Your In God’s Hands Now

Your in God’s hands now

 

God’s hands

 

   Your in Gods hands now. The 21-year  old American B-17 pilot glanced outside his  cockpit and froze. He blinked  hard and looked again, hoping it was just a  mirage. But his  co-pilot stared at the same horrible vision. “My God, this is a nightmare,” the co-pilot  said. “He’s going  to destroy us,” the pilot agreed.   The men  were looking at a gray German Messerschmitt  fighter hovering just three feet off their  wingtip.  It was five  days before Christmas 1943, and the fighter had  closed in on their crippled American B-17 bomber for the kill.
 Brown’s  Crippled B-17 Stalked by Stigler’s  ME-109  The B-17  pilot, Charles Brown, was a 21-year-old West  Virginia farm boy on his first combat mission.    His bomber  had been shot to pieces by swarming fighters,  and his plane was alone, struggling to stay in  the skies above Germany .  Half his  crew was wounded, and the tail gunner was dead,  his blood frozen in icicles over the machine  guns.  But when  Brown and his co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke,  looked at the fighter pilot again, something odd  happened.
 The German  didn’t pull the trigger. He stared back at the  bomber in amazement and respect.    Instead of  pressing the attack, he nodded at Brown and  saluted.  What  happened next was one of the most remarkable  acts of chivalry recorded during World War  II.
God’s hands

2nd Lt. Charles Brown

 USAAF Lt.   Charles  Brown was on his first combat mission during  World War II when he met an enemy unlike any other.  Revenge, not honor, is what drove 2nd Lt. Franz Stigler to jump into his fighter that chilly December day in 1943.  Stigler wasn’t just any fighter pilot. He was an ace.  One more kill and he would win The Knight’s Cross, German’s highest award for valor.  His older brother, August, was a fellow Luftwaffe pilot who had been killed earlier in the war.    American pilots had killed Stigler’s comrades and were bombing his country’s cities.  Stigler was standing near his fighter on a German airbase when he heard a bomber’s engine.
   Looking up,  he saw a B-17 flying so low it looked like it was going to land.  As the bomber disappeared behind some trees, Stigler tossed his cigarette aside, saluted a ground crewman and took off in pursuit.  As  Stigler’s fighter rose to meet the bomber, he decided to attack it from behind.   He climbed behind the sputtering bomber, squinted into his gun sight and placed his hand on the trigger.    He was about to fire when he hesitated. Stigler was baffled. No one in the bomber fired at him.  He looked closer at the tail gunner. He was. Still, his white fleece collar soaked with blood. Stigler craned his neck to examine the rest of the bomber. Its skin had been peeled away by shells; its guns knocked out.  One propeller wasn’t turning. Smoke trailed from another engine.  He could see men huddled inside the shattered plane tending the wounds of other crewmen.  Then he nudged his plane alongside the bomber’s wings and locked eyes with the pilot whose eyes were wide with shock and horror.
  Luftwaffe  Major  Stigler pressed his hand over the rosary he kept in his flight jacket. He eased his index finger off the trigger.  He couldn’t  shoot.  It would be murder.  Stigler wasn’t just motivated by vengeance that day. He also lived by a code.  He could trace his family’s ancestry to knights in 16th  century Europe and had once studied to be a  priest.
A German pilot who spared the enemy, though, risked death in Nazi Germany, he would be executed If someone reported him,  Stigler  could also hear the voice of his commanding officer, who once told him:  “You follow the rules of war for you — not your enemy. You  fight by rules to keep your  humanity.”  Alone with the crippled bomber, Stigler changed his mission.  He nodded at the American pilot and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn’t shoot down the slow-moving bomber.
(The  Luftwaffe had B-17s of its own, shot down and rebuilt for secret missions and training.)    Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot.
 Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away and returned to Germany.  “Good luck,” Stigler said to himself. Your in God’s hands now  ” Franz  Stigler didn’t think the big B-17 could make it back to England and wondered for years what happened to the American pilot and crew he encountered in combat.
God’s hands

Luftwaffe Major Stigler

As he watched the German fighter peel away on that December day 2nd Lt. Charles Brown wasn’t  thinking of the rational connection between enemies. He was thinking of survival. And flew his crippled plane, filled with wounded, back to his base in England and landed with one of four engines knocked out, one failing and barely any fuel left.  After his bomber had come to a stop, he leaned back in his chair and put a hand on a pocket Bible he kept in his flight jacket.
 Then he sat in silence.  Brown had flown more missions before the war ended. Life moved on.  He got married, had two daughters, supervised foreign aid for the U.S. State Department during the  Vietnam War and eventually retired to Florida.  Late in life, though, the encounter with the German pilot began to gnaw at him.
He started having nightmares, but in his dream, there would be no act of mercy. He would awaken just before his bomber crashed.  Brown took on a new mission. He had to find that German pilot.  Who was he?  Why did he save my life?  He scoured military archives in the U.S. and England.  He attended a pilots’ reunion and shared his story. He finally placed an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots, retelling the story and asking if anyone knew the pilot.  On January  18, 1990, Brown received a letter.  He opened it and read: “Dear Charles, All these years I  wondered what happened to that B-17, did she make it home?
Did her crew survive their wounds? To hear of your  survival has filled me with indescribable  joy…”  It was  Stigler. He had left Germany after the war and moved to  Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1953.  He became a  prosperous businessman.  Now  retired, Stigler told Brown that he would be in  Florida come summer and “it sure would be nice  to talk about our encounter.”
Brown was so excited, though, that he couldn’t wait to see  Stigler.  He called directory assistance for Vancouver and asked whether there was a number for a Franz Stigler.  He dialed the number, and Stigler picked up.  “My God,  it’s you!” Brown shouted as tears ran down his cheeks.  Brown had to do more.
He wrote a  letter to Stigler in which he said: “To say  THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU
on behalf  of my surviving crewmembers and their families  appears wholly inadequate.”
God’s hands

Franz Stigler (left) and Charlie Brown

 

 

God’s Hands

Franz Stigler , Charlie Brown and their Wives

The two pilots would meet again, but this time in  person, in the lobby of a Florida hotel.    One of Brown’s friends was there to record the summer  reunion.  Both men  looked like retired businessmen: they were  plump, sporting neat ties and formal shirts.  They fell  into each other’ arms and wept and laughed. They talked about their encounter in a light, jovial  tone.  The mood  then changed. Someone asked Stigler what he  thought about Brown.
Stigler  sighed and his square jaw tightened. He began to  fight back tears before he said in heavily  accented English: “I love you,  Charlie.”  Stigler had  lost his brother, his friends and his country.    He was  virtually exiled by his countrymen after the  war.  There were  28,000 pilots who fought for the German air  force. Only 1,200 survived.  The war cost him everything. Charlie Brown was the only good thing that came out of World War II for  Franz.
It was the  one thing he could be proud of. The meeting  helped Brown as well, says his oldest daughter,  Dawn Warner. They met as  enemies but Franz Stigler, on left, and Charles  Brown, ended up as fishing  buddies.  Brown and  Stigler became pals. They would take fishing  trips together.  Their  wives, Jackie Brown and Hiya Stigler, became  friends.  Brown’s  daughter says her father would worry about  Stigler’s health and constantly check in on  him.  “It wasn’t  just for show,” she says. “They really did feel  for each other. They talked about once a week.”  As his  friendship with Stigler deepened, something else  happened to her father, Warner says “The nightmares went away.”  Brown had  written a letter of thanks to Stigler, but one  day, he showed the extent of his gratitude.    He  organized a reunion of his surviving crew members, along with their extended families. He  invited Stigler as a guest of  honor. During the  reunion, a video was played showing all the  faces of the people that now lived    —  children, grandchildren, relatives — because of  Stigler’s act of chivalry. Stigler watched the  film from his seat of honor. “Everybody  was crying, not just him,” Warner  says.  Stigler and  Brown died within months of each other in 2008.  Stigler was 92, and Brown was 87. They had  started off as enemies, became friends, and then  something more.  After he  died, Warner was searching through Brown’s  library when she came across a book on German  fighter jets.  Stigler had  given the book to Brown. Both were country boys  who loved to read about planes.  Warner  opened the book and saw an inscription Stigler  had written to Brown:  In 1940, I  lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th  of December, 4 days before Christmas, I had the  chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so  badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still  flying. The pilot,  Charlie Brown, is for me, as precious as my  brother was. Thanks Charlie.
Your  Brother, Franz

 

The Naples Museum of Military History