off and shoot down the B-17. When he got near the B-17, he could not believe his eyes. In his words, he 'had never seen a plane in such a bad state'... The tail and rear section was severely damaged, and the tail gunner wounded.  Bits of the top gunner's remains were all over the top of the fuselage. The nose was smashed and there were holes everywhere. 

Despite having ammunition, Franz flew to the side of the B-17 and looked at Charlie Brown, the pilot.  Brown was scared and struggling to control his damaged and blood-stained plane.

Aware that they had no idea where they were going, Franz waved at Charlie to turn 180 degrees. Franz escorted and guided the stricken plane to, and slightly over, the North Sea towards England. He then saluted Charlie Brown and turned away, back to Europe.

When Franz landed he told the CO that the plane had been shot down over the sea, and never told the truth to anybody.  Charlie Brown and the remains of his crew told all at their briefing, but were ordered never to talk about it.

For more than 40 years, Charlie Brown wanted to find the Luftwaffe pilot who saved the crew. After years of research, he found Franz Stigler in 1989.  Stigler had never talked about the incident, not even at post-war reunions.
(Franz Stigler, artist Ernie Boyett and Charlie Brown)
They met in the USA at a 379th Bomber Group reunion, together with 25 people who were alive - all because Franz never fired his guns that day.

When asked why he didn't shoot them down, Stigler later said, "I didn't have the heart to finish those brave men. I flew beside them for a long time. They were trying desperately to get home and I was going to let them do that. I could not have shot at them. It would have been the same as shooting at a man in a parachute."

Both men died in 2008, Stigler in March and Brown in November.  There are various embellishments of this story that don't appear to be true, such as the two pilots living within 500 miles of each other, but the story itself is true.

Of course it's an awesome story, but the often-told story leaves out something.  Franz Stigler didn't shoot down Charlie Brown that day because this particular Nazi officer and his British enemy had similar value systems.  Franz Stigler thought it dishonorable to kill a man in a disabled plane limping home.  I suspect there was enough ammo on board that "Ye Olde Pub" could have shot at the German, but because he didn't threaten them, they didn't shoot.  Fast forward 30 or 40 years into the heart of the Cold War.  The reason MAD - Mutually Assured Destruction - worked was that at heart the Soviets didn't want to kill off all of their population just as the US didn't want to kill off all of its population.  When push came to shove, nobody wanted to destroy the world and wash it in blood. 

Most modern mailings of this story end with something like, "This was back in the days when there was honour in being a warrior.  They proudly wore uniforms, and they didn't hide behind women and children, nor did they plant bombs amidst innocent crowds. How times have changed.."  And this difference in value systems, this willingness to kill innocent bystanders, and the eagerness to wash the world in blood - this is the main difference we face today. 


  1. It's been on "The Military Channel", and yes, those men were truly warriors, and lived by their code.

  2. Linked. And the QotD comes from this post.

  3. Linked sir, Thank you for posting it.

  4. There is no honour in using women and children as your shield. It doesn't make you hard, or dedicated to the struggle, it just makes you a monster.
    There are still many persons who understand the difference, and it is they who will make the difference in the end, and prevail.

    God Bless America and all who stand with her

    Mike in Canada

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  6. While it is a noble tale, I am leery about laying too much cheesecloth over history's lens.

    I just returned from the museum in downtown Los Alamos, NM...

    You were saying something about women and children? ;)

    War is, and always has been, hell, and our nation, when roused in righteous fury, has shed plenty of innocent blood right alongside the guilty in the past.

  7. thanks for sharing..