Valor Friday

| July 7, 2023

It is said that war brings out the worst in men, but also brings out the best. Many of the men and women I’ve highlighted here over the years are of the latter. Usually in response to the former. Today’s is the story of two men, and how their paths crossed over Europe during World War II.

In the early days of military aviation, and aviation in general, it was a gentleman’s pursuit. That carried over into the First World War, which was where heavier than air aircraft first saw widespread service as weapons of war. Initially being used for aerial reconnaissance and artillery spotting, aviators were soon dropping grenades and other bombs on the heads of their enemy below. It didn’t take long for the first fighter planes to be developed, which soon led to the famous aerial battles that would define the air war of the Great War.

The Ace of Aces in that war was the famous Baron Manfred von Richtofen, known better now as the Red Baron. Though killed in action late in the war, he downed 80 Allied airplanes, 18 more than his closest comrade. Months before he died, while on convalescent leave from being wounded in combat, he wrote his memoirs, Der Rote Kampfflieger (The Red Fighter Pilot).

It’s an excellent read for anyone into military history. Many of those early aviators, as Richtofen himself, had come from the cavalry. Cavalry, as opposed to the foot infantry, was the realm of the aristocrats, the nobility, and the gentlemen. Many of the ideals of chivalry and honor in battle were carried forward from the horse soldiers as they mounted their new, mechanical steeds into the sky.

For all the well known brutality of the war on the ground during the First World War, the battles in the sky were, though equally deadly, fought by men who generally respected their enemies. Shooting at wounded or damaged opponents wasn’t honorable. Aviators downed behind enemy lines uninjured would be welcomed as guests and dine with their opponents. Air crew killed when crashed behind the lines would receive burials with military honors. It’s as close to the ideals of chivalry as you’d find in stories of King Arthur’s Round Table as you can find in real life.

In the twenty-one years between the two World Wars, much of the thought that aviation was an aristocratic endeavor would slowly die away. While still an expensive hobby or mode of travel, more and more people not only flew on aircraft, but became pilots. So too would much of the chivalry of fighting in the air.

As World War II dawned, the European air war would, for the Germans be one of contradictions. On the Western Front, some of the chivalry still existed (as it does in the subjects of my article when I get off this tangent), while in the East, the Germans’ opinion of the Soviets as untermensch (sub-human) led them to abandon all thoughts of their opponents as worthy foes. Also, as the war progressed, the German Luftwaffe racked up kill tallies that would put the aces of the First World War to shame. Along with those victories came medals, awards, and honors. The competition drove out most of what remained of the noble ideals espoused by the sky warriors of the men a generation earlier.

When the Americans joined the European Theater in 1942, the skies over Europe would see incomprehensibly large battles. Thousands of Allied heavy, four-engined bombers escorted by hundreds of sleek fighters would be engaged by hundreds of Luftwaffe fighters. It was kill or be killed. Even a non-fatal strike on an aircraft could be a death sentence should the pilots and other aircrew not be able to get out of their stricken plane, or if they parachuted into the North Sea, or if they landed in occupied territory and got sent to the PW camps.

The story of how two men would cross paths in the skies over Europe is fascinating.

Oberleutnant Stigler and 2nd Lieutenant Brown

American Charles “Charlie” Brown was from West Virginia. He enlisted into the Army Signal Corps a week before his 17th birthday in October 1939. Germany had invaded Poland, starting the Second World War just the month prior. After the US entered the war, Brown was able to move into the Aviation Cadet program of the Army Air Forces, in 1942. In less than a year he was fully trained and received his wings and his second lieutenant’s commission.

German Franz Stigler was older than Brown by seven years. His father had been a pilot and observer in the Imperial German Air Force during the Great War. He was naturally attracted to aviation, piloting his first glider at just 12 years old. At 18 he flew his first bi-plane. He soon went to work as a pilot with Deutsche Luft Hansa airlines (which eventually became the modern Lufthansa). Stigler enlisted with the Luftwaffe in 1940 to join the war effort.

Brown was sent to Britain and joined the vaunted 8th Air Force and flew B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers. Meanwhile, Stigler was flying fighters, first in North Africa and then over occupied Europe.

Brown has advanced to the point that he was given his own plane. His first mission as the pilot in command was 20 December 1943. They were part of a mission known as VIII Bomber Command 159. This mission was, as many such large-scale bombardment operations were, in multiple phases. In total, almost 550 bombers were involved in attacking Bremen, Germany.

Brown’s bomber, named “Ye Olde Pub”, of the 379th Bomb Group, was part of the second wave. They were part of a flight of 225 airships targeting the shipyards at Bremen. Among the men of this element was S/Sgt Forrest L. Vosler, who would earn the Medal of Honor.

As the bombers came over Axis territory, they paid a heavy cost. Flak fire took out many airplanes. In total, they’d lose almost 30. Among those hit hard was Ye Olde Pub.

Brown’s bomber had its plexiglass nose blown out, suffered wing damage, and severe damage to the number 2 and number 4 engines. Triaging the situation, 2nd Lieutenant Brown directed his co-pilot and flight engineer to shut down the critically damaged number 2 engine. Brown was able to finesse the number 4 engine so it produced at least some power. He did all this despite some shrapnel having hit him.

This left the four engine bomber with major aerodynamic damage and only two and a half engines. They were close enough to the target that they successfully dropped their bomb load, despite the hardships.

For bombers flying into, and perhaps more importantly out of, fortress Europe, the only safety could be found by maintaining their formation. As zebras and other herd animals cluster together to fend off attacks from lions and predators, so too did the Allied bombers. As with wounded or sick animals that break off from the herd and become easy prey, so too did damaged bombers.

As the bombers finished their ten minute bomb run and made to head back home, Brown was unable to maintain altitude and speed. This prevented his taking his proper place in formation. Alone and underpowered, the Pub’s time in the air was to be calculated in mere minutes.

Twelve to fifteen enemy fighters (a mix of Bf 109s and Fw 190s) took Brown and his crew under fire. They were operating at an altitude where the temperature was -75F. At that temperature, and with the frigid North Sea rapidly approaching below them, bailing out wasn’t a desirable prospect. They’d have to fly and fight their way out, no matter how unlikely.

Brown flew his plane with great skill. Despite the damage, he somehow held the Luftwaffe fighters from finishing them off by juking and weaving into them as they attacked. They paid a heavy price though. One of Brown’s crew (tail gunner Sgt Hugh Eckenrode) was dead, another critically wounded (right waist gunner Sgt Alex Yelesanko, who ultimately lost a leg), their third engine was also damaged, their left elevator and the vertical stabilizer were destroyed, the oxygen system failed, and the plane’s communication system was severed. The damage to the aircraft was such that only three of the bomber’s defensive gun positions were operable, the two top turrets and one in the nose. They weren’t even out of Germany yet.

Among the other injuries, Sgt Samuel Blackford in the ball turret had frozen feet after his heating suit short circuited. Radio operator Sgt Richard Pechout had taken a piece of shrapnel to an eye, their morphine syrettes they might use to treat the critically wounded were frozen solid, and their radio was destroyed.

The crew briefly discussed bailing out of the aircraft, while they were still close to the German coast, but they knew Yelesanko wouldn’t survive the attempt. Unwilling to leave him behind, they pressed on in their crippled bomber. The damage to the tail sent the plane into a spiraling nose dive. The centrifugal forces and lack of oxygen caused the men to pass out. The last thing Brown remembered was the plane going inverted and looking “up” at the ground.

Moments before fatally striking the ground, Brown and his co-pilot came to, and pulled the plane out of the dive. It’s important to note that the B-17 has no hydraulic assistance for the flight controls. Everything is run by cable and pulleys. The physical effort it would take to pull one of these planes out of a crashing dive is almost super human.

Leveling out, Brown and his men still weren’t out of the fire. Luftwaffe fighters on the ground spotted the straggling Fortress. Among them was Stigler, who quickly took off. had watched them pull out of the death spiral. Franz Stigler, in his Bf 109 quickly caught up. Stigler had been credited with 20 kills by this point in the war, though some of those claims were called into question by his own comrades when he and a fellow pilot were witnessed firing their cannons into sand dunes in North Africa on a mission when they claimed 12 kills.

Stigler had already, unquestioningly, shot down two B-17s over Europe. Would Ye Olde Pub be next? Stigler lined up on the tail of the crippled bomber. Stigler said, it was “the most heavily damaged aircraft I ever saw that was still flying.” Before he opened fire, Stigler took notice that the tail gunner never moved his guns. His curiosity piqued, he flew alongside the plane.

Through the many large holes in the B-17’s fuselage, Stigler could clearly see the crew within. What he saw turned his desire to tally another kill in mercy. These men weren’t a threat to him or his country any more. They were badly beaten, nearly dead, and in a plane that clearly wasn’t going to make it back to England.

One of Stigler’s commanders, Gustav Rödel was of the old school. He’d told his men, upon reports that other Luftwaffe pilots were seen shooting at enemy airmen as they bailed out, “If I hear of one of you shooting a man in a parachute, I’ll shoot you myself!” Stigler later said that shooting down the plane would be akin to shooting a parachute in his mind.

Within the bomber, Brown and his crew saw the Nazi Messerschmidt out the window, pacing them at close range. They had no way to defend themselves when he opened fire, which they knew would be any moment now.

Stigler instead tried to signal them to land. He could see the totality of the battle scars carried by the Americans. They wouldn’t make it. With hand signs and by mouthing the words, Stigler told them to land at a nearby German airfield. When that didn’t work, he pointed them towards neutral Sweden. Within the bomber, they had no idea what Sitgler was trying to say. Instead, they turned toward Britain.

As they went west across the shore of northern Europe, Stigler took an escorting post on the bomber’s port side. This protected them from any Axis anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire from the coast on their left. If spotted doing this, Stigler surely would have been court-martialed for aiding the enemy.

Brown ordered his dorsal turret gunner to put his guns on the Luftwaffe fighter but not to fire. By now the formerly mighty Boeing bomber was out of harm’s way from AAA. Seeing Brown’s guns come towards his plane, Stigler understood the message, he should go. Stigler gave the beleaguered Americans a short, snappy salute, and peeled off.

Brown told his men that he was going to try to make it back to England. Anyone that wanted to, could bail out. None of the men took him up on the offer. By sheer force of will, the men made it back to England in their devastated bomber.

Stigler never talked about what he’d done. He certainly wouldn’t risk his very freedom and possibly his life by talking of it. Brown reported it to his superiors, who decided to keep it secret. He and his men didn’t talk of it for decades. Eight of the ten men aboard Ye Olde Pub would return to full duty.

In total, Brown would fly 29 combat missions. After the war he remained in the service, going into and out of the reserves for a few years. After the Air Force became a separate service, Brown first served with them as a special agent in the Office of Special Investigations and later as an intelligence officer. He served throughout Europe during the Cold War, and retired in June 1965 as a lieutenant colonel. Brown then worked for the State Department, spending six years in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War before retiring from there in 1972. Brown founded an energy and environmental research center, was named National Inventor of the Year, and is reportedly a recipient of the Distinguished West Virginian Award. Stigler would, post war, immigrate to Canada in 1953 and become a successful businessman. Both men would raise families and live less eventful lives.

In 1986, retired Lieutenant Colonel Brown was asked to speak at a combat pilot’s lecture at Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base. During his speech, one of the students asked if he had any memorable missions during WWII. He thought for a moment and then, more than 40 years after the incident, spoke publicly of his encounter with the chivalrous German aviator.

Brown decided to see if he could find the mysterious Luftwaffe airman. For four years he went through Army, Air Force, and West German records, to no avail. Finally, in an act of desperation he wrote a letter to a combat pilot newsletter. A few months later, a letter came to Brown from Canada. It was from Stigler and said, “I was the one.”

Brown called the man at once and asked for details of the incident from his perspective. Stigler described what his fighter looked like, how he’d escorted them, and how he’d saluted at the end. Brown had found his man.

From there, the tale of the two warriors became one of friendship and camaraderie. Brown and Stigler became close friends.

After the story became publicized and well known, Brown submitted a request to have his crew honored. All of the men under his command aboard Ye Olde Pub that day received a Silver Star in 2008 (only five were still alive by then). Brown himself was awarded the Air Force Cross, the second highest award for combat bravery.

Interestingly, the Air Force Cross wasn’t established until 1960, and the first award wasn’t made until four years later. Brown is to my knowledge the only Air Force Cross recipient for the Second World War and chronologically is the first ever awarded.

Stigler died 22 March 2008. Brown passed away on 24 November 2008. Almost seven months to the day that his old friend and former foe died.

Category: Air Force, Air Force Cross, Historical, Valor, War Stories, We Remember

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Forest Bondurant

Great story. A historically accurate movie ought to be made about it.

As I recall, Charlie Brown lived in Seattle, WA and Franz Stigler lived in Vancouver – less than 200 miles away from each other.

Last edited 4 months ago by USMCE8Ret

Another great story, Mason. Chivalry in action. Amazing that both men survived the rest of the war. Imma gonna go with “Divine Intervention”.

Thanks, Mason.

Commissioner Wretched

This would make a fantastic movie. What a great story!


The Swedish band, Sabaton, made a great video about this. Brown’s son heard it on the radio, and figured out what the story/song was about, and called his Mom right away. The family contacted the band to thank them, and Sabaton brought them out to their latest concert to celebrate the event with the entire audience.

Even an 80+ year old Mom, learned to like Swedish heavy metal.

Last edited 4 months ago by Messkit

Even in the toughest of endeavors, we are all, in fact, human.

I’m glad that Warriors see the futility of it all and decline to play.

A Rest Well Earned, Gentlemen.

Last edited 4 months ago by Roh-Dog