Brown was able to get some altitude just as German pilot Franz Stigler was refueling. Stigler saw the bomber and quickly flew up to get above and behind it.
Stigler was a veteran pilot who would eventually serve over 400 combat missions in nearly every front of the war. Flying the Me 109, Stigler was one bomber kill away from earning the high honor of the Knight’s Cross.
Stigler observed the bomber, waiting for the tail gunner to raise his guns. Seeing the limp rear guns, he moved closer and saw the massive amount of damage.
Bullet holes were present all over the aircraft. Stigler knew that most of the men had to be badly wounded. Taking a risk, considering the guns could fire at any time, Stigler flew up to be next to the cockpit.
Stigler and Brown looked at each other, Brown saying he closed his eyes and hoped for his nightmare to be over. Stigler hoped to persuade Brown to land, and failing that, fly to Sweden.
Brown was having none of that, his wounded body and oxygen starved brain only focusing on getting back to England.
Stigler had no way to give Brown verbal commands, only gesturing towards Brown. Seeing that the bomber was heading towards England, Stigler had every opportunity to shoot them down.
Instead, he escorted the bomber over the open waters. Stigler had no way of knowing if enemy escort fighters were on the way but still escorted Brown over the channel.
He wisely turned back before he came too close to England, though not before giving Brown a salute.
Stigler would never speak of his actions during the war. Had he done so he fully believed that a court-martial would follow.
B-17s were hated by the Germans, they dropped massive amounts of bombs and often took out several enemy fighters with their array of guns. Stigler’s humanity could be appreciated but likely not during the war.
About 30-40 years later Brown was living in the United States after a long career and Stigler had moved to Canada after years of service with Germany during and after the war.
Brown had a very hazy memory of the incident and was encouraged to find the German who saluted him to fill in the rest of the memory and make sure it wasn’t a dream or hallucination.
After writing to German pilot newsletters, he finally received word back from the pilot who spared his life.
After a lengthy phone call where Stigler filled in the blanks of the story and proved he was the right one, the two met in person. They hit it off splendidly and have been friends ever since.