First, Last, Always

The story of an unlikely friendship between two enemy fighter pilots high above the battlefield of WWII
Hero franz stigler header

May 1, 2015 | By Austin Bryant

xperiences in our past tend to pop up in the present via the smallest things—the smell of a charcoal grill, the color of a worn old t-shirt, or the sound of a woman’s laugh. Most of these memories are pleasant or otherwise insignificant, much less about life or death. A World War II veteran named Charlie Brown was reminded in a passing way of such a memory—one that involved a Nazi German pilot named Franz Stigler.

2nd Lieutenant Charlie Brown was a rural kid from Weston, West Virginia before he found himself on the other side of the Atlantic serving in the USAAF’s 379th Bomber Group. Stationed in at the Royal Air Force base in Kimbolton, Brown piloted Ye Olde Pub, an immense B-17 Flying Fortress. During the war, these four-engine heavy bombers featured in campaigns targeting German industrial and military targets. 

On the other side of the coin was Franz Stigler, a decorated Luftwaffe fighter pilot attached to Jagdgeschwader 27. With 22 kills to his name, Stigler was one away from the illustrious Knight’s Cross—the highest award given by the Nazi Germany military. His presumed final target would present itself soon enough.

The Ye Olde Pub crew’s first mission was the targeted bombing of the Focke-Wulf aircraft production facility in Bremen, and it quickly spiraled out of control. On the approach, Brown’s aircraft was immediately bombarded with anti-aircraft fire, blowing out the second engine and damaging the fourth. Due to decreased speed, Ye Olde Pub fell out of formation. For over 10 minutes, over a dozen German fighters attacked the B-17 containing Brown and his crew. Most of the bomber’s defensive armament was destroyed, along with the number three engine being hit. The majority of the crew was wounded, and Brown himself sustained a shoulder injury.

On the ground below, Stigler was refueling at an airfield while looking up at the struggling American aircraft above. He quickly took off in his Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-6 fighter, and easily caught up to Ye Olde Pub. Stigler immediately saw the terrible state of the plane, and could even see the wounded crew through holes in its exterior. Much to the shock of everyone onboard Brown’s bomber, Stigler did not open fire.

Unknown to the Americans, the words of Stigler’s commanding officer Gustav Rödel were repeating in his head: “You are fighter pilots first, last, always. If I ever hear of any of you shooting at someone in a parachute, I'll shoot you myself." To Stigler, their plane was as good as a parachute, and began wildly motioning to Brown. The German was trying to get the American to land his plane at a Nazi airfield to peacefully surrender or fly to nearby neutral Sweden. When Brown continued to fly on after being unable to decipher his hand signals, Stigler continued to fly alongside, knowing that German anti-aircraft guns would recognize his fighter and hold fire.

Stigler flew with Brown until they reached open water, where he departed with a salute. Somehow, Ye Olde Pub made the 250-mile journey to a safe base in England. Later explaining to his officers how a German pilot saved their lives, Brown was told to keep quiet—they feared that word of German kindness would promote positive sentiment towards the enemy among the American troops. Brown went on to complete a combat tour, never to see Stigler again…or so he thought.

Brown went on to serve in the Air Force until 1965, then as a State Department Foreign Service Officer, and finally as an inventor. In 1986, a retired Brown was speaking at a combat pilot reunion event when he was asked for a memorable WWII story. After racking his brain, he told the tale of Ye Olde Pub’s first mission and the kindness of a random German pilot. Afterwards, Brown promised himself that he would find that unknown man. 

After four years of searching records and finally writing a letter to a combat pilot newsletter, Brown received a letter in the mail. It was from Franz Stigler, who had moved to Canada in 1953 and became a fairly successful businessman. It read, “I was the one.” From 1990 until 2008, they became and remained close friends until their respective deaths a few months separated from each other. 

If it weren’t for that request for a war story, their friendship may have never materialized, and more importantly, their incredible tale would have been lost to history. Even though Brown lived a full life, his desire to know who affected its course (and overall existence) was overpowering enough to set him on a path of discovery. The story of Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler carries that universal desire to live without regret—something everyone should take to heart. [H]

Austin Bryant is a style and culture writer from Boston, MA. 
He's passionate about photography, his next favorite beer, and Nicholas Cage's hair. 
Follow him on Instagram and Twitter here.

Images ©: 1, 4. Wings Fine Arts; 2, 3. Valor Studios.