A few days before the Christmas of 1943, Charles Brown was piloting a damaged American B-17 bomber in enemy territory. Many of his crew members had died in a battle Brown was barely able to escape, and what remained of the B-17 was in no shape to fight.
Brown was hoping to get back home in one piece so that he could see his family again. He knew, however, that getting his hopes up was not a smart move considering the condition of his plane and the loss of more than half of his crew. On his way back to a friendly airstrip, Brown looked out the cockpit window and saw his worse fears come to life.
Less than 3 feet from the wing of his bomber, Brown saw a German fighter pilot and made eye contact for several seconds. Hoping it was just an illusion, Brown blinked a few times and wished the fighter would be gone when he looked through the window the second time. He was not that lucky.
Franz Stigler was the person piloting the fighter and could have killed Brown and his men with a single squeeze of the trigger, but that is not what he did. Instead of delivering the final blow, Stigler nodded at Brown and escorted him out from behind enemy lines. Stigler flew so close to Brown that other German fighters would not be able to attack without shooting down one of their allies.
In 1986, Brown decided to search for the unlikely friend who saved his life, but tracking the German fighter pilot was not easy. Brown finally wrote about his story in a newsletter and requested help finding the German pilot. Stigler read the story and responded to Brown’s request, providing details about the day, the planes and other facts only the German pilot would have known. The two men were reduced to tears when they met in person for the first time since their encounter.