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The Most Overlooked Command Ever

Dec 11, 2012 // By Marcus Brotherton
Commemorative painting of the Stigler/Brown encounter by John D. Shaw, courtesy Valor Studios.
“Love your enemies.”
Nope, not going to do it.
It makes a ton of sense to love friends, sure. To love our neighbors as ourselves. Even to love people from whom we might gain something.
But to love our enemies? Nah, we hate these folks! At very least, we dislike them powerfully.
On December 20, 1943, in the skiesabove war-torn Europe, two bitter enemies—an American B-17 bomber pilot and a veteran German fighter ace—met in what is undoubtedly one of World War II’s most remarkable encounters.
The American bomber, piloted by 21-year-old West Virginian Charlie Brown, was severely damaged. Bullets from German fighters had chewed the bomber to pieces. Others bullets had shot straight through the fuselage, and several crew members had been hit and were near death.
The German fighter plane, piloted by Franz Stigler, was poised to blast the bomber from the sky. It was Franz’s job to kill the enemy. His sworn duty was to triumph in blood.
In fact, encountering a wounded bomber was Franz’s lucky break. Other fighters had already done the initial damage, and when Franz flew up to the bomber, it was the most badly damaged airplane he’d ever seen still flying. That meant an easy target. And in the kill-or-be-killed quest to reach air superiority, the odds against the German’s survival were much worse than the American’s. Of the 40,000 German fighter pilots in WWII, only 2,000 survived.
But what happened in that tense moment when Franz and Charlie came to stare at one another across the frozen skies only can be described as other-worldly.
The American 8th Air Force would, in fact, classify the incident as top secret for decades.
The German military sealed the record as well. Franz was ordered never to speak of the act again, at risk of facing a firing squad.
What happened was, very simply …
Franz didn’t turn his machineguns on the Americans.
Instead, Franz risked his own reputation, career, and even life, to fly for miles in close proximity to the bomber’s wingtip, providing a “shield” for the damaged enemy plane.
Instead of killing his enemy, the German fighter pilot escorted the sputtering American bomber to safety.
Some explain what happened that dayas two warriors fighting under the ancient code of chivalry. The enemies respected each other, at very least.
Others see the incident as an isolated glitch. It was a moment of extraordinarily odd warfare, never to be repeated.
For some, it can be surprising, even unnerving, to discover that a member of “the wrong side” can be decent.
I call the incident true religion.
In incidents of war, like in incidents of life, even good men sometimes forget their own souls. When German fighter Ace Franz Stigler was alone in the presence of his enemy, he was master of his own decisions. His enemies’ lives were in his hands. Yet Franz chose to remember his humanity.
He flew by a higher call.
Today, when we are in the presence of people we dislike, or people who may actually be our enemies, our invitation is to do the same.


Read the fuller account of Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown in the new book
A HIGHER CALL(Penguin) by Adam Makos with Larry Alexander,
available everywhere December 19.
Question: Have you ever ‘loved’ an enemy or seen an incident where someone else has? What happened?


  • Anonymous

    When my Father-in-law was floating down to Germany in his parachute, he saw a Geman fighter approaching. Having heard the stories of survivors being straffed by the enemy planes as they descended, he was very concerned. As the pilot came near enough for my Father-in-law to clearly see him, the pilot waved. It wasn’t an arrogant wave – it was friendly – and my Father-in-law waved back, of course. He thought it was reassuring that there was still some chivalry left. I thought the pilot was taking inventory of the survivors of his B-17 crew (4)for ground elements that would soon capture him…but there was a comaraderie that did extend past causes.

  • MB

    Great comment, thanks.

  • Dan

    Excellent story. Very cool.

  • That’s a crazy story. Glad to hear things like this have happened and, I’m sure, are still happening today.

  • Thank you for the uplifting story!

  • MB

    Kaylee, Joseph, and Dan, thanks for your comments.

  • Yuri

    Love this story, I heard it before. I have to read the book as well, as I am curious if Franz ever shot down more planes after this event. I can’t really think of an example where I loved an enemy, as I can’t really think of an enemy. Sure I know the many moments in war via stories of veterans. One of my favorite stories is one I heard about sharing Christmas together while in Battle. German soldiers came out with their hands up, walking towards the US lines, giving the American soldiers some of their food and a certain type of schnapps. The American GIs did the same in return. Simply beautiful, and each of them being a normal human in the middle of all the craziness of war.

  • MB

    I’ve heard similar stories, Yuri. Men who understood they were doing a horrible job and had to do it, but had no heart for the horror. They never forgot their humanity.
    Thanks for your comment.

  • Things like this make me sad to see how much time is spent dehumanizing an enemy of our country (or any country’s enemy). They’re made to look strange, different, evil. When you have reports like this, where the enemy looks human, it conflicts with all the propaganda that comes with a country at war. Suddenly, it’s not us vs. them, but brother against brother.
    My own feelings on war aside, it would do us good as a species to remember we all bleed red.

  • Anonymous

    Based on your post, I just bought this book and it looks excellent. Another book which is somewhat similar would be “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption”

  • Tobias (GER)

    These stories used to happen very often in war. I head a couple of those. This one is very special because both opponents met each other aftr the war and became real friends.
    I already preordered Adam’s book and will most likely buy the Valor print. Why? To show the peoplenwhich coming intonour house that not everything we germans did during WWII was wrong.

    I don’t know if “loving the enemy” are the right words for such thing. I guess it wasn’t love what Franz felt s he saw the plane of Charlie. Noone loves anybody who bombs the hell out of their cities. Bombs which kill so many civilians even children. No “love” is the wrong word here. Maybe “Understand” or “traceability” is the bett one.
    I never loved any enemy.
    What I do is loving the allies who brought back the freedom to the world in 1945. If Inwould have lived in that time maybe I would have called them the enemy, although I loved what they did.

  • MB

    Tobi–your perspective is very important here, as someone who lives in Germany.

    “Love” is a tricky word, isn’t it? We tend to associate it with romance or brotherly affection. And so that’s why it’s so difficult to use in times of war.

    But there’s also a type of “love” that the Greek have a word for: agapao (also written as agape)–meaning to selflessly give to others regardlessly.

    See this entry for fuller definition:

    In that sense, “loving” one’s enemies can work, although conceptually it’s still very, very difficult.

    I’d say love is very closely associated with mercy here.

    The enemy might be doing horrible things to you or your cities. Nevertheless, Franz Stigler displayed great mercy on his enemy, Charles Brown. Meaning Stigler didn’t dispense the type of wrath that was expected of him, or in fact (during times of war) well within his rights to dispense.

    Thanks for your comment, Tobi. Much appreciated!

  • Tobias (GER)

    you are right on that.
    Ok we come to a good agreement with mercy.
    Thanks for your words

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the bestselling author or coauthor of more than 25 books. Welcome to my blog. Thoreau pointed out how too many people lead lives of quiet desperation. Their lives are bland and meaningless, or they make choices that trap them in despair and darkness. By contrast, I want to help people lead lives of excellence. Meet here regularly for powerful stories and insight into how to live and lead well.