It's an incredible story of humanity and honor, of a pilot risking his life - in a way you might not expect - to help an "enemy".
Franz Stigler had been on the ground in Oldenburg, Germany, smoking a cigarette while his plane, a Messerschmitt 109, was getting re-armed and refueled. At first it sounded like a high pitch, off in the distance, and then it was crushing, like a multitude of drums, a low-flying aircraft.
Here it came, just a few miles out, this American bomber that dropped no bombs. Then, suddenly, it was over them and gone. No one said a word. The crew unhooked the hoses, Franz flicked away his cigarette, saluted his sergeant and was gone, off in pursuit of the American plane.
If he could down this one, Stigler would have his 23rd victory, and he’d be awarded the Knight’s Cross, the highest honor for a German soldier in World War II and one that symbolized exceptional bravery.
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.
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?