A touching story of compassion amid wartime slaughter has been told in a new book, A Higher Call, about a footnote to World War II.
West Virginia farm boy Charles Brown, age 21, was making his first raid over Germany as pilot of a B-17 bomber, five days before Christmas 1943. The four-propellor craft was shot almost to pieces by Nazi fighters. Most crewmen were wounded and the tail-gunner was killed. Two engines were lost and a third damaged. The wounded plane lumbered slowly across Germany at low altitude.
From the ground, German ace pilot Franz Stigler saw an easy kill, which would be his 23rd and qualify him for a top Nazi medal. He wanted revenge for his brother, a fellow German pilot killed earlier in the war. Lt. Stigler hopped in his Messerschmitt and roared up to attack.
When he saw the crippled plane, defenseless, the ace felt that shooting it down would be murder. But he knew that refusal to do so could bring his execution by Nazi authorities. He started to pull the trigger, but hesitated.
He remembered that his commander once told him to try "to keep your humanity" as he killed dozens of American and British aviators.
Lt. Stigler flew alongside the B-17, nodded to the terrified U.S. pilot, then escorted the slow-moving bomber to the safety of the North Sea. He saluted the Americans, peeled away, and returned to Germany. Almost out of fuel, the U.S. plane landed in England and the wounded were rushed to hospitals.
After the war, West Virginian Brown got married, had two daughters, became a foreign aid supervisor for the State Department, and finally retired to Florida. He began having nightmares about World War II, and felt a compulsion to find the German who spared his life.
Brown knew it would be a long-shot, because only 1,200 of Germany's 28,000 pilots survived the war. But he searched military archives, attended pilot reunions, and finally placed an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots.
In 1990, he got a letter from Lt. Stigler, saying he always wondered if the B-17 survived to safety in England. The German had moved to Canada after the war and become a successful businessman.
Brown phoned Canada to tell the ex-pilot "thank you, thank you, thank you" for sparing those American lives in 1943. Tearfully, the two men exchanged calls and letters, then met and became fast friends. They met repeatedly and shared vacations together. Magazine articles and TV features told of their emotional reunion.
Brown arranged for surviving members of his B-17 crew to meet the man who refused to kill them. Brown told news reporters: "I was too stupid to surrender, and Franz Stigler was too much a gentleman to destroy us."
Both Brown and Stigler died in 2008, the German 92 and the American 87.It's deeply rewarding to know that, amid the hell of war, human decency can survive.