Franz Stigler was 26 when he was conscripted into Hitler’s Luftwaffe in 1942, a former commercial airline pilot whose father and brother had both died while serving their country. Stigler had been assigned to Squadron 4 of the German air force, and was initially stationed in Libya.Honor.
On his first day on base, he was taken aside by his commanding officer, Lt. Gustav Roedel, who would have a profound impact on his life during and after the war.
On the afternoon of his first mission, Roedel decided he’d join the young pilot. Before takeoff, they talked. “Let what I’m about to say to you act as a warning,” Roedel said. “Honor is everything here.” “Every single time you go up, you’ll be outnumbered,” Roedel said.
Stigler nodded, but said nothing.
What did Roedel mean by that? Stigler was overwhelmed. There never seemed to be a right way to respond, and the irony that he couldn’t, above all, trust his fellow soldiers was not lost on him.
Roedel kept on: “What will you do, for instance, if you find your enemy floating in a parachute?”
How to answer? How to answer? A hedge.
“I guess I’ve never thought that far ahead,” Stigler said.
“If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute,” Roedel said, “I will shoot you down myself. You follow the rules of war for you — not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.”
Within minutes, Stigler, alone, was on the B-17’s tail. He had his finger on the trigger, one eye closed and the other squinting through his gunsight. He took aim and was about to fire when he realized what he wasn’t seeing: This plane had no tail guns blinking. This plane had no left stabilizer. This plane had no tail-gun compartment left, and as he got closer, Stigler saw the terrified tail gunner himself, his fleece collar soaked red, the guns themselves streaked with it, icicles of blood hanging from the barrels.Read the rest, and find out how these two old gentlemen finally met.
Stigler was no longer energized. He was alarmed. He pulled alongside the plane and saw clean through the middle, where the skin had been blown apart by shells. He saw these terrified young men attempting to tend to their wounded. He drew equal to the B-17 and saw that the nose of the plane, too, had been blown away. How was this thing still in the air?
This plane was going down, and its crew was paralyzed. Stigler pointed to the ground, and, finally, a reaction: The Americans shook their heads. They’d rather die in flames than be taken prisoner by the Nazis.
Stigler was exasperated. As it was, he was risking his own life: Everyone knew the story of the German woman who, just one year before, had been gunned down by the Nazis for telling a joke against the Third Reich. If Stigler’s plane were to be spotted by a civilian alongside a B-17, and if that civilian wrote down the number on his tail and reported him, he was as good as dead.
Then Stigler remembered what Roedel had told him, that to shoot the enemy when vulnerable went against the code of chivalry and honor. Stigler felt he had to do what was right.
Near the Atlantic wall, flak gunners spotted the two planes approaching, the American and the German. They were stunned — they’d never seen anything like this, the enemy flying alongside a German plane, both seeming to be in sync, neither one firing or in pursuit or dodging or spiraling.