Thursday, January 3, 2013

This is the definition of Honor

What a great story.

Short version: 4 days before Christmas in 1943, a German fighter pilot safely escorted a heavily damaged American bomber to safety during WWII because "He was a veteran pilot with an iron sense of right and wrong; a man who would never kick another while he's down."

Longer version (quoted from Jalopnik's post): (click the link below for the full story):

2nd Lieutenant Charlie Brown's B17 bomber, [named] Ye Old Pub, approached Bremen, Germany. As German anti-aircraft batteries opened up on the formation, one of the anti-aircraft rounds exploded right in front of their plane, destroying the number two engine and damaging number four. Missing one engine and with another throttled back due to damage, Ye Olde Pub could no longer keep up with the formation.

Things went from bad to worse for Brown and his crew. Falling behind the formation, Ye Olde Pub weathered merciless attacks from 15 German fighters. The bomber's machine guns got one of them, but the damage they sustained was immense. The tail gunner was killed and four were injured, including Brown, who caught a bullet fragment in his right shoulder. The only defensive guns left in service were the top turret and the nose gun, and the bomber's hydraulics and oxygen systems had also been knocked out.

As Ye Olde Pub attempted to leave German airspace, Lt. Franz Stigler, a Luftwaffe fighter pilot just in from shooting down two B-17s, saw Ye Olde Pub limp by and gave chase. 

I saw his gunner lying in the back profusely bleeding….. so, I couldn't shoot. I tried to get him to land in Germany and he didn't react at all. So, I figured, well, turn him to Sweden, because his airplane was so shot up; 'I never saw anything flying so shot up'.

He tried to contact Brown with hand signals. His message was simple: Land your plane in Germany and surrender or fly to Sweden. That heap will never make it back to England.
A bewildered Brown stared back through his side window, not believing what he was seeing. He had already counted himself as a casualty numerous times. But this strange German pilot kept gesturing at him. There was no way he was going to land the plane, but the pilot stayed with him, keeping other attackers off until they reached the North Sea.
[Their story was buried in their memories (and archives in the case of Brown) due to the mission's sensitive nature and the fact that Sigler would've been court marshaled for not attacking.]
[Years later,] in 1986, then retired Colonel Charlie Brown was asked to speak at a big combat pilot reunion event called Gathering of the Eagles. Someone asked him if he had any memorable missions during World War II. Brown thought a minute, then dredged up the story of Stigler's salute which had been buried somewhere in the dirty corners of his mind for decades. Jaws dropped. Brown knew he would have to try to find the man who had spared his life.
[Brown searched for 4 years to find the pilot that had spared his life without much luck.] So he wrote a letter in a combat pilot association newsletter.A few months later, Brown received a letter from Canada. It was from Stigler. "I was the one," it said. When they spoke on the phone, Stigler described his plane, the salute; everything Brown needed to hear to know it wasn't a hoax.
From 1990 to 2008, Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler became like brothers. Introduced by the bond of that first powerful meeting, their friendship was cemented over the years. The two men remained close throughout the rest of their lives, dying within several months of each other in 2008. 
What if Stigler had been executed for his disloyalty? What if Brown had landed in Germany or hadn't made it across the North Sea? What if Stigler had stayed in Germany and never learned how to speak English? Yes, things could have been different, but that chance encounter in 1943 was destined to become a chance encounter again in 1990. But more importantly, it's proof to the rest of us that something great done now can change your life much, much later.
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