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No. 2697:
B-17 Spared

Today, a B-17 spared. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It's pretty common knowledge that soldiers, given a chance to shoot an enemy, often won't do it. No surprise, really. Killing one of our own species is an unnatural act. Armies try to find means for breaking down their soldiers' resistance to killing.

And yet we're greatly moved when we learn of an act of mercy between enemies in the heat of combat. I recently read one such story about Oberleutnant Franz Stigler. Stigler's father had been a pilot in WW-I, and he wanted to be one too. 

Stigler took up flying in 1927 when he was only twelve. He became a civilian pilot and a flying instructor. Then WW-II began and he became a fighter pilot. He flew ME-109s, first in North Africa, then back in Europe. That was Germany's workhorse fighter. Over 30,000 were made. 

And Stigler was a workhorse airman. He flew over 400 combat missions, was shot down repeatedly, wounded four times, shot down some 45 Allied airplanes, and lost a brother early in the war. He was clearly past any resistance to pulling the trigger. At least until December 20th, 1943. 

He was flying out of Holland, intercepting Allied bombers. He'd already shot down two that day. Now he'd been sent up to bring down a lone B-17. As he drew close, he noticed that the ever-dangerous tail gun wasn't tracking him. He closed in, and what he saw was horrific.

The tail was half shot away. Antiaircraft fire had wrecked the nose; one engine dead and one dying; tail gunner dead; waist-gunners wounded; wounded pilot struggling to stay conscious; airframe riddled with bullets. Stigler was appalled. He pulled alongside the bomber, now near ground level, caught the pilot's eye, escorted him to the North Sea, then saluted and turned homeward.

He would've been accused of treason, so he said he'd shot the plane down over the Sea. Instead of punishment, he got medals and a chance to fly Germany's first jet fighter. Meanwhile, the B-17 pilot, Charles Brown, got back to England where he was told to forget the story. It'd make the enemy look good and hurt morale.

After the war, Stigler left Germany, moved to Canada, and eventually ran a trucking company out of Vancouver. All the time he wondered if the B-17 crew had survived. A friend of Charlie Brown's finally wrote to a newsletter for German pilots. Did anyone know the pilot who'd spared Brown's airplane. 

That's how, one day, Brown got a letter from Stigler. They finally met in a Seattle hotel, and something clicked. They became fast friends -- brothers -- staying in touch until Stigler died at 94. Afterward, one obituary said he was survived by his wife, daughter, and Charlie Brown of Perrine, Florida. 

Franz Stigler     
Left: Franz Stigler, Right: Charles Brown. (Images widely displayed in the Interenet, sources unknown) 

I am moved by the story of Stigler and Brown. Yet I'm not really surprised. For Stigler's choice that day in '43 was the choice any of us hope we'll be able to make when our own chips are down. 

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

For an account of the event that includes include images, click HERE

See the Wikipedia articles on Franz StiglerThe B-17, Flying Fortress, and on the ME-109.

Finally, see this interesting article on the psychological problem of killing in war:

After he flew ME-109's in combat, Stigler went on the fly the radical new Messerschmitt 262 powered by two jet engines. Also, though I don't mention it in the episode, Brown actually flew first to Sweden and was, from there, sent back to England. 

My thanks to listener John Baker for suggesting the topic.

A downed ME-109 display at the Duxford Air Museum
A display showing a downed ME-109 at Great Britain's Duxford Air Museum. (Photo by J. Lienhard)