Beginning his life in the air at age 12, Stigler went on to become an instructor for Lufthansa in the 1930’s, then a German fighter pilot in WWII. While he never made it to ‘fighter ace’ status, one of his students Gerhard Barkhorn did, becoming only one of two fighter aces to claim over 300 kills in the war.
So, what was so amazing about Stigler that has him on our ‘Amazing Aviator’ list? The honour and humanity he showed to the crew of ‘Ye Olde Pub’, a B-17 bomber severely damaged during a bombing mission over Bremen, Germany.
The B-17, piloted by Lt Charlie Brown, had been left straggling behind its bomber formation after flak shattered the plexiglass nose, knocked out engine #2 and damaged engine #4. They became an easy target for over a dozen German fighters who sustained their attack for more than 10 minutes.
Engine #3, oxygen, hydraulic, electrical and radio systems were all damaged in the fighter attacks. The bomber lost half it’s tail rudder, left elevator and its nose cone. After many weapons jammed, they were left with only three of 11 guns to defend themselves. Six of the crew had been wounded with another being decapitated by a cannon shell, and the three unharmed men struggled to provide first aid as the morphine had frozen. Pilot Brown had also been knocked unconscious but regained his senses just in time to pull out of a near fatal nosedive. The crew all decided they wanted to stay on board and do their best to get the plane back to England, a near impossible task considering the damage sustained and the fact they were still in enemy territory.
On the ground, Stigler was waiting for his Me 109 to be rearmed and refueled when he saw the B-17 bomber limp past a few miles away. If he could get to it, this would be his 23rd victory and he’d be awarded the Knights Cross. The ground crew disconnected the hoses, Stigler saluted his sergeant and he was off after the bomber.
Very quickly Stigler caught up to the crippled B-17. He took aim, got ready to fire, then realized what he was seeing through his gunsight. There was no tail gun turret left and the tail gunner was soaked in blood and there were blood icicles attached to the barrels. Pulling up alongside the plane he could see straight through the heavily damaged fuselage skin, the terrified crew inside tending to their wounded. Once level with the B-17 cockpit, Brown finally noticed the enemy plane flying right next to them.
A panicked Brown and his crew immediately thought the German was going to destroy them, while Stigler was panicked that the plane was going down with it’s wounded crew.
While in training Stigler was told by his commanding officer “If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you down myself. You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.” Stigler later commented “To me, it was just like they were in a parachute. I saw them and I couldn’t shoot them down. “
Knowing that he was risking his own life if it was found out that he had chosen not to shoot down the B-17, Stigler took the risk and attempted to help the Americans crew make it to safety. He pointed to the ground trying to get them to land and surrender, they refused. He mouthed ‘Sweden’ and pointed in that direction in an attempt to get them to land in the nearby neutral country, but they didn’t understand. So he flew alongside in formation knowing that the Germans would not shoot down one of their own.
Meanwhile Brown was petrified that this German fighter whose signaling they couldn’t understand would finish them off, so he ordered his gunner to get in the turret and take aim to warn him off.
Once over open water and out of German airspace, Stigler departed with a salute, never telling anyone but his wife about his honorable actions for fear of execution for treason.
Brown and his crew incredibly made the 400km across the North Sea back to England and landed safely with only one casualty. When he told his officers about the German fighter pilot letting him go, he was instructed not to tell anyone to prevent any positive sentiment about enemy pilots. He also kept the incident from his commanding officers knowing that if it was reported to German officials the pilot would be at risk of execution by the Nazi's.
Both pilots went on to complete their combat tours, wondering what had happened to the other.
After the war in 1953 Stigler moved to Canada and became a successful businessman, and Brown returned to West Virginia continuing his government service in various roles until 1972 and then became an inventor.
In 1986 Brown spoke at a combat pilot reunion. Recalling his story about the German fighter escort, he decided to attempt to find the unknown pilot. After four years of searching in vain, he wrote a letter to a pilot combat association newsletter. A few months later Stigler contacted him by letter and Brown immediately phoned him. After Stigler described his plane and the incident details, Brown knew he was talking to the right man.
They became great friends describing their relationship as being like long lost brothers. They remained close until both their deaths in 2008 just months apart.
A biographical novel about the incident A Higher Call by Adam Makos was released in 2012.
Although Brown did a sterling job getting his crew and aircraft back safely, we believe that Stigler, with his show of honour and humanity despite real risk to himself, is the true hero of this story. This earns him a well-deserved place on our Amazing Aviator list.