The Story of Charles Brown and Franz Stigler

as told by LadyJ

      I  was awe-struck as I shook the hand of Charlie Brown. Standing before me and smiling into my eyes was a hero; someone who had actually lived through events I had only read about. I’ve never been accused of being shy but it was really hard to get up the courage and ask Mr. Brown for an interview. From the moment that Playnet asked me to cover this event and I learned about Stigler and Brown’s expected appearance, this interview had become one of my primary goals. So, swallowing my fears and smiling as sweetly as I could, I asked Mr. Brown if I could get him to answer a few questions. I’m not sure if the smile worked or he could sense my fears and took pity upon me, but he graciously agreed. He then mentioned that he would have his brother meet with us as well. Now, I ask you, just what would you have done while waiting for the moment of the interview to come? I raced to my room, did a happy dance and began to check my recording equipment and preparing questions. I was ready and waiting, full of anticipation and excitement, when the appointed time arrived.

Of course I knew about the history between Brown and Stigler. Like everyone else, I had read this incredible story of bravery and chivalry between warriors from different sides of the war and was looking forward to hearing it first-hand from Col. Brown. Still under the impression that I would be speaking with Brown and his brother, I watched as two handsome couples approached me; Brown along with his beautiful wife and an elderly man accompanied by his lovely spouse. My heart nearly stopped when Brown introduced me to his brother and I heard the thick German accent. Charlie Brown’s “brother” was none other than Herr Franz Stigler.

Having lunch with them and interviewing them together was an experience I will never forget. They would finish each other’s sentences and laugh at private jokes that only the two of them understood. I spent nearly two hours with them and by the time I left their company, I understood that theirs was a bond that ran much deeper than blood. They shared a spiritual connection, a brotherhood of two souls that had once been mortal enemies. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed. When we finally parted, they had decided that I was their adopted daughter. They gave me pictures of themselves during WWII and a beautiful painting depicting the two planes on that fateful day. No words truly describe how I feel. I am, indeed, honored.

Because the interview was so long and covered many different things, I have divided it into parts. The first part I have dubbed, The Meeting. The reason is of course, obvious.


Part 1 – The Meeting

Charles Brown and Franz Stigler are friends; so close that they call themselves brothers. They met for the first time fifty-seven plus years ago on December 20, 1943. Brown was a 2nd Lieutenant pilot assigned to the 379th Bomb group. It was on this date that Lt. Brown flew his first mission as an aircraft commander. He was to bomb targets in the Bremen Germany complex. Everything had gone well until the bomb run, according to Brown. “Flak was very heavy. About halfway on the bomb run, one entire pattern from a flak battery burst right in front of us.” The flak hit at least three of the squadron’s airplanes. The flight leader was hit very badly. Brown on the left wing and the aircraft on the Flight Leader’s right wing were also heavily damaged. Brown and his co-pilot feathered the No. 2 engine and began to feather the flak damaged No.4 engine. [Editors Note: Feathering means to shut down the engine with the propeller blades turned into the air stream and stopped, to insure the minimum drag on the aircraft.] Brown compared the slowing down of his aircraft to taking your foot off of the gas peddle in an automobile. There was no way to keep up with the formation so he and his crew were left behind. The flight leader’s wing caught fire and Brown watched as the plane plummeted towards the earth. He told me that he really didn’t know what to do then. He tried in vain to catch up with his formation when suddenly eight German fighters appeared in the front and began to attack. Although severely damaged and with limited firing power, the B-17 still managed to down one of the planes and Brown thinks possibly two. The eight initial frontal attacking German fighters, joined by seven more from the rear, beat them up quite badly; inflicting major aircraft damage. On board, one was dead and four others injured, including Brown with a bullet fragment in his right shoulder. Apparently the oxygen system had been shot out and he became inverted. ”I either spiraled or spun and came out of the spin just above the ground. My only conscience memory was of dodging trees but I had nightmares for years and years about dodging buildings and then trees. I think the Germans thought that we had spun in and crashed.” Brown describes his state of mind when suffering from oxygen starvation as starting and stopping with no given memory of what took place either in between or when it stopped. “Your mind just starts functioning again almost like you are newly born,” he explains. As he tries to gain altitude he sends the co-pilot and engineer to the rear of the aircraft to check on the condition of the plane and to determine the status of the crew. It was then that Brown looks out on his right wing and spots another German fighter. Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler meet for the very first time.

L. Franz Stigler, former Oberleutnant, during WWII, and on Dec. 20, 1943, Commander No. 6, JG-27, Luftwaffe Fighter Forces, was a part of the German air force before it even became known that Germany had an air force. Stigler came from a family of pilots; his father flew in WWI and his brother, whom he had trained, was KIA in WWII. Over the course of his career, Stigler told me he had been shot down 17 times and captured once in Africa, escaping almost immediately. On that fateful day, the Squadron Commander had shot down two B-17s, one more that day and he would have automatically been awarded the Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest military award. He had landed to refuel and rearm when he saw Brown’s B-17 come up from behind some woods across the field where he was refueling. Stigler leaped into his plane and took off after them. He flew about 500 feet above the enemy aircraft, trying to decide the best way to finish it off. “I thought I would do it the classic way, from the rear,” remembers Stigler. “So, I flew above and to the rear of the airplane, about 200 feet. I wanted to give his tail-gunner a chance to lift the guns, to point the guns at me. The guns were hanging down.” The guns never rose to take aim at Stigler. Flying within 20 feet, he was able to find out the reason. “I saw his gunner lying in the back profusely bleeding….. so, I couldn’t shoot.” He then flew up to the right wing and looked into the cockpit at Brown. “I tried to get him to land in Germany and he didn’t react at all.” Stigler believes that Brown reacted the way he did partly due to the previously experienced lack of oxygen. “So, I figured, well, turn him to Sweden, because his airplane was so shot up; I never saw anything flying so shot up.” He described the plane as “the most badly damaged aircraft I ever saw, still flying.” Stigler continued trying to get Brown to turn to Sweden because the flight would have only taken about 30 minutes; that was about all the time Stigler figured the plane to have left in her. Brown refused and continued towards England. The Commander accompanied the beaten up plane as far as he safely could. “I thought, well, I hope you make it. So, I waved off and saluted him and flew back to the airport.”

Part II - The Homecoming

“When Franz tried to get me to surrender, my mind just wouldn’t accept that. It wasn’t chivalry, it wasn’t bravery, it was probably stupidity. My mind just didn’t function in a clear manner. So his choice then was to kill us or try to get us to go to Sweden, since we wouldn’t land.” Charlie Brown’s beaten up B-17 barely made it across the North Sea, arriving down around 250 feet altitude. Brown recalls telling Franz years later that had they had verbal communications and had Franz been able to give him the ultimatum of landing, going to Sweden, or dying, “I probably would be speaking at least some Swedish today.”  But Brown and his crew did make it. “We were very fortunate. Just as we hit the coast, two P-47s came down and flew by us (of course they were moving at 250-300 miles per hour and we’re just barely fluttering along) and pulled up and began circling. Right below them was a runway.” The P-47s provided guidance for Brown and he was able to complete an emergency landing and save the wounded men on board.

Later, a Colonel asked Lt. Brown to accompany him out to the aircraft. He questioned Brown as to why he would attempt to fly a plane that severely damaged. Brown answered, “Sir, I had one dead and three who could not bail out. And besides that, I didn’t know the tail was shot off the airplane!!” The Colonel then said, “Lt., I am going to recommend you for our nation’s highest award”. Although Charlie Brown was still suffering from shock, he knew that the Colonel was referring to the Medal of Honor. However, the award would never be. After leaving the B-17, Brown was taken to Intelligence Debriefing. “All I could talk about was this crazy German that let us go, not the 15 that tried to kill us.” Two hours after that debriefing, Brown’s airplane was classified Secret. He later learned that all aspects of his crew’s participation in that mission and even the casualty report had also been classified as Secret and remain so classified for forty years.

After Franz Stigler saluted the pilot and crew of the badly damaged aircraft, he returned his plane to the temporary base for refueling and then planned to move on to his home field. “I wanted to fly home because my girlfriend was waiting for me.” Franz though, had a problem. His plane had taken a hit. There was a bullet in the left radiator so he was stuck at the alternate field for the night, waiting until the radiator had been changed. Stigler was never able to speak of the events that had happened that day. I asked him why. His answer came swiftly, “I would have been court marshaled.” The German Officer had several close calls during his years of combat. On one of his more interesting missions he and others in his Me-109 Fighter Squadron had to escort a flight of Stuka Dive Bombers after ships in the Mediterranean. Someone in the command structure decided that the Me-109 escorting fighters should also carry one 500-pound-bomb Rather than dive-bombing as the Stukas did, the fighters were to go down just above the water and release their bomb, skipping it onto the ship. “So, when the Stuka started diving, we had to dive too. We went past them because we were twice as fast as they were.  They were to drop on the ship’s deck and we would try getting our bombs into the side of the ship. As, I was closing in, I was to drop the bomb and jump over the ship. So, that’s what I did. When I looked out on to my left wing, there was the bomb coming with me!!” When Franz had dropped the bomb, it had bounced off the water and was flying formation just off his left wing. Rather than dropping down after passing the ship as planned, he climbed rapidly to get away from the bomb, which could only go down into the water. “I killed a lot of fish, I think”, he joked. Stigler engaged in combat as a Bf-109 pilot in Africa, Italy, Central and Western Europe during his service with the Luftwaffe. During his 487 combat missions in the Me-109, he had 28 confirmed victories and was wounded 4 times. Herr Stigler finished the war flying 16 more combat missions in the ME-262 jet, assigned to the select JV-44, the celebrated Squadron of Experts (Aces), making him one of the world’s early jet fighter pilots in combat.

When the war finally ended in Europe, Franz was in Munich. After combat in mid-April 1944 Brown ferried fighters and bombers around the United Kingdom until mid-August.  “Going home” held entirely different circumstances for each man. “Coming back on the ship, seeing the Statue of Liberty. You see these films….. believe me, Hollywood can’t come close to what a combat man feels, when he has made it and comes back and sees the Statue of Liberty”, stated Brown.  Charles Brown graduated from the West Virginia Wesleyan College in August of 1949. He was recalled to active duty with the newly established U.S. Air Force in October 1949 and was commissioned as Regular Air Force Officer in early 1950. Between ’49 and ’65, Charles Brown served on the staffs of Hq. United States Air Force, Hq. U.S. Air Forces Europe, Hq. Tactical Air Command, Air Ministry, Royal Air Force (London, England) and the U.S. Organization Joint Chiefs of Staff. He received his M.A. from George Washington University in 1955. He took an early retirement as Lt. Col. in 1965 to accept an appointment as Senior Foreign Service Reserve Officer. Six of the seven years he served in that capacity, he spent as a Regional Inspector for the Agency for International Development, U.S. State Department in Southeast Asia. During this time he made 72 trips into Laos for a total of almost 2 years and 14 trips into Vietnam for approximately twelve plus months. In mid-1972, after a total of thirty years of government service, including 15 years of serving abroad, Brown medically retired from the Foreign Service. The Brown family then moved to Miami, Florida where Charles founded an environmental and energy conservation research company, specializing in combustion research. For twenty-five plus years, he has been the CEO of Energy & Environment Research Center, C.B.E., Inc., where he has become an inventor and research scientist.

Franz Stigler headed back to a country virtually destroyed; with a government headed by inexperienced and mostly unqualified leaders. Most of Germany was devastated, partly uninhabitable, with no public services, no utilities and very little food. The blame was now solely placed upon the military.  Here was a man, who only a short time earlier had commanded combat units, had flown expensive aircraft, and had been responsible for equipment costing millions of dollars, now standing in line waiting for food stamps. When Stigler entered one office to fill out forms the man sitting behind the desk accused him of being a Nazi officer. “I said listen, I have a hole in my head, don’t rile me up”, he said pointing to one of the head wounds he had received during the war. The man kept on insulting him until Stigler reached over the counter, grabbed the man by his shirt and hit him square in the jaw, knocking him over the desk. Franz Stigler had been a German Luftwaffe Officer not a Nazi. The police were called and when they arrived Stigler pulled out a piece of paper given to him by a hospital. This paper stated that Franz was not always responsible for his actions due to head wounds received in combat. The police, all former military, winked at Franz, decided there was nothing they could or should do and left. Stigler soon received a letter and job offer after that incident. One of Germany’s top pilots would begin his post-war life as a brick mill helper. “That is what we had to come home to”, he remembers. The bureaucrats, who had done little or nothing during the war, placed the blame of losing the war on the German’s who had fought, especially the Luftwaffe fighter forces; the same people that had protected them, risked their lives for them. Out of some 28,000 men who actually flew combat with the Luftwaffe Fighter Forces during WWII, somewhere between 1100 and 1300 survived the war. After living and working in post-war Germany for eight years, Franz Stigler finally moved to Canada in 1953 and became a successful businessman.

The Search for an enemy; The Discovery of a friend

“Were you the one to take the initiative to find Herr Stigler?” I asked Col Brown toward the end of our interview.  He acknowledged that he was so I asked him to tell me about searching for and finally finding Franz Stigler.

Col. Brown’s pilot class 43-D was the largest in aviation history; in April of 1943, 5293 aviators received their wings as U.S. Army Pilots. In 1986 the Air force Association sponsored something called the “Gathering of Eagles”. This event was held in Las Vegas and aviators from all over the world attended. The surviving pilots of 43-D attended the gathering as an organization, including three Medal of Honor recipients. These men of honor invited Col. Brown to their table to swap old war stories. Col. Joe Jackson, a Medal of Honor recipient from Vietnam, asked Col. Brown if something unusual happened to him while fighting as a bomber pilot. Brown had not thought of the incident with (the then unknown) Stigler for over 40 years when he was asked that question. Trying to think of something exotic, Brown replied, “I think one time I was saluted by a German fighter pilot.” Astonished at what they had just heard, everyone at the table starting laughing. “And then I thought, did that really happen or was that a figment of my imagination.” remembers Brown. He began telling others the story. He told his wife first, who had never heard it, and then a Mexican Col, who was a pilot for the President of Mexico. The Col told Brown that his story was better than any he had been hearing from the great heroes attending the “Gathering of Eagles”. Col. Brown decided to pursue this (perhaps faulty) memory.

His pursuit would not be easy because the American records were tightly secured and when made available were of no value. Brown contacted the historian of the West German Air Force. Of course Stigler had never told anyone about the event, so Brown once again found nothing. Finally through the efforts of General Adolph Galland, who had been commander of German fighter pilots and Stigler’s boss/friend, a letter Col. Brown had written was published in a newsletter for German Fighter Pilots. All past and present fighter pilots received this newsletter. The editor did not want to publish anything written by an American bomber pilot. The last thing Brown heard was that General Galland, a man respected throughout the entire world, was going to have a word with the editor. Two to three months passed before Col. Brown learned of anything else. One day, he received a letter with a Canadian stamp; he had no idea what it could be. “So, I open it up and it says, I was the one!!!” remembers Brown. After so many years of searching, Brown could not believe it was real. With the address from the letter, he called the operator in Vancouver; there was only one Stigler in the phone book. Brown immediately phoned Stigler and again was told, “I was the one!!” “Convince me,” replied Brown.  That’s when Franz Stigler described the markings that had been on Brown’s airplane and gave engagement circumstances that had long since dimmed in Brown’s memory.

It was still three or four months before the two could get together. Finally the day came. Charlie Brown flew to Seattle for an emotional meeting with Franz Stigler, but first Colonel Brown decided that he would have a little fun. He had commissioned a painting of their two planes as he had remembered them. The artist, Bob Harper who volunteered to do the painting, had actually been an intelligence officer on the base at Seething where he had landed on Dec. 20th 1943 and had helped to remove the casualties. Brown knew Stigler was due in so he told the hotel’s desk clerk to ask these questions when Stigler arrived, “Aren’t you Franz Stigler the famous German pilot!!!! Will you please sign this picture?” and present him with a lithograph of the painting to sign. The man at the front desk agreed to Col Brown’s setup. “I came into the hotel there and went to the desk and this fellow at the desk gave me a picture to sign.” Stigler chuckles.  Col Brown and his wife laughed as they watched the scenario from a third floor balcony overlooking the lobby.

Frau Stigler told me that she and Mrs. Brown were following along behind the two warriors when she remarked to Mrs. Brown, “Thank God they get along!! Can you imagine what a horrible thing it would be for Franz to have given up the Knight’s Cross, 40-some years of worrying was it worth it, did that crew make it back, then to finally find him and find out that he is a real S.O.B.!!”  “Was it worth it?” I asked Franz. “At that time I didn’t know him as well as I do now or I would have shot!!” Stigler jokes. They spent the rest of that second meeting, the first having been in the air, becoming medicated and swapping stories. Thus a relationship was born.

Herr Stigler did not save Col. Brown’s life, he spared it. While this act of compassion was truly heroic, so was the stubbornness and will of Col. Brown to not surrender or go to Sweden, ultimately saving the lives of his crew and himself enabling them to continue fighting the air war. I had set out to obtain an interview and come away with an intriguing account of a fascinating story; that in it self would have been enough to satisfy me. However, from a personal standpoint, I came away with so much more than just words. I have a different outlook on war, humanity and compassion. Most importantly, I came away with two very special friends. Since the Con, I have remained in contact with Herr Stigler and Col. Brown, Stigler, through a neighbor of his and Brown, by fax and phone. By the time you read this, Franz will have gone through hip surgery. He will be celebrating his 85th birthday next month. My thoughts and prayers are with him. I cannot thank Col Brown enough. He has helped me to keep this interview a true account of the actual events that transpired both subsequent to and on that fateful day, Dec. 20th, 1943.

Charlie Brown

Franz Stigler

 Franz Stigler passed away on 22 March 2008. Charlie Brown passed away on 24 November 2008.