World War II 'Enemies' Forge Unique Bond
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In December 1943, German fighter pilot Franz Stigler was in pursuit of American bomber pilot Charlie Brown's plane, looking to shoot it down. If he did, it would earn him the Knight's Cross, the highest honor for a German soldier. But as he approached the plane, Stigler saw that it had no tail guns blinking, no tail-gun compartment remaining, no left stabilizer, and the nose of the aircraft was missing.
Surprisingly, he could also 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 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. Stigler saluted Brown and veered away. His last words to him were, "Good luck, you're in God's hands now."
Brown was able to land the plane in England. He continued his Air Force career for two decades, but remained obsessed with the incident. 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." Stigler, 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. The article in the New York Post also noted that both men were Christians and that the obituaries for Stigler and Brown both listed the other friend as "a special brother."