Combat was raging in the skies over Germany. It was World War II, a few days before Christmas 1943. An American B-17 bomber, heavily damaged by enemy fire while in a raid on Bremen, was limping back toward its base in England.
The pilot, 2nd Lt. Charles Brown, 21, and on his first mission as an aircraft commander, was wounded. His tail gunner was bloodied and unmoving, believed dead. Other crew members were injured. Two of the plane’s four engines were inoperative. Fuel was running low.
On the ground, Lt. Franz Stigler, a German air-war ace, spotted the low-flying, sputtering craft as he stood near his Messerschmitt fighter. He quickly took off in pursuit.
As he approached the slow-moving bomber from the rear, Stigler was surprised he was not fired upon. With his hand on his weapon ready for the kill, he flew closely alongside the bomber’s cockpit.
Stigler directed Brown to land. He refused.
Suddenly, Stigler, one kill away from earning the Knight’s Cross, Germany’s top award for valor, removed his hand from the weapon.
Shooting the craft down would have been murder, he explained later. He allowed the American plane to fly on, knowing that he faced discipline, even death, at the hands of his superiors.
Instead of flying away, the German shielded the crippled plane from anti-aircraft attacks until it reached the North Sea. Then Stigler saluted Brown and headed home.
Brown landed at his base, his fuel supply nearly depleted.
Stigler said years later that he was guided by an assertion of his commanding officer.
“You follow the rules of war for you — not your enemy,” he remembered the officer saying. “You fight by rules to keep your humanity.”
Loss of humanity in war, it has been said, is worse than death.
Even after many years, Brown could not shake the memory of the German pilot. He wondered who he was and why he had spared his life.
Brown undertook a search. After years of poring over records without success, he tried to reach the German through a letter in a publication circulated to former German war pilots.
In 1990, Stigler, who had moved to Canada and was a successful entrepreneur, responded by mail. A phone call between the two verified the encounter. They met and they and their wives became close friends. Numerous visits, fishing expeditions and vacation trips followed.
Both men died within months of each other in 2008.
This rare wartime act of mercy does not excuse war, but it does remind us to honor our own humanity.
Note: The account of this episode has appeared in a book, “A Higher Call,” by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander, in military journals and other publications. It is being retold this year, the 70th anniversary of the war’s end.
Freelance columnist Bob Sigman is a former member of The Star’s Editorial Board,.