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Soldiers' Stories: Brown-Stigler, part 3

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The Search for an Enemy; The Discovery of a Friend

“Were you the one to take the initiative to find Herr Stigler?” I asked Col Brown toward the end of our interview. He acknowledged that he was so I asked him to tell me about searching for and finally finding Franz Stigler.

Col. Brown’s pilot class 43-D was the largest in aviation history; in April of 1943, 5293 aviators received their wings as U.S. Army Pilots. In 1986 the Air force Association sponsored something called the “Gathering of Eagles”. This event was held in Las Vegas and aviators from all over the world attended. The surviving pilots of 43-D attended the gathering as an organization, including three Medal of Honor recipients. 

Franz Stigler as a Luftwaffe pilot during WWII. (Photo courtesy of P. Johnson)


These men of honor invited Col. Brown to their table to swap old war stories. Col. Joe Jackson, a Medal of Honor recipient from Vietnam, asked Col. Brown if something unusual happened to him while fighting as a bomber pilot. Brown had not thought of the incident with (the then unknown) Stigler for over 40 years when he was asked that question. 

Trying to think of something exotic, Brown replied, “I think one time I was saluted by a German fighter pilot.” Astonished at what they had just heard, everyone at the table starting laughing. “And then I thought, did that really happen or was that a figment of my imagination.” remembers Brown.

 He began telling others the story. He told his wife first, who had never heard it, and then a Mexican Colonel, who was a pilot for the President of Mexico. The Colonel told Brown that his story was better than any he had been hearing from the great heroes attending the “Gathering of Eagles”. Col. Brown decided to pursue this (perhaps faulty) memory. 

His pursuit would not be easy because the American records were tightly secured and when made available were of no value. Brown contacted the historian of the West German Air Force. 

Of course Stigler had never told anyone about the event, so Brown once again found nothing. Finally through the efforts of General Adolph Galland, who had been commander of German fighter pilots and Stigler’s boss/friend, a letter Col. Brown had written was published in a newsletter for German Fighter Pilots. 

All past and present fighter pilots received this newsletter. The editor did not want to publish anything written by an American bomber pilot. The last thing Brown heard was that General Galland, a man respected throughout the entire world, was going to have a word with the editor. Two to three months passed before Col. Brown learned of anything else. 

One day, he received a letter with a Canadian stamp; he had no idea what it could be. “So, I open it up and it says, I was the one!!!” remembers Brown. After so many years of searching, Brown could not believe it was real. With the address from the letter, he called the operator in Vancouver; there was only one Stigler in the phone book. Brown immediately phoned Stigler and again was told, “I was the one!!” “Convince me,” replied Brown. That’s when Franz Stigler described the markings that had been on Brown’s airplane and gave engagement circumstances that had long since dimmed in Brown’s memory. 

It was still three or four months before the two could get together. Finally the day came. Charlie Brown flew to Seattle for an emotional meeting with Franz Stigler, but first Colonel Brown decided that he would have a little fun. He had commissioned a painting of their two planes as he had remembered them. 

The artist, Bob Harper who volunteered to do the painting, had actually been an intelligence officer on the base at Seething where he had landed on Dec. 20th 1943 and had helped to remove the casualties. Brown knew Stigler was due in so he told the hotel’s desk clerk to ask these questions when Stigler arrived, “Aren’t you Franz Stigler the famous German pilot!!!! Will you please sign this picture?” and present him with a lithograph of the painting to sign. 

The man at the front desk agreed to Col Brown’s setup. “I came into the hotel there and went to the desk and this fellow at the desk gave me a picture to sign.” Stigler chuckles. Col Brown and his wife laughed as they watched the scenario from a third floor balcony overlooking the lobby.

Frau Stigler told me that she and Mrs. Brown were following along behind the two warriors when she remarked to Mrs. Brown, “Thank God they get along!! Can you imagine what a horrible thing it would be for Franz to have given up the Knight’s Cross, 40-some years of worrying was it worth it, did that crew make it back, then to finally find him and find out that he is a real S.O.B.!!” 

“Was it worth it?” I asked Franz. “At that time I didn’t know him as well as I do now or I would have shot!!” Stigler jokes. They spent the rest of that second meeting, the first having been in the air, becoming medicated and swapping stories. Thus a relationship was born.

Herr Stigler did not save Col. Brown’s life, he spared it. While this act of compassion was truly heroic, so was the stubbornness and will of Col. Brown to not surrender or go to Sweden, ultimately saving the lives of his crew and himself enabling them to continue fighting the air war. By the time you read this, Franz will have gone through hip surgery. He will be celebrating his 85th birthday next month. 

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Brown-Stigler, part 3

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