How Two Enemy Pilots Became Lifelong Friends

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The Purple Heart Corner

On December 20, 1943, Lt. Charles Brown of the USAF was in command of the B-17 bomber ‘Ye Olde Pub” when he and his 10-man crew were assigned to a 500-plane bombing mission to attack an airplane factory in Bremen, Germany.

They were informed that they might encounter hundreds of German aircraft – not to mention the city was heavily guarded by more than 250 flak guns. To make matters worse, Ye Olde Pub was set to fly at the infamous “Purple Heart Corner,” a very dangerous spot on the formation’s edge.

Swarmed By Fighters

Ye Olde Pub was met with flak the moment it entered the vicinity. In the midst of gunfire, the bomber was struck by flak, shattering its Plexiglas nose, disabling its #2 engine, and damaging its #4 engine. Now with the bomber barely airworthy, Brown’s crew was unable to keep up with the formation. 

Over a dozen German fighter planes quickly rushed toward the struggling bomber, further damaging its airframe, #3 engine, electrical systems, and hydraulics. The loss of its on-board system also jammed the gunners’ weapons and rendered half of its rudders and elevators useless.

Almost Doomed

Even though the bomber was still airworthy, its crew members inside were barely holding on. Right waist gunner Sgt. Yelesanko was critically wounded in the leg by shrapnel, ball turret gunner Sgt. Blackford’s feet were frozen, radio operator Sgt. Pechout was hit in the eye by a cannon shell, pilot Lt. Brown was wounded in his right shoulder, while tail gunner Sgt. Eckenrode had died from a cannon shell. Still, the crew fought and held on as much as they could.

On The Ground

Franz Stigler, a German ace with 27 victories in his name, saw the isolated and beaten-down bomber while refueling his Bf 109. He then took off in pursuit of the bomber and caught a peek inside through the bomber’s torn airframe. Stigler saw the American crew’s condition and decided not to shoot.

The Ace pilot tried to persuade Brown to land at a German airfield to surrender, but the B-17 crew was unable to understand what Stigler was saying. Instead, Stigler decided to fly near the bomber’s port-side wing to escort it across the coast. 

Home Safe

Luckily, Ye Olde Pub and its crew managed to land at RAF Seething after flying for 250 miles. The 10-man crew only lost one man – Sgt. Hugh Eckenrode, while Ye Olde Pub never returned to combat.

Over forty years later, Brown finally decided to find the German pilot that escorted his crew to safety. Brown came up empty for years while trying to search for military records. One morning, he wrote a letter to a combat pilot association newsletter. 

It took months for Brown to finally receive a letter from Stigler. The two pilots became close friends from 1990 until their deaths in 2008.