On December 20, 1943, the 379th Bomb Group (H) of the Eighth Bomber Command (U.S. Eighth Air Force) attacked Bremen, Germany. During that attack, Lt. Charles Brown from Weston, West Virginia, flying B-17F number 42-3167, witnessed an extraordinary act of chivalry by Franz Stiegler, the pilot of a Bf-109, who had taken off to attack him.
As Brown guided his B-17, Ye Olde Pub, toward the target, an aircraft factory, it was buffeted by flak. "Suddenly," he later recounted, "the nose of the B-17 was mangled by flak. Then three of the four engines were damaged. The entire left stabilizer and left elevator were gone, ninety percent of the rudder was gone, and part of the top of the vertical stabilizer was gone. I quickly pulled out of formation so we wouldn't damage our other planes if we exploded. It didn't take long for the Germans to pounce on us. Eight fighters came at us from the front and seven more from the rear and we were in no condition to fight them off. I headed straight at one of them. I had given up. I really didn't think we would get through this one. I had the plane in a tightening circle when I blacked out. Our oxygen system had been shot up."
Brown's plane then plunged from 25,000 feet to 200 feet at which point he regained consciousness. Incredibly, Ye Olde Pub was flying straight and level directly over a German airfield. At that moment, Oberleutenant (1Lt) Franz Stiegler, who had been on the ground reloading his guns, spotted Brown's mortally wounded aircraft. He leaped into his Bf-109 and took off in pursuit. Eager to score a kill, Stiegler closed in from the rear to within ten feet of the B-17.
As Stiegler described the encounter, "The B-17 was like a sieve. There was blood everywhere. I could see the crew trying to help their wounded. The tail gunner was slumped over his gun, his blood streaming down its barrel. Through the gaping hole in the fuselage, I could see crewmen working frantically to save a comrade whose leg was blown off. I thought to myself, 'How can I shoot something like that? It would be like shooting a man in a parachute.' When I was flying in North Africa, my commander said, 'You are a fighter pilot. If I ever hear of you shooting someone in a parachute, I'll shoot you myself.'"
Stiegler then flew wingtip-to-wingtip with the crippled bomber, close enough for the two enemies to see each other clearly. The German pilot escorted the struggling B-17 to the North Sea. Then, to Brown's amazement, he saluted, put his plane into a crisp roll and flew away, allowing Brown to make it back to a British airfield. On board the B-17 were Brown and nine other crewmen, four of whom were wounded and one was dead. Brown had a bullet in his right shoulder but it was not discovered until 40 years later. Stiegler, who was shot down 17 times, is one of only 1,200 of Germany's 30,000 fighter pilots to survive the war. During the war, he shot down 28 aircraft. Originally from Regensburg, Bavaria, he now lives in Canada.
Years later, while attending a meeting of the American Pilots Association, Brown was asked if anything interesting had happened to him in the war. He replied, "I think I was saluted by a German Luftwaffe pilot one time."
Brown had not thought about this for years, but subsequently began to search for the German pilot. With the assistance of Lt Gen Adolf Galland he made an inquiry via the German Fighter Pilots Association and Stiegler responded. The two men eventually met in Seattle. On December 20, before encountering Brown, Stiegler had already shot down two B-17s. For a third, he would have been awarded the Knights Cross. Had the German Military discovered that he had let Brown's aircraft escape, he would have been court-martialed and shot.
Posts: 3504 | Registered: May 2003
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Wait, Germans were all bad guys, weren't they? Someone once said that war brings out the best and the worst in people. Its nice to hear such stories of dedency in such difficult times. Oh, and first sentence was laced with sarcasm.. just in case that didn't come across.
Posts: 160 | Registered: Mar 2007
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Sorry, my quote was not Vonnegut but Mullin. Anyway. There are many such stories, but they are rarely spelled out -- as they ought to be.
Where men don't shine is when they leave the wounded out on the battlefield -- and the robbers, the rats, and the women trying to identify the dead are the only ones brave enough to come out.
You all remember the incident of the Bismarck, in which the British were said to have sunk the ship and had then fled the scene for fear of submarine attack -- whereas today we know, of course, that the Bismarck, was scuttled. The Germans themselves killed the Bismarck crew; and I say Germans not to distinguish Nazis and non-Nazis. The British may have killed somewhere between 150-250 with shells, rescued 110; and a U-boot, sent specifically to retrieve the log of the Bismarck, rescued 5. About 2,100 were abandoned by both sides to their fates.
There's something to be said for air battles -- and the knights of the air.
Posts: 7866 | Registered: Apr 2004
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ED - if one of the pilots he was chivalrously escorting out of danger misunderstood him and took a shot? Not that I agree with the choice of term, but all bravery is at least somewhat "stupid" from a purely cold calculation pov, as the point of bravery is "risk of self for the sake of greater ideals", and getting killed by an enemy you were trying to be way chivalrous to would feel like a stupid way to die".
Posts: 19145 | Registered: Jan 2004
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My friend's father was designated to shoot in the head the corpses of German soldiers to make sure they were dead. Great idea in utilitarian, consequential perspective, otherwise...not so great.
Posts: 311 | Registered: Feb 2005
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Some more facts about the story. The Luftwaffe pilot didn't think the plane had more than half an hour in her. He first signaled to the American to land, but after that pilot refused, escorted him to the Channel. After he left the plane, I don't think he believed the plane had much of a chance. His words "I hope you guys make it."
So, it's true he left a potential enemy live to fight another day, but I don't think he believed that he was doing so. A court-martial-able offense, nonetheless, but that makes his whole gesture that much more noble since he could have earned himself a Knight's Cross award in a perfectly legitimate act of war.