Charles L. Brown, who died on November 25,2008, was awarded the Air Force Cross on 4 February 2008 under Special Order G-094 for his action on 20 December 1943. The following article obtained from trie archives of the AIR FORCE ASSOCIATION describes one of the most remarkable World War II war stories.
December 20, 1943, was a typically cold, overcast winter day in Britain as 2d Lt. Charles L. Brown’s B-17F lined up for takeoff- It was 21 year old Charlie Brown’s first combat mission as an aircraft commander with the 379th Bomb Group, the target an FW-190 factory at Bremen, Germany. He and his crew of ‘Ye Olde Pub’ were to become participants in an event probably unique at that time in the air war over Europe.
The bombers began their 10 minute bomb run at 27,300 feet, the temperature at negative 60 degrees. Flak was heavy and accurate. Before ‘bombs away,’ his B-17 took hits that shattered the Plexiglass nose, knocked out the number two engine, damaged number four which frequently had to be throttled back to prevent overspeeding, and caused undetermined damage to the controls. Coming off target, Lieutenant Brown was unable to stay with the formation and became a straggler.
Almost immediately, the lone and limping B-17 came under a series of attacks from 12to15Bf-109s and FW-190s that lasted for more than 10 minutes. The number three engine was hit and the controls were only partially responsive. The bomber’s 11 defensive guns were reduced by the extreme cold to only the two top turret guns and one forward firing nose gun. The tailgunner was killed and all but one of the crew in the rear incapacitated by wounds or exposure to the frigid air. Lieutenant Brown took a bullet fragment in his right shoulder.
Brown figured the only chance of surviving this pitifully unequal battle was to go on the offensive. Each time a wave of attackers approached, he turned into them, trying to disrupt their aim with his remaining firepower. The last thing oxygen-starved Brown remembers was reversing a steep turn, becoming inverted, and looking “up” at the ground. When he regained full consciousness, the B-17 was miraculously level at less then 1,000 feet.
Still partially dazed, Lieutenant Brown began a slow climb with only one engine at full power. With three seriously injured aboard, he rejected bailing out or a crash landing. The alternative was a thin chance of reaching the UK. While nursing the battered bomber toward England, Brown looked out the right window and saw a Bf-109 flying on his wing. The pilot waved, then flew across the B-17’s nose and motioned Brown to land in Germany, which the aircraft commander refused to do. After escorting them for several miles out over the North Sea, the Luftwaffe pilot saluted, rolled over, and disappeared. Why had he not shot the aircraft down? The answer did not emerge for many years.
The B-17 did make it across 250 miles of storm-tossed North Sea and landed at Seething near the English coast, home of the 448th Bomb Group, which had not yet flown its first mission. The crew was debriefed on their mission, including the strange encounter with the Bf-109. For unknown reasons, the debriefing was classified “secret” and remained so for many years. Lieutenant Brown went on to complete a combat tour, finish college, accept a regular commission, and serve in the Office of Special Investigations, with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and in other Air Force and State Department assignments until his retirement as a Lieutenant Colonel in the early 1970s.
The image of his strange encounter with the Bf-109 remained firmly embedded in his memory. In 1986, he began a search for the anonymous pilot. Finally, in 1990, former Oberleutnant Franz Stigler, now living in Canada, responded to a notice published in a newsletter for German fighter pilots. The two met, compared time, place, and aircraft markings and determined that Stigler was the pilot who had allowed Brown’s crew to live.
On that December day in 1943, there had been two persuasive reasons why Stigler should have shot down the B-17. First, earlier in the day, he had downed two four-engine bombers and needed only one more that day to earn a Knight’s Cross. Second, his decision to not finish off the aircraft was a court-martial offense in Nazi Germany and if revealed could have led to his execution. He considered these alternatives while flying formation with the B-17, “the most heavily damaged aircraft I ever saw that was still flying.” He could see the wounded aboard and thought, “I cannot kill these half-dead people. It would be like shooting at a parachute.”
Stigler, who died in March, 2008, was a German legend. Along with his 487 flights and 28 kills, he was shot down 17 times. He and Brown became close friends, visiting each other several times a year.
Franz Stigler’s act of chivalry has been justly, though belatedly, honored by several military organizations here and abroad. On the other hand, Charlie Brown was not decorated for his heroism over Germany, which never was reported by the 448th Bomb Group at Seething to his commanders. Such are the fortunes of war and its aftermath.