Honor in the air

The New York Post tells the remarkable story of World War II American bomber pilot Charlie Brown and German Luftwaffe ace Franz Stigler, who instead of shooting down Brown’s crippled plane, flew alongside it and saluted. The story comes from the new book A Higher Call, by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander.

In December 1943, in the skies over Germany, Stigler was in pursuit of Brown’s plane, looking to shoot it down. If he did, it would be his 23rd victory, good enough to earn him the Knight’s Cross, the highest honor for a German soldier in World War II.

But as he approached the plane, Stigler saw that it had no tail guns blinking, no tail-gun compartment remaining, and no left stabilizer. Moving closer, he noticed that the nose of the aircraft was missing. And he could see into the plane, the skin of it having been blown off. Inside, he observed terrified young men tending to their wounded.

Stigler could not shoot the plane down. He had been trained that “honor is everything.” If he survived the war, his superior officer told him, the only way he would be able to live with himself was if he had fought with as much humanity as possible.

Stigler could tell that Brown didn’t realize how bad a shape his plane was in. He gestured for Brown to land the plane, intending to escort him. But Brown shook his head. The American had no intention of landing in Germany and being taken prisoner along with his men.

Stigler then yelled “Sweden,” meaning that Brown should land his plane there. But Brown didn’t know what Stigler was yelling. Terrified, Brown ordered his gunner to get in the turret and take aim. At that point, Stigler saluted Brown and veered away. His last words to him were, “Good luck, you’re in God’s hands now.”

Brown somehow was able to land the plane in England. He continued his Air Force career for two decades, but remained obsessed with the incident.

Finally, in 1990, he took out an ad in a newsletter for fighter pilots, looking for the one “who saved my life on Dec. 20, 1943.” He held back key information to screen fraudulent responses.

Stigler, now living in Vancouver, saw the ad and yelled to his wife: “This is him! This is the one I didn’t shoot down!” He immediately wrote a letter to Brown, and the two then connected in an emotional phone call.

Stigler and Brown both died in 2008, six months apart. In their obituaries, each was listed as “a special brother” to the other.

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