Honor in Warfare

Posted on June 5, 2014


“Honor in Warfare?” That sounds like a non sequitur. How can one have “honor” in “warfare,” when one implies respect and the other war? Respect in war? It doesn’t make sense.

But let me share with you some history, and perhaps we can arrive at the conclusion that like, “honor among thieves,” there is honor—or was—in warfare.

I was reminded of this by a new book about a B-17 bomber during the Second World War. It was almost destroyed by flak and fighter attacks on a bombing run over Bremen, Germany in 1943, and as it limped back to England, a German fighter closed in for the final kill.

The extraordinary story of what happened is told by Adam Makos in A Higher Call published in 2012. I am sure it will be a movie soon. In it, the human connection between warriors transcends the killing mandate of war itself. Or, in this case, chivalry and honor trumped the common principle that has governed all wars across time: kill your enemy.

I can’t capture the entire book in one column. The focus is on two men, the pilot of the B-17, Charlie Brown, and the pilot of the Messerschmitt 109,

Franz Stigler.
Born in 1915, Stigler was a professional pilot who flew for Lufthansa, the German national airline, before the war. He was an ace fighter pilot having served in North Africa and other German fronts by the time he met up with Brown’s B-17 on December 20, 1943, as the B-17 limped home after bombing an aircraft factory from 27.000 feet above Bremen.

Brown, born in 1922 in West Virginia, was only 21 that day, this being his first flight in the B-17 as an aircraft commander. The ten minute bombing over an aircraft factory was successful but heavy flak and equally accurate German fighters had made a mess of the Flying Fortress, nicknamed “Ye Olde Pub” by her crew.

The Plexiglass nose was shattered, the number two engine knocked out, and the number four engine occasionally overspeeded and had to be throttled back. Charlie Brown’s Fortress could not keep up with his squadron on the way back and so it became a straggler, a prime target for German fighters trying their best to destroy the American bombers, focusing especially on the wounded stragglers.

A dozen or more fighters pounced on the bomber and tore it up even more in ten minutes of runs at it. The number three engine was hit and dropped to half power. The tailgunner was killed, the vertical stabilizer almost all shot off, and virtually the entire crew wounded, and suffering from the extreme cold. At 27,000 feet the temperature was -60o Fahrenheit. Brown himself took a painful bullet fragment in his shoulder.

Responding to the fighter attacks, Brown turned directly on each wave of pursuing fighters, hoping to disrupt their aim with what little firepower the Fortress could muster. Without oxygen, for the lines had been ruptured by the attacks, the last thing Brown remembered before he passed out was flying inverted and looking up at the ground. When he came to, the B-17 had miraculously leveled out by itself at 1000 feet above the ground.

What now? Charlie slowly began to climb, with only one engine developing full power, and all of his crew injured, three badly hurt, and one dead in the tail, and he was still over Germany. Bailing out was out of the question. Charlie wasn’t going to abandon his injured crew members.

What now? An injured, barely flyable Fortresses’s worst nightmare—a Messerschmitt 109 approached rapidly from the rear to finish them off. Piloted by a German ace, Franz Stigler, with twenty-two kills already to his record, the fighter closed rapidly. A few well-placed cannon or machine gun shots and Franz would have his next kill, his third that day.

Franz closed in to 500 feet, just behind and above the wounded B-17. He watched for the rear gunner to raise his guns to start shooting at him, but the guns hung down. Stigler closed to 200 feet and saw the rear gunner bleeding heavily and slumped over. Stigler looked at the B-17’s tail and fuselage and thought, “I never saw such a damaged plane still flying.” He pulled up along the right wing and looked over at Brown. Still groggy from oxygen deprivation, Brown couldn’t believe a Me 109 was flying just off his right wing.

Why doesn’t he just shoot us down, wondered the injured and still in shock American pilot?

Stigler pointed down, indicating the Americans should try to land in Germany. Brown, now joined by his co-pilot [here insert name] shook his head. No, we’re not doing that.

So, now Stigler had two choices he thought. Shoot down the Fortress or show them the way to neutral Sweden, about half an hour away. They could make it there, maybe, given the immense damage.

Stigler pointed in the direction of Sweden, but, again, the Americans maintained their track back to England.

These guys are seriously injured, their plane is a wreck, and they still won’t jump or go to neutral Sweden.

In the pilot’s cabin Brown told his [name] to climb up to the top turret and aim at the 109. Stigler saw the turret gun turning around towards him, but he didn’t wait to see what the Americans would do now. He saluted and broke off, returning to this base.

Brown, his injured crew and his brave B-17, made it back to England, barely, and landed safely, even having to lower manually the landing gear since the hydraulics were shot.

Is there honor in war?

Stigler, when interviewed long after the war, never told anyone what happened. It would have meant a certain court martial and probably quick execution to have aided the enemy.

Brown and his crew were sworn to secrecy. A story about a compassionate and honorable German aviator would not help the ongoing campaign to destroy the Luftwaffe.

When Brown finally found Stigler after forty years, the whole story emerged in public.

Why didn’t Stigler finish off the B-17? His brother had been shot down and killed by the English during the Battle of Britain. He himself had been shot out of the skies seventeen times, four by enemy fighters, four by ground fire, and nine times by gunners on American bombers. He bailed out six times and rode his damaged aircraft down eleven times. He had no reason to like Americans

“When I was serving in North Afrca,” Stigler remembered, “my squadron leader told us if we shot a parachuting pilot, he would shoot us himself.”

Stigler saw the wounded Americans, desperate to stay alive in their aircraft, still miraculously in the air, struggling to make it home. He couldn’t shoot them down. Like parachutists, they were wounded warriors, brothers in the air, and so he saluted them for their bravery and valor, and turned away.

Stigler told no one about his encounter with the American bomber. He would have been court martialed and probably shot on the spot for treason.

The Americans landed safely after a harrowing crossing of the North Sea, losing altitude and barely making it to a field, one dead and all of the rest wounded. The officers who debriefed them told them to never mention the strange encounter to anyone. They were in the business of killing Germans and to have one pop up and do something honorable did not fit the war effort.

After the war Stigler and Brown went about their business of making new lives for themselves, never forgetting those five or ten minutes in the air over Germany. Brown began to search for Stigler and finally found him years later. They became good friends in old age and finally told their amazing story of honor over the deadly skies of a war torn Europe, testimony to the humanity that survives in all of us even in a battle for life and death.

Posted in: History