Individual stories from veterans need to be preserved. One such account from WWII I heard this past week involves two young men who loved to fly—one was from the U.S. and one was from Germany. Some of you may already be acquainted with this account from A Higher Call, a book (and a movie) about the true story of these two country-boy pilots.
Twenty-one year old American B-17 pilot, Charles Brown, the West Virginia farm boy was on his first combat mission over Germany, five days before Christmas in 1943. His B-17 bomber had literally been shot to pieces by German fighter planes and was struggling to stay in the sky. Half his crew of 10 were wounded, and his tail gunner was dead when Brown noticed a German Bf-109 fighter plane was hovering about 3 ft. off his right wing tip. Seeing the plane, the co-pilot told Brown, “He is going to destroy us; he is going to finish us off.” Though expecting the worst, at that moment something unusual happened. The German pilot, Luftwaffe’s Major Franz Stigler, stared at the pilot, but instead of pressing the gun trigger, he nodded at Brown and waved. What happened next has been called “one of the most remarkable acts of chivalry ever recorded during WWII.”
The German pilot did not shoot the bomber out of the sky, reasoning to himself that it would be murder. However, in doing so, he risked his own life and career because in Nazi Germany, had he been reported, he could have been executed. Instead, after nodding at the American pilot, he began flying in formation with the B-17 so the anti-aircraft on the ground wouldn’t shoot down the severely crippled plane. The Germany fighter pilot escorted the damaged B-17 out over the North Sea and out of the range of ground artillery. Taking one last look at the American pilot, he saluted and then returned to his base in Germany. Franz Stigler did not think the B-17 would ever make it back to England.
That day, 2nd Lt. Charles Brown was only thinking of survival as he flew his mangled plane filled with wounded crew members back to England. He was barely able to safely land on English soil. Brown went on to fly more missions and returned home a decorated war hero. On the other hand, Franz Stigler lost everything to the war and, like a number of German pilots, he was forced to leave his homeland. Though the German Air Force had as many as 28,000 pilots, only 1,200 survived the war. Many of the exiled pilots, including Stigler, ended up in Vancouver, British Columbia. For years after the war ended, both Stigler and Brown wondered what had happened to the other and made efforts to find out.
In Vancouver, Stigler became a successful businessman and married. In the United States, Brown had also married and started a family. He flew missions over Vietnam before going to work for the State Department. As fate would have it, Stigler and Brown would meet again. This fascinating true account is just one of many from past wars that is being preserved. For the complete story, be sure and check out the book or the movie.
While neither Brown nor Stigler are from our area, we here in Southwest Missouri have our own WWII heroes, including Glen Crumbliss, who flew 31 missions over Germany. Now age 92, Glen talks about his days as a B-17 pilot and some of his personal experiences from the War. He was one of three veterans receiving special recognition at the Veteran’s Memorial Ceremony in Stella this past Saturday. Others receiving state resolutions were Rebecca Hall, who served in the Women’s Army Corps (and was also a 38 yr. veteran of teaching and a former mayor of Neosho) and Fred Hall (no relation to Rebecca Hall). Mr. Hall, the third recipient of a state resolution honoring him for his service to our nation, received two bronze stars and two overseas stars for his service. These three distinguished individuals are members of our nation’s greatest generation.
Let us not forget the contributions of the men and women who helped give us the opportunity to live in a free country, and please take the time to acknowledge and thank a veteran.