It’s December 20, 1943 – all around, WWII is raging – and American Second Lieutenant Charles Brown is piloting his stricken four-engined Flying Fortress over Germany. Things are desperate indeed. A concerted attack by Nazi fighter planes has devastated Brown’s bomber, leaving just one engine fully operational. The odds of escaping further German attacks and limping back to base in England could therefore hardly be longer. And then a pursuing Luftwaffe pilot comes into view.
We’ll return a little later to Brown’s dire circumstances in the skies above Germany. But first, let’s find out a bit about Charles L. “Charlie” Brown’s life and his role in the theater of war. Brown was born in October 1922 in the state of West Virginia and brought up on a farm. He then joined the U.S. Army in October 1939, just a few days before his 17th birthday.
Brown started his service in the Signal Corps. Then, after almost three years with the corps, he moved into the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Aviation Cadet Program in July 1942. The young serviceman subsequently secured his commission as a second lieutenant, and in April 1943 he earned his pilot’s wings. After this, there followed a further period of intensive training – this time in flying the formidable Boeing B-17, also known as the Flying Fortress.
Brimming with machine guns, the Flying Fortress bomber was the aerial workhorse of the Second World War. The U.S. Army Air Corps had taken its first deliveries of the plane from Boeing in 1936. Altogether, the company in fact constructed 8,680 of these famous bombers. And during the course of the war, Flying Fortresses dropped more than 700,000 tons of bombs on Germany and other areas that it occupied.
Once Brown, meanwhile, had completed his B-17 training, he was posted to the 379th Bomb Group’s 527th Bombardment Squadron in southern England. Brown’s unit was located at the RAF Kimbolton airfield, near the Cambridgeshire city of Huntingdon. And from there, the second lieutenant and his comrades would soon see their share of action in the skies above Europe.
In 1942 Britain’s Bomber Command had decided to bombard German towns and cities; and that same year, the U.S. entered the campaign – with an emphasis on daylight raids. These forays proved costly, however, because of the attention that came from enemy fighter planes. And it was in this context that Brown began to fly multiple B-17 missions over Germany in 1943.
Then came the day that was to prove so fateful for the second lieutenant. In December 1943, just a few days before Christmas, Brown had a new crew and a new mission. Yes, the group were to fly for the first time together aboard a Flying Fortress on a bombing raid over Germany. In addition to its pilot, the unit consisted of a co-pilot, a bombardier, a navigator, a flight engineer who doubled up as a top-turret gunner, a radio operator and four other gunners – a total of ten men.
Apparently inspired by the English setting in which the crew were stationed, the bomber was somewhat whimsically called “Ye Olde Pub” – but its purpose was decidedly less fanciful. The airmen’s mission on that December day was to fly to and over the city of Bremen in northwest Germany. Then, once at the target destination, they were to drop their deadly cargo of high explosives on a factory that was known to be building Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter aircraft.
Sat astride the Weser river, Bremen was an important industrial city during WWII. Yet by the time that it was secured by the 3rd Infantry Division in April 1945, Allied bombers had destroyed over half of the town. And Brown and his men played their part in that destruction, too, for they succeeded in bombing their target.
In their pre-raid briefing, Brown and his crew had been warned that the sky over Bremen was likely to be riddled with German fighter planes. So it probably seemed fitting that their objective was to destroy a factory that was assembling fighters destined for service with the Nazis. Ye Olde Pub’s crew were also given the rather daunting report that the city was defended by some 250 anti-aircraft guns.
The briefing in addition offered further news that can hardly have come as music to the ears of the crew. Ye Olde Pub was, you see, to fly on the outer flank of the bomber formation. This particular placing was known as “Purple Heart Corner” – and for portentous reasons. The Purple Heart is, of course, awarded to military personnel who have been wounded in action. And the moniker derived from the fact that German fighters often concentrated on these exact spots in the incoming planes’ formations.
But come what may, Ye Old Pub took off from Kimbolton and started the 490-mile journey across eastern England, the North Sea and northern Germany to Bremen. In fact, though, the plane and its crew were pulled from the edge of the formation during the flight, as three of the B-17s had to drop out from the mission owing to mechanical problems. So, Ye Olde Pub was now at the head of the formation – and yet this was no protection from danger. Far from it.
Indeed, once the aircraft reached the skies above Bremen, but before it had even started its bomb run, Brown and his crew were in serious trouble. Ye Olde Pub had suffered grievously from some of the hundreds of anti-aircraft guns that its crew had been briefed about. The plastic nose of the bomber had been blown to pieces. And not only was the number-two engine now completely written off, but the number-four engine was damaged too.
Brown, though, was determined that Ye Olde Pub would fulfill its mission to bomb the German aircraft works. And what’s more, he was somehow able to keep control of the plane and guide it into the bomb run. This was no mean feat, of course, with one engine out altogether and another seriously damaged. Yet against the odds, the airmen managed to drop their destructive cargo on the Bremen factory.
However, after dropping their bombs, Brown and his crew were still in extreme peril. Forced by the engine damage to slow down, the Flying Fortress fell back from the rest of its formation. And this of course left the aircraft isolated – and therefore even more vulnerable to German fighter plane attack.
The German onslaught duly arrived, too. Brown’s Flying Fortress came under concerted attack from a determined group of fighter planes numbering a dozen or more. The enemy aircraft comprised Focke-Wulf Fw 190s and Messerschmitt Bf 109s. And the former were, in fact, the very type of planes built in the Bremen factory that Ye Olde Pub had targeted.
Things then quickly went from bad to worse. Ye Olde Pub’s number-three engine was hit by one of the fighters, reducing it to about half of its normal power. Don’t forget: engine number two was already dead, and engine number four was damaged. So, only engine number one was now intact and working properly. And all told, this meant that the Flying Fortress had something less than half of its regular thrust.
The enemy fighter planes took a heavy toll on both the Flying Fortress and the men on board. In addition to the bomber having suffered engine damage, Ye Olde Pub’s electrics, hydraulics and oxygen system were all compromised. And German machine-gun and cannon fire had also blown away 50 percent of the rudder as well as the left wing’s elevator.
To make matters worse, a number of the aircraft’s defensive machine guns were now out of action too. When Ye Olde Pub took off from Kimbolton, it had been armed with 11 guns. Now it was down to three. Some of the weapons’ machinery had actually frozen in the bitter-cold air – with the plane exposed to temperatures of -75 ºF.
At this point, Brown was forced to take drastic evasive action – an extremely difficult task given the lamentable state of his aircraft. Ye Olde Pub managed, however, to survive the attentions of the Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs. And yet it was a different story when it came to one of the crew.
Sadly, a cannon round had killed the tail gunner, Hugh “Ecky” Eckenrode, instantly – and others were far from unscathed. Shrapnel had hit Alex “Russian” Yelesanko, the starboard waist gunner, in the leg, and his condition was critical. The radio operator, Dick Pechout, had been struck in the eye by a cannon round. And turret gunner Sam “Blackie” Blackford’s feet had frozen because his heated suit had failed.
The lead pilot, “Charlie” Brown, hadn’t escaped injury either; he was suffering from a wounded shoulder. So out of the crew of ten, four men were injured with varying degrees of severity – and one was dead. And although members of the crew tried to administer first aid to the wounded, their efforts were hampered by the fact that the contents of the disposable morphine syringes had frozen.
Then came the nosedive. With its rudder shot to pieces, the Flying Fortress subsequently fell into an uncontrollable dive so severe that everyone on board blacked out. Surely, then, this must have spelled the end for Ye Olde Pub and its crew – but no. You see, with the bomber descending towards its seemingly inevitable fate, Brown and his co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke, came to just in time to haul their plane out of its headlong plunge.
Regaining control of the aircraft, Brown then had to decide what to do next. The pilot considered the idea of parachuting from the plane or even attempting a crash landing. But with several of the crew badly wounded, neither of those options seemed viable. So, he pointed the bomber in the direction of England. Whether or not the stricken aircraft would make it back remained to be seen, however.
Then this roller-coaster nightmare of a mission had yet another twist. You see, Brown spotted a German plane, a Messerschmitt 109, and there could be no doubt that its pilot had seen the crippled bomber too. With the Flying Fortress as badly damaged as it was and the fact that several of its crew were seriously wounded, the American aircraft would be easy prey for the German fighter.
At this point, it’s time to introduce another important player in the story. He is, in fact, arguably the most significant figure of them all – the man who was flying the incoming Messerschmitt that day. His name: Oberleutnant Franz Stigler. Born in 1915 in Bavaria, Stigler was the son of a First World War pilot, and this future aviator would undertake his first flight when he was just 12 years old. Before the war, Stigler had also been a pilot with the German commercial airline Lufthansa.
In 1942 the Luftwaffe had then conscripted Stigler, who was 26 at the time, and he had piloted fighter planes in both North Africa and Europe. His earliest posting had been to Libya. And right at the start of his tour, Stigler’s commander, Lieutenant Gustav Roedel, had told the pilot exactly what was expected of a member of the Luftwaffe. “Honor,” the lieutenant had reportedly said, “is everything.”
A veteran fighter pilot, Roedel advised Stigler that he must abide by a code of honor even in the heat of battle. The lieutenant apparently gave the example of an enemy serviceman wearing a parachute after his plane has been shot down. And the message? In no circumstances should a Luftwaffe airman open fire on a man rendered helpless in this way.
We’ll soon see, too, how this philosophy affected Stigler’s actions when he encountered Ye Olde Oak as it was limping back to England. The German pilot had in fact spotted the Flying Fortress from the ground. At the time, he was at the Oldenburg military airfield in northern Germany, about 25 miles west of Bremen, where Brown and his men had bombed the Focke-Wulf factory.
Ground crew were arming and fueling up Stigler’s Messerschmitt 109 while he took a break with a cigarette. Then, heralded by a growing cacophony, the lone, low-flying American bomber seized his attention as it passed overhead. The pilot consequently clambered into his cockpit and took off. And flying in his Messerschmitt – with its top speed of nearly 400 mph – Stigler would quickly catch up with the lumbering aircraft.
Stigler soon had the Flying Fortress in his sights – and his finger on the firing button. A few bursts of fire might well have been enough to finish off Ye Olde Pub in its stricken state. But the German pilot hesitated. Something about the bomber didn’t sit right. And suddenly he wasn’t so sure about shooting down this enemy plane.
Flying to the rear of the aircraft, Stigler noticed that the tail machine guns made no effort to fire and indeed did not move at all. We of course know that the rear gunner, Eckenrode, was dead, which explained the inactivity of the tail guns. And so, instead of firing, the German pilot maneuvered his fighter so that it flanked the bomber.
Now that Stigler had been able to get a better look at Ye Olde Pub, he realized the state that it was in, with key flight control surfaces having been blown away. He could also see the men inside the plane looking after their wounded and bloodied crew mates. And so the pilot made a decision – one of which his Luftwaffe mentor, Roedel, might well have been proud.
Stigler wasn’t going to shoot down this plane. Instead, he gestured towards the ground, trying to signal that the bomber should land. But Brown had no intention of landing in enemy territory – which would inevitably result in capture. The American pilot therefore told one of his gunners to take aim at the Messerschmitt but not to pull the trigger. And following this tacit communication, the German aviator saluted and peeled away.
Then, in an extraordinary display of piloting, Brown and Luke actually managed to get their plane 250 miles across the frigid waters of the North Sea to the English coast. They didn’t make it back to their own base in Cambridgeshire, though, landing instead at RAF Seething in the east of England. And, with the exception of tail-gunner Eckenrode, the crew somehow made it back alive.
Stigler, meanwhile, had taken a huge risk by failing to shoot down the Flying Fortress. If the pilot’s superiors had discovered the truth, the consequences for him could have been serious indeed. But he continued to serve with the Luftwaffe during the rest of the war. Stigler wasn’t just any old German pilot, either; he was a recognized air ace who notched up 28 confirmed kills over the course of his 487 combat operations.
Brown, for his part, told a superior officer about what had happened, but he was ordered to keep it secret. Stigler, however, informed none of his comrades; he had, after all, committed what amounted to treason. But the American pilot always remembered the act of mercy. And later in life, he in fact attempted to track down the Messerschmitt airman.
The Flying Fortress pilot continued to work for the Air Force prior to him retiring in 1972. Stigler, meanwhile, left Germany for good in 1953, resettling in Canada. Yet Brown never forgot the man to whom he believed he owed his life. And this even though he knew nothing about the German serviceman except that he’d been a Luftwaffe pilot.
So, in 1987, in an effort to find Stigler, Brown posted an advert in a newsletter read by fighter pilots. Amazingly, too, the former Luftwaffe pilot – now living in Vancouver – came across it. Stigler immediately then realized that he was the man whom the American was seeking. And what’s more, he got in touch with Brown, who was by now residing in Miami. At last, then, the two men were able to meet.
The Daily Mail later quoted Brown’s memory of his first meeting with Stigler. “It was like meeting a family member, like a brother you haven’t seen for 40 years,” the American recalled. And after the pair had met up, they became firm friends and saw each other regularly. Perhaps fittingly, too, in 2008 the two men died just a few months apart.