September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
The mysterious thing that happened to Lieutenant Colonel Brown over Bremen in 1943 sent the pilot off on a quest that lasted his entire life. Finally he found the answer. It had been worth waiting for.
In December 1943, Capt. Charles L. Brown flew his first mission over Germany as aircraft commander of a battle-weary B-17. What happened that day is an extraordinary untold story of World War II. Recently I sat with Lieutenant Colonel Brown (USAF Ret.) in the leafy yard of his Florida home. His keen memory supported by a diary, he told me the tale.
The target was Bremen, Germany; the specific objective, a Focke-Wulf plant in one of the city’s outlying districts. During the preflight briefing at the base in Kimbolton, England, the intelligence officer pointed out flak areas to avoid—Bremen was protected by more than 250 guns manned by the best artillerists the Germans had- and told the pilots they’d be subject to attack by more than five hundred German fighter planes. American and Royal Air Force fighters were scheduled to be on hand all the way to the target and back.
The group combat formation was to consist of the lead, high, and low squadrons, each made up of a threeship element followed by a second four-ship or diamond element, for a total of twenty-one aircraft. Brown’s ship was to fly on the far left of the second element, or low squadron—the slot that is known to airmen as Purple Heart Corner.
After the briefing, Brown and his crew made the short, cold truck ride to Ye Olde Pub , B-17-F, Number 423167. “As I stood there,” says Brown, “I suddenly experienced a quiet, almost tranquil feeling. My thoughts wandered. I had just celebrated my twenty-fifth birthday two months before. Well, really it was my twenty-first, but to impress my crew and give them some confidence in my ability, I’d told them I was twenty-five. The tranquillity left as quickly as it had come.”
The first of a series of signal flares arched through the ground haze, indicating that it was time to start engines. “Takeoff in any aircraft is an exciting moment for the pilot, but taking off for the first few times with a full bombload and full fuel load on a combat mission is nothing short of awe-inspiring,” Brown says. “This was no training mission; the guns, bullets, and bombs were real.”
They completed takeoff by 8:42 A.M. and by 9:40 had formed the group at 8,000 feet. Two other groups completed the wing formation of sixtythree aircraft. The cloud cover over the Continent was scattered to broken, with most clouds topping at under 10,000 feet, and the friendly fighter escorts—mostly P-47s—were doing their job perfectly until Ye Olde Pub reached the jumping-off point for the bomb run at 11:32. It was at 27,300 feet. During the ten-minute run it would cover more than 30 miles in a straight line. This gave the lead bombardiers time to set up the bombsights and correct for wind drift and for smoke and cloud obstructions; it also gave the German defense units time to determine their flight path and altitude.
All Brown could see in front of him was an oily black carpet of flak bursts. He remembered a veteran combat pilot telling him that you were in serious trouble when you were close enough to see the flames in the heart of the bursts. “About two minutes before bombs away, immediately in front of us, I saw what appeared to be fantastically beautiful black orchids with vivid crimson centers.”
“We’re hit!” two voices yelled over the intercom simultaneously. The nose section had been partially destroyed, and oil pressure dropped on the number-two engine. Shutdown procedure began immediately, while Brown attempted to coax more power out of the remaining three engines.
The aircraft lurched skyward as the bombardier called out the welcome “Bombs away!” With the sudden shedding of three tons, Brown thought perhaps he could remain in formation; but now the number-four engine was also in trouble, and it just wasn’t possible.
A sister ship at the left wingtip burst into flames and spun earthward, and suddenly Ye Olde Pub was alone, a cripple with a feathered engine and another that was working only sporadically. Either condition normally attracted German fighters as blood draws sharks.
“Enemy fighters at six o’clock,” yelled the tail gunner, and the intercom came alive with frantic messages: “Bandits at twelve o’clock”; “Six 190s at three o’clock high.”
Every crew member could hear Frenchy Coulombe open fire with the twin .50-caliber guns in the top turret, and then Doc joined in with the nose gun. Both were trying to shoot down two FW-190s that were approaching in a coordinated attack from the ten and twelve o’clock positions.
“I saw the wings of the first fighter light up with machine-gun and cannon fire,” said Brown, “and for a fraction of a second I was mesmerized. It looked like all the movies I had seen back home. Then it hit me: This is no movie; we’re up to our ass in trouble.’
“I pulled up and headed directly toward the attacking fighters. I thought it might scare at least one of them. It must have worked because both planes broke off by rolling over and diving. I heard Ecky screaming in the tail, ‘Fighters attacking at six o’clock level.’ And then he yelled, ‘Get ‘em somebody, my guns are jammed! Jesus Christ, they won’t fire!’
“I heard the machine-gun fire from the fighters, and I felt the vibration as the bullets and then cannon fire struck us aft. I was scared, I don’t give a damn who knows it.
“I got on the radio: ‘Denver One! Denver One! Mayday! Mayday! This is Goldsmith under attack south of WiIhelmshaven. Need assistance!’ It was all I had time to transmit on the fighter frequency.”
The next wave of German fighters hit directly on the radio room. They also shot away the controls to the numberthree engine. But even with the controls gone, the oil pressure and engine temperature remained stable and number three continued to put out a little more than 50 percent power. Had the engine failed totally, it probably would have been the end of the line.
The only guns still working were Frenchy’s twin .50s and the single gun in what was left of the nose. As new waves of fighters came at him, Brown turned Ye Olde Pub to meet them, using the battered B-17 as a two-and-onehalf-engine attacking fighter plane. This threw the German pilots off their routine; they closed faster, had shorter aiming and firing runs. Nevertheless, the American bomber was hit hundreds of times by bullets and twenty-millimeter cannon shells, and sixty-degree-below-zero winds swept through the opening in the nose and out the many holes.
“While I was trying to determine the full extent of our damage,” says Brown, “I glanced out the window. Three feet from our wingtip there was an Me 109. For a moment I thought the heat of battle had been too much; I closed my eyes, figuring it would go away, but when I opened them again, he was still there. I nudged Pinky and pointed to the German plane. His mouth dropped open.”
There was something different about this particular Messerschmitt. It was solid black; it was a night fighter. “The German pilot nodded to us, but we didn’t return the greeting. We assumed it was only a matter of time until he came in for the kill. He looked relaxed and confident, and with only one of our eleven guns left, he had every reason to be.”
Brown and his crew figured it was all over. Then the German saluted, rolled, and was gone, putting an abrupt and curious end to one of the oddest encounters in the short history of heavy bombardment.
The ravaged bomber left the enemy coast and headed for home. The number-two engine was out, number three still operating at half-strength, and number four damaged by flak and trying to run away at every whipstitch while the copilot worked frantically to keep it functioning.
The rudder did not respond, and the elevators were very, very slow. With the gaping hole in the nose, the aircraft seemed to be swimming through heavy air, grossly overweight for the available power, barely answering its controls. Brown found that by dropping the left wing a few degrees and using trim tabs, he could maintain a relatively straight flight path. The question was, Could he remain in the air long enough to cross two hundred and fifty miles of North Sea?
Much to the crew’s relief, a pair of P-47s appeared and flew at each wingtip, attempting to keep Air-Sea Rescue informed of the plane’s flight path and position.
As the Pub gradually lost altitude, the men began throwing out excess weight: guns, ammo, ammo cans, everything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. They dropped to 500 feet and still had no sight of land.
At last, as they struggled along 250 feet above the water, Pinky exclaimed, “There it is!”—the coast of England and, even more welcome, an air base.
The crew lowered the landing gear manually; Brown took Ye Olde Pub in on the number-one engine alone. “We had no effective brake or rudder control,” he says, “but by a minor miracle, the aircraft remained relatively straight as we stopped, still on the runway.”
Every part of the ship had been badly hurt. One wing showed a wound the size of a bushel basket where an 88-millimeter antiaircraft shell had passed through without hitting anything strong enough to explode it; the vertical stabilizer was gone, the elevators were ruined, the radio compartment was destroyed, whole sections of the skin had been torn away, and the hydraulic system was junk. One onlooker described Ye Olde Pub as a flying wind tunnel that looked like a piece of Swiss cheese.
“Since that day,” says Brown, “I have tried to find out what happened, and there is nothing, I mean, nothing to even show that anything unusual at all happened.”
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.”
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.
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.”
Brown smiles slightly at the friend he hasn’t seen for forty-six years. “If you made a practice of this,” he says to Stigler, “you would have been using a parachute yourself.”
“I did,” replies the German. “Six times.”