|"The Guardian" by Nick Trudgian. Valor Studios.|
After returning to England, Charlie and most of his original crew continued bombing Germany. They completed their twenty-eighth and final mission on April 11, 1944. Charlie returned stateside and became an instructor for the remainder of the war. Later he graduated from college and joined the U.S. Air Force as an intelligence officer. He retired early in order to work for the State Department during the Vietnam War. After retiring again, Charlie and his family moved to Florida.
Franz Stigler continued to shoot down Allied planes on bombing runs over Germany. In late October 1944, a one-inch copper bullet from a B-17 pierced the windshield of Franz's 109, hit him in the forehead and bounced off. Franz managed to make it back to base, sporting a black hole of dried blood and a nasty dent in his head. The copper bullet was secure in the palm of his hand.
Franz was sent away to recuperate but later convinced his commander to send him to jet school. Franz learned how to fly the jet-powered Me 262 and, in March of 1945, joined General Adolf Galland's newly formed fighter unit, JV-44, dubbed "the Flying Sanatorium" or "the Squadron of Experts." Franz and other ace pilots made their last stand from a base just outside of Munich. He surrendered to the Americans shortly before the war ended, having achieved 487 combat flights. In 1953, Franz immigrated to Vancouver, Canada.
|Me 262A at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Public Domain.|
Franz had a good life in Canada. After retiring, he flew a Me 108 in air shows, with Allied planes chasing him, which delighted the crowds. He came to the notice of the Boeing Company, and in 1985 they invited him to their 50th Anniversary party for the B-17 Flying Fortress. This led him to tell his German wife about "the one he had let get away." Still curious whether the B-17 he'd risked a court-martial for had ever made it home, he attended the party and much to his amazement was embraced by the former American B-17 pilots and crewman he met. He asked if any of them knew of a bomber that had been escorted to safety by a German fighter, but no one did.
After debriefing on that fateful day in 1943, Charlie and his crew were ordered not to tell anyone about their escort out of Germany, and the records were classified. Charlie wondered for over forty years if the German fighter pilot who'd spared him and his crew had survived the war. Most of them had been wiped out. Now, many years later Charlie began to think about his war experiences and had nightmares that "always ended with The Pub spinning to earth in a death dive from which he could not recover." He always woke up before he crashed. Charlie decided he needed closure, so he joined the 379th Bomb Association and attended a reunion for pilots. He shared the story "of the German pilot who had spared him and his crew." Nobody had heard the story until now, and Charlie's fellow pilots encouraged him to look for the German. He searched the archives in the U.S. and England and located his crew's after-action report but after four years was no closer to locating the pilot he sought.
A few months later, the Jagerblatt arrived in Franz Stiger's mailbox. He was so excited when he read Charlie's letter that he immediately wrote to him. Charlie was equally astounded when he received Franz's letter. He obtained Franz's phone number from directory assistance and called him. In the Jagerblatt letter, Charlie had left out information about The Pub's exact damage and the fact that they had flown out of Germany over the North Sea. Charlie began asking Franz a series of questions. Franz shared details about The Pub's damage that Charlie had not included in his Jaggerblatt letter, and when Franz said he thought they'd never make it across the sea after he let them go, Charlie couldn't hold back the tears.
Charlie wrote a thank you letter to Franz, but he still didn't know that the German was an ace or why Franz had allowed the B-17 to escape. The two met for the first time in Seattle in June of 1990. When they saw each other in the hotel lobby, they hugged and cried. The fact that they'd found each other was miraculous enough, but the fact that they were both living after forty-six years was incredible. The two spent a couple days together, sharing about their lives. Contrary to what Charlie had thought, Franz's guns had been full of ammunition when he'd encountered Charlie's plane. He learned that Franz had served in the "Squadron of Experts" and was one of Germany's great aces. After that meeting, Charlie never suffered another nightmare.
Ten years prior, Franz's former commander General Galland had visited Franz in Canada, and Franz took him hunting. They'd kept up with each other by phone ever since. After meeting with Charlie, he confessed to Galland about sparing the B-17. Galland's response was "'It would be you.'" The reunion soon made the headlines and hit the TV news stories. Later that year, Franz met Charlie at the 379th Bomb Group reunion in Massachusetts. Charlie introduced his old ball turret gunner, "Blackie" and his former radio operator Pechout to Franz, and they hugged and cried together. Blackie sobbed and thanked Franz for sparing his life because it had allowed "his children and grandchildren to experience life."
Watch a short documentary about this story on You Tube here.