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Chivalry in Battle

Posted by Jolly on June 8, 2009

There's nothing more glorious as a fighter pilot than putting an adversary aircraft in your sights, turning the gun on, and transforming what used to be an enemy aircraft into a bunch of flaming metal.  At least that's the way most of the fighter pilots I've been associated with feel.  When it comes right down to it, it's a knife fight and it's either your life or that of your enemy.  There's no hatred toward the other warrior who happens to be on an opposing side of a war, usually started by some ass hole who is trying to impose their will on a particular part of the world. In fact, in most cases there's nothing but mutual respect for your adversary, who is out doing the job they signed up to do, just like you.  


The story of the B-17, Ye Old Pub, is a great illustration of my point.  You can see on the lithograph a depiction of a heavily shot up U.S. B-17 with a German BF-109 on its wing.  The pilot of the B-17 was Captain Charlie Brown who was flying his machine on a wing and a prayer.  The Flying fortress was from the 379th Bomb Group based at Kimbolton, England.  The B-17 was hit by flak and fighters. The compass was damaged and they were flying deeper over enemy territory instead of heading home to Kimbolton.


After flying the B-17 over an enemy airfield, a German pilot named Franz Steigler was ordered to take off and shoot down the B-17. When Franz got near the B-17, he could not believe his eyes. In his words, he 'had never seen a plane in such a bad state'. The tail and rear section was severely damaged, and the tail gunner wounded. The top gunner was all over the top of the fuselage.  The nose was smashed and there were holes everywhere.  Despite having ammunition, Franz flew to the side of the B-17 and looked at Charlie Brown, the pilot. Brown was scared and struggling to control his damaged and bloodstained plane. 




Aware that they had no idea where they were going, Franz signaled at Charlie to turn 180 degrees. Then Franz escorted and guided the stricken plane to the North Sea towards England . Franz then rendered a salute to Charlie Brown and turned away, back to Europe.  When Franz landed he told his commanding officer that the plane had been shot down over the sea, and never told the truth to anybody. Charlie Brown and the remains of his crew told everyone at their debriefing, but were ordered never to talk about it.


For More than 40 years, Charlie Brown wanted to find the Luftwaffe pilot who saved the crew. After years of research, Franz was found. He had never talked about the incident, not even at post-war reunions.  They met in the US at a 379th Bomber Group reunion, together with 25 people who are alive now - all because Franz never fired his guns that day.


When asked why he didn’t shoot them down, Stigler later said, I didn’t have the heart to finish those brave men.  I flew beside them for a long time.  They were trying desperately to get home and I was going to let them do that.  I could not have shot at them.  It would have been the same as shooting at a man in a parachute.


War is a dirty business, but stories like this show that the most important trait found in all great warriors is honor.  Franz Stigler, like many other fighter pilots before and after him, processed the honor and courage to make the right call under dire circumstances in a time of war.  Both Charlie Brown and Franz Steigler flew west in 2008.  Here's a nickel on the grass to them and the brave crewmembers of Ye Old Pub.

 (Hanz Steigler on far left, and Charlie Brown on far right)



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