By Radha Menon – Written by David Blaski …such a powerful message
There are many traditions associated with Christmas in our country, among the most beloved began in 1965 which is called, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. Everyone’s “lovable loser”, Charlie Brown was reportedly born in 1946 by his creator, Charles Schultz.
Although more acquainted with losing than winning, the beloved cartoon character is the ultimate everyman’s survivor. However, 3 years before his “birth” there was another Charlie Brown, one full of fear and angst as he struggled in the days before Christmas in 1943.
On December 20th 1943, 20-year-old Lt Charlie Brown still clung to the controls and the last vestiges of hope as the pilot of a heavily battle-damaged B-17 struggling to get back to England following an allied bombing raid over Bremen, Germany.
The lone Allied bomber was a sitting duck. Holed all over by flak and bullets and down to a single good engine, it struggled simply to stay in the air over Germany, let alone make it the 300 miles back to England.
With the tail gunner dead and most of the crew either wounded or in shock, Lt Charlie Brown clung to the controls despite a 200 mph gale of wind through the fuselage, resulting from the plane’s nose section being blown off. The severely crippled B-17 was now flying barely above its stalling speed about 2000 feet above the ground.
It would have been common sense for Lt Brown to order his crew to bail out and risk becoming POW’s for the rest of the war. But that would mean leaving an unconscious man behind to die alone, and Lt. Charlie Brown refused to do that.
In the distance, agonizingly close, Lt. Brown felt a glimmer of hope as he approached the German coastline, and ahead of that the North Sea and open skies back to England. That was until he saw the glimmer behind them of a fast-moving speck, a lone German Me109 closing in, piloted by Lt Franz Stigler, a Luftwaffe ace who needed one more kill to reach the 30 that would qualify him for a Knight’s Cross, the second highest of Germany’s Iron Cross awards for bravery.
As Stigler came up behind the bomber he could not believe its condition. How was it still flying? And why was there no gunfire from the stricken plane to try to ward him off. That was explained as, inching closer, he saw the slumped body of the rear gunner.
Veering alongside, he could see the other guns were out of action too, the radio room had been blown apart and the nose had gone. Even more startlingly, through the lattice work of bullet holes, he glimpsed members of the crew, huddled together, helping their wounded. As he realized how easy the situation would be for him to pull the trigger of his wing guns and return a hero, he saw the Americans ashen faces, their fear and their courage and his finger eased from the trigger.
The experienced fighter pilot realized he just couldn’t do it because of the words of a much admired officer of the old school, who told him on his first day of combat, ‘You shoot at a machine, not a man. You score “victories”, not “kills”. His mentor will also go on to say, “A man may be tempted to fight dirty to survive, but honor is everything.
You follow the rules of war for you, not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity. So you never shoot your enemy if he is floating down on a parachute. If I ever see you doing that, I will shoot you down myself.” Although a message which didn’t seem to chime with the ruthless savagery of Nazi mentality under Hitler’s Third Reich, it did chime with Lt. Stigler, who had never bought into Nazi philosophy or joined the party. He prided himself in fighting by this code.
His Knight’s Cross could go hang. ‘I will not have this on my conscience for the rest of my life,’ he muttered to himself. To the stunned and anxious looks of Lt. Charlie Brown and his surviving crew, Stigler positioned his Messerschmidt just above the mortally crippled B-17’s right wing tip, matching its speed as if flying in formation.
At first, Lt. Brown and crew thought the Luftwaffe pilot was playing a cruel game with them. To their amazement, they saw the German waving frantically, mouthing words, making gestures. What was he trying to say? In his cockpit, Stigler was struggling with a dilemma. He was not content just to ease back and let the bomber escape. He was now determined to save it and the men on board.
Stigler tried to get the American pilot to head eastwards to neutral Sweden, a 30-minute flight away, crash-land there and spend the rest of the war as internees but alive. But any words were lost in the roar of the bomber’s faltering engines, while in its front seat; Brown clung doggedly to the control column and pushed on. Lt. Stigler now realized that to help the crew, he would have to risk his own life.
As the two planes approached the German anti-aircraft batteries on the coast, Stigler gambled that if the flak gunners down on the ground spotted his Messerschmidt side by side with the enemy bomber, they would hold fire. He held his course, prepared to risk being shot down himself. The ploy worked. Not a shot was fired from the ground.
But Stigler knew he now faced a different danger. There were witnesses to his actions. If word got back that he had helped an enemy bomber to escape, he would face arrest by the Gestapo, a court martial and a firing squad for treason. To make matters worse, if he escorted the plane to the English coast, he might himself be shot down by the allies.
The decision for Stigler would finally me made by Lt. Charlie Brown, he and his crew were still confused by the strange actions of the Luftwaffe pilot and finally order one of his gunners to target the Messerschmidt. As the barrels turned in his direction, Stigler got the message. He had done all he could. He gave one last look, mouthed ‘Good luck’, saluted the Americans and peeled away.
It was only then, to their collective astonishment that Lt. Brown and his men now understood the act of modern chivalry shown to them by this unknown German pilot. For Lt. Franz Stigler, Incredibly his risk had paid off and there was neither a Gestapo welcoming committee nor report of the incident.
However, Stigler would find himself after the incident becoming increasingly disillusioned by what his country had turned into under Hitler, Stigler had lost any desire for the Knight’s Cross, so, though he was constantly in battle and flew close to 500 combat missions, he simply failed to register his “victories” and claim what he now saw as a worthless piece of metal.
As they made the English coast Lt. Charlie Brown’s wounded B-17 was met and escorted back by their fellow airmen in American P-47 fighters, cheering and urging them on all the way. Charlie Brown and his men made it back that day to a hero’s welcome, on a wing and a prayer. To Lt. Charlie Brown, the real hero of the mission was that unknown Luftwaffe pilot. And that was what he told the intelligence officer who de-briefed him on the mission. He and his men owed their lives to a good German.
However, allied intelligence would order Lt. Charlie Brown and his surviving crew to secrecy and classify the details of the mission for fear it would inspire fellow-allied pilots to do the same and risk their own lives. For more than 40 years, Lt. Brown kept the secret but he never forgot.
Then, in 1985, and retired to Florida, he blurted the story out at a veterans’ reunion. He told his fellow veterans that although he never found out who that German pilot was, he was now determined to finally find out who he was. In 1990, Franz Stigler was living in Vancouver, BC when he opened his regular association newsletter, and could not believe his eyes as he read his story and the unknown American pilot he helped that day.
The two men, once enemies were finally reunited. From then on the two men traveled together to take their unique story to veterans’ clubs and air museums. As author Adam Makos would write about them. “Their message was simple: enemies are better off as friends”. Ironically, both men would both die within months of each other in 2008, perhaps as a final escort and salute in death as to how they met in life that Christmas week in the skies of 1943.
In the classic holiday cartoon, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, Charlie Brown finds himself depressed and dismayed by the commercialism, complaints, and indifference of others towards the holiday of Christmas. Charlie is then encouraged by Lucy to help put on a Christmas play, In order to set “the proper mood” he goes out and finds a Christmas tree for the school play.
When he gets to the lot, filled with numerous trees fitting Lucy’s description, Charlie Brown ironically and symbolically chooses the only real tree there, a weak, tiny sapling. Charlie Brown is convinced that all it needs is some decoration and it will be just right. However, his friends laugh at him for his choice of the pathetic little tree, Charlie Brown finally cries out to ask if anyone knows what Christmas is all about.
It is his friend Linus, who drops his ever present security blanket and recites from the Bible, Luke chapter 2:8-14 which ends with the verse; “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.” Linus then walks back over to Charlie Brown and gently says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Charlie Brown quietly picks up the tree and walks out of the auditorium toward home. He takes a large ornament from Snoopy’s doghouse and hangs it at the top of his tree, but the branch, seemingly unable to hold the ornament’s weight, promptly droops to the ground. Believing he has killed the tree, Charlie Brown walks off in shame, believing he has ruined everything.
Linus and the others, who realized they were too hard on Charlie Brown, quietly followed him to Snoopy’s doghouse. Linus admits he always liked the tree while gently propping the drooping branch back in its upright position and wraps his blanket around its base, and when the others add the remaining decorations from Snoopy’s doghouse to the tree, Lucy agrees. Charlie Brown returns, surprised at the redecorated tree which now miraculously has new life, and the gang all joyously shout “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!”
The holiday of Christmas is a commemoration of the gift of God’s redemption for mankind. It’s about His hand reaching down to us when our hearts were far from Him. It’s about finding humanity in the face of inhumanity, about a frightened pilot who won’t abandon one life to death to save others and another who refuses to obtain a “prize” dropped in his lap because the price of his conscience and soul was too great.
It’s about the crippled aircraft that found a wing of protection under the shadow of an enemy’s mercy. It can even be found in the belief of one “lovable loser” that a small, pathetic tree could have beauty and meaning that no one else saw if others just gave some into it. Like the lyrics to the famous song;“Oh why can’t every day be like Christmas?Why can’t that feeling go on endlesslyFor if every day could be just like Christmas
What a wonderful world this would be” To all who read this message may I add, “Merry Christmas to all”. – David Blaski