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The sole account of the event appeared in a London newspaper; it said that the B-17 was believed to be one of the worst battle-damaged airplanes to return to England. Yet no photographs of the plane ever came to light. Brown contacted every source from the Pentagon to the files of the 448th Bomb Group, which is maintained by the National Archives and the Office of Air Force History. Nothing.

Then in the July 1988 issue of the 8th AF News , published by the Eighth Air Force Historical Society, Brown saw a letter in the “Mail Call” section: “ BOMBER CREW SOUGHT . On either 13 or 20 December 1943, my flight of 12 P-47s came upon a badly crippled B-17 being shot up by five or more Me 109s. We had altitude on them, surprising them and destroying all five. Due to our fuel shortage, we had to leave as they exited the coast and returned to Bodney. The press clippings reported that same a/c flew over our field and “kinda” waved its wings. Is there anyone who might have been on that plane? George A. Arnold -352-FG, 10426 Brookside Dr., Sun City, AZ 85351.”

The ship had been badly hurt: the nose was gone, much of the skin had been torn away, the radio compartment was destroyed, the hydraulic system was wreckage.

Was there anyone who might have been on that plane? An elated Brown immediately phoned Arnold, and the pair compared notes on the events of that day more than four decades earlier. Arnold identified the P-47s as part of the 487th Squadron of the 352d Fighter Group.

There are records of the destruction of the five German planes, but they say nothing about Ye Olde Pub . Then, on January 18, 1990, Brown’s hundreds of inquiries over the years paid off. He received a letter from Surrey, British Columbia, from a man who had been told fourth or fifth hand of his efforts to solve the enigma.

Dear Charles,

All this years I wondered what happened to the B-17, did she make it or not. As I am a guest of the American Fighter Aces [a veteran airmen’s group], I inquired time and again, but without any results. I have been a guest at the 50th anniversary of the B-17, and I would still find any answers, wheter it was worth a court marshal. I am happy now that you made it, and that it was worth it.

I will be in Florida sometimes in June as guest of the Am. Fighter Aces and it sure would be nice to talk about our encounter. By the way after I landet at Bremen Airport, I borrowed the Fieseier Storch from the airport commander to fly out to a B-17 wich I shot down. The field I landet in just was not cooperating and I stood on my head or prop. I just wonted to be sure, that the crew was treated correctly. My landing was not appreciated, I have been told in the Off. Mess, as I was forced to stay overnight to have one of my radiators changed, wich had a 50 cal. bullet stuck in it…

[signed] Franz Stigler

Needless to say, Brown answered the letter from Stigler within a day of receiving it. In further correspondence he learned several facts: Stigler is seventy-five, which would have made him twenty-nine in 1943; he did fly on an enemy bomber’s wingtip; he was a highly successful pilot; although shot down seventeen times (he bailed out six), he downed twenty-eight Allied aircraft. He also was one of the first jet pilots, having flown the Me 262 that frightened Allied fliers when it went into operation toward the end of the war.

Brown flew to Seattle to meet Stigler. “The B-17 was the most respected airplane we had to fly against,” the old ace told him. “There was always a wall of bullets. I never came home without holes in my airplane. But I was on the ground when I saw this single bomber coming at a very low altitude. It was apparent that it was damaged, so I rushed to my airplane and went after it.

“When I got near it, I could see that there was much damage to the nose and tail sections. I flew in behind the plane, and I could see the gunner lying across his machine guns. There was a huge hole in the side of the fuselage, and the rudder was almost blown away. It was in very bad shape.”

The former German ace speaks clearly as he remembers that day. “I could tell the pilot was in bad shape. I didn’t have the heart to finish off this wonderful machine and its brave men. I flew beside them for a long time, trying in some way to help; they were trying desperately to get home, so I was going to let them do it.

“The short way to safety was to turn right and fly to Sweden, so when they banked left and headed for England, I thought, ‘You crazy people. I hope you make it.’”

Stigler touches the arm of Charlie Brown, who sits next to him. Both men are silent for a moment. Then Stigler speaks.

“I couldn’t have shot at them,” he says. “It would have been the same as shooting at a parachute. I shot down eleven B-17s, and I always waited to see how many chutes appeared. The more I saw, the happier I was.”