In December 1943, on his first mission as pilot in command, 21-year-old Lt. Charlie Brown's B-17 Flying Fortress (379th Bomber Group, England) was badly damaged by German fighters and flack; he and six of his crew were wounded.
Trying to get back to their base in England, they flew right over a Luftwaffe base in Germany and were intercepted by yet another enemy fighter, a Messerschmitt 109.
The German pilot did not shoot them down but signaled Charlie to land, surrender and be taken prisoner. Lt. Brown refused two such demands. The German pilot, recognizing the courage of his fellow airman, did not finish off the crippled bomber, but provided an escort to the coast, pointed a compass heading to England and saluted his adversary.
After the war, Charlie tried to learn the identity of the enemy pilot who had spared him and his crew. He wrote letters of inquiry with no success, until he posted a notice in a newsletter for former Luftwaffe officers.
There was a response from Franz Stigler, a German fighter ace.
It had taken 45 years.
In the first letter Stigler wrote to Brown, he asked, "All these years, I wondered what happened to the B-17. Did she make it or not?"
Yes, she made it. Just barely.
When asked why he didn't shoot them down, Stigler said, “I didn't have the heart to finish those brave men. I flew beside them for a long time. They were trying desperately to get home and I was going to let them do that. I could not have shot at them. It would have been the same as shooting at a man in a parachute.”
Both men died in 2008.
Franz Stigler died 22 March 2008.
Charlie Brown died 24 November 2008.