In a world full of mistrust and conflict, we need to be reminded from time to time that honor and integrity and generosity and compassion do exist.
On this year’s Christmas Eve especially, it’s important that we remember that people can put aside their differences and do what’s right — for no other reason than because sometimes, we can all benefit from a gesture of kindness.
The other day, we were reminded of such a gesture. It happened on Dec. 20, 1943 — five days before Christmas — 77 years ago, at the height of World War II.
According to an account in WarHistory.com, a wounded American pilot named Charles “Charlie” Brown was flying high above Germany in a heavily damaged B-17F aircraft desperately trying to make it safely to England, 250 miles away.
During a bombing mission, the plane was struck by enemy fire. The plane’s tail gunner had been killed and several other crew members were badly wounded.
At one point, Brown blacked out and the plane plummeted toward Earth, only to be saved when he woke up just in time.
But he wasn’t out of the woods yet.
As he flew only a few hundred feet above the ground, he noticed a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter flying beside him. It was only a matter of time, Brown reasoned, before the German pilot would finish off his plane and his crew.
But that’s not what happened.
The decorated German aviator, a man named Franz Stigler, instead did something extraordinary. He didn’t fire on the enemy plane. Instead, he flew alongside for a while, trying to communicate with Brown through head and hand gestures.
Finally, when Brown and his crew were off the German coast, Stigler again approached the B17, raised his hand in salute, and turned back toward home.
For a pilot not to shoot down an enemy plane during wartime would be an offense punishable by death.
But Stigler kept his finger off the trigger. Seeing the dead gunner through the bullet holes in the fuselage and watching the severely damaged plane limp along barely able to stay airborne, Stigler said later that he just couldn’t bring himself to fire upon the defenseless crew.
Brown eventually landed safely, telling only his superiors what happened at first. He didn’t speak about it again for 43 years.
It turns out the two men ended up living near each other, and Brown was able to track down Stigler to thank him.
They each died in 2008 within months of one another, having spent their last years as old, best friends.
If in these dark times you need something to restore your hope, your empathy or your faith in humanity, think of this story.
And have the most blessed and merriest of Christmases.