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Charles “Charlie” Brown and his crew should have died a fiery death in the frozen fields of Germany on 20 December 1943.
You see, Charlie Brown, a farm boy from West Virginia, USA, was the captain of the B-17 Flying Fortress bomber called “Ye Olde Pub.” During a bombing run over Germany, the plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and then attacked by Luftwaffe fighters. The bomber was crippled and limping back home to England. It certainly didn’t look like they would make it out of Germany alive.
But their survival wasn’t due to Charlie’s flying skills. It was due instead to the mercy of a veteran German fighter ace, Franz Stigler, who instead of finishing off the bomber, decided to show mercy, and escorted the plane to safety.
Charlie Brown’s miracle is one of the greatest examples of mercy to come from the annals of the Second World War.
Unknown to Franz Stigler, as a result of his act of mercy, he not only blessed the men on the B-17 and their families, but he himself received a blessing, although he wasn’t to know it for many years. Join me as we follow the amazing journey of two men who first met in combat in the skies above Germany.
Here by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus gave us the Beatitudes. They are part of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus outlined the 8 principles for living. But the Beatitudes aren’t just spiritual principles, they have been influential in shaping western civilisation as we know it today.
Each Beatitude begins with the word, ‘blessed’. Jesus means that if you display these qualities you will be blissfully happy. This is a happiness that can only come from God.
In other words, when, in your life, you have the qualities Jesus describes in the Beatitudes, you will share in the joy of heaven here on earth. It is the only way to truly live. And among the Beatitudes he said, in Matthew 5:7:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (NIV).
Like each of the Beatitudes, there is a great truth hidden in this radical contradiction. And this great truth can be seen played out in the Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler incident in World War II.
Charles Brown, a young American bomber pilot, did his training in one of these North American Harvard trainers. Harvard’s were built in greater numbers than most other combat aircraft during World War Two. Over 17,000 of these American single-engine advanced trainers were produced, and were used by all the Allied forces during World War II as pilot trainers.
Harvards were used to train pilots of the US Army Air forces, US Navy, Royal Air Force and other air forces of the British Commonwealth.
Brown completed his bomber-pilot training course by the time he was 21 years old and was soon thrust into the heat of battle. On 20 December 1943, he found himself over Germany, struggling to keep his plane flying. Only one of its four engines was still working.
‘YE OLDE PUB’
They were returning from their first combat mission together as a crew on the B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, called ‘Ye Olde Pub’: Their mission had been the bombing of targets near the German city of Bremen.
But on the way back to the RAF airfield in England, Brown’s B-17 had been attacked by 15 German fighter planes and left for dead. Brown had been knocked out in the assault, regaining consciousness in just enough time to pull the plane out of a near-fatal nose dive.
Of his crew members, one was dead and six wounded, and 2nd Lt. Brown was alone in his cockpit, the three uninjured men tending to the others.
At first, Charlie Brown didn’t notice the German fighter plane to his right. He was desperately trying to work out what to do. He had six wounded men in the back. The chances that the plane would make it back to England were very slim. Some of his men were strong enough to parachute, but the critically injured would never survive the experience.
Brown’s co-pilot, Pinky, re-entered the cockpit. “We’re staying,” he said. “The guys all decided — you’re gonna need help to fly this girl home.”
But suddenly, Brown wasn’t listening. He was looking past Pinky, frozen. Pinky turned to his right and saw the German Messerschmidt 109 near them. Brown finally spoke. “He’s going to destroy us,” he said.
The pilot of the Messerschmitt 109 fighter plane was German ace Franz Stigler. He had every reason to shoot down the American B-17 bomber in front of him. Enemy forces had already killed his brother early in the war and they were now bombing German cities.
Not only that, but if Stigler shot down this bomber, he would reach the demanding number of ‘kills’ to be awarded the Knight’s Cross, the highest honor for bravery for a German soldier in World War II.
But as Stigler prepared to squeeze the trigger, the thought occurred to him that it was strange that the bomber wasn’t firing back at him. He went in for a closer look, and he saw that the plane had no tail guns blinking, no tail-gun compartment, and no left stabiliser. In fact, Stigler could see straight through the middle of the plane, where the skin had been blown apart by shells. Then he could see the terrified young crew trying to tend to their wounded.
RULES OF WAR
Even the nose of the plane had been blown away. How was this plane still in the air? It was then that Stigler remembered the words of his first commanding officer, Lt. Gustav Roedel, who had told him,
“Honour is everything… If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, 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.”
Stigler had been taught that if he survived the war, he needed to know that he had fought with honor and humanity.
Let’s go back to Charlie Brown. He thought he was hallucinating! The German had flown over to Brown’s left and was frantically pointing and saying words that Brown couldn’t understand.
Stigler was trying to tell Brown to land his plane at a German airfield and surrender, or divert to nearby Sweden. But Brown and his crew didn’t understand what Stigler was trying to say. So Stigler just stayed flying beside the stricken B-17.
Stigler had flown beside the B-17 over German occupied territory, and all the time Brown was anxiously wondering what was going on. Eventually, it all got too much for Brown, who craned his neck and yelled back for his top gunner, screaming at him to get back into his turret and shoot this German down.
But before the gunner could get back there and take a shot, the German looked Brown in the eye and gave him a salute. Then he peeled away. Stigler had escorted the plane, so that the German anti-aircraft guns wouldn’t shoot it, and he had seen it safely all the way to the North Sea. Eventually, against all odds, Brown managed to land his B-17 in England.
BACK ON SOLID GROUND
Stigler never mentioned this incident, as he could have been court-martialed. He lived in fear that he’d be found out, and he was unable to ever feel at home in Germany again.
He eventually emigrated to Canada in 1953, where he became a successful businessman. Stigler often wondered if the crew of the B-17 had made it safely back to England.
Although Brown reported to his commanding officers how a German pilot had saved their lives, they told him not tell anyone, so as not to encourage any positive feelings toward the enemy. Brown said, “Someone decided you can’t be human and be flying in a German cockpit.”
Charlie Brown served in the US forces right up until the beginning of the Vietnam War and eventually settled with his wife in Miami before moving to Seattle. But the question of what had happened that day over Germany always haunted him.
So, aside from telling their wives, the men had rarely spoken of that encounter. Brown, in particular had been deeply traumatised by the incident.
In 1986, the now retired Lt. Col. Brown was asked to speak at a reunion for combat pilots called a ‘Gathering of the Eagles.’ Someone asked him if he had flown any memorable missions during World War II. He thought for a moment and recalled the story of Stigler’s escort and salute. And that was the first time that Brown spoke publicly about the incident.
The response to Brown’s presentation was strong, although it seemed such an unlikely story, that some questioned whether it had actually happened the way Brown remembered. Even Brown himself wondered whether his memories of that day were accurate.
SEARCHING FOR STIGLER
And that’s why, after giving his talk, Brown decided he would try to find the unknown German pilot. For four years, Brown searched through air force records in both the USA and in Germany to try to find a clue to the identity of the other pilot. But nothing turned up.
Eventually, in 1990 when living in Seattle, Brown placed an ad in a combat pilot association newsletter. At home in Vancouver, Stigler saw the ad. He yelled to his wife, “This is him! This is the one I didn’t shoot down!” Immediately he wrote a letter to Brown.
That’s how, five decades after that fateful December bombing run, Brown received a letter from Stigler, who wrote, “I was the one.”
But Brown was too impatient to actually read it. He looked for the phone number and called Stigler immediately. Tears were streaming down Brown’s face as he realised from Stigler’s detailed account, that he was indeed finally speaking to the man who had saved his life so many years ago.
Amazingly, Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown had been living just over 300 kilometres from each other for many years.
In gratitude for his act of mercy, Brown made Stigler the guest of honor at a reunion he organised with his crewmen from Ye Olde Pub. The crewmen showed Stigler a video of their children and grandchildren, people who would not have been alive were it not for his act of mercy.
In fact, Franz and Charlie became close friends for the rest of their lives. Both men felt that together, they should tell their story to as many people as possible, to help them realize that there’s always another way, a better way; that the world could be infinitely better than it is.
They both died of heart attacks within a few months of each other in 2008. Stigler was 92 and Brown was 87. In their obituaries, each was listed as a ‘special brother’ of the other.
We live in a world where mercy seems to be the exception and not the rule. When we hear of stories of mercy such as the story of Franz Stigler, we’re impressed because we experience and hear of so much of the opposite. We are so used to hatred, cruelty, violence and revenge.
Yet when Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” he was describing the standard rule of God’s kingdom – the norm.
Christ’s teaching here about mercy isn’t just an isolated, random teaching in the Bible. It’s a principle which runs consistently all the way through the New Testament. The apostle James wrote, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.” (James 2:13).
And Jesus said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)
THE GOOD SAMARITAN
Since mercy is so important, what precisely are the characteristics of mercy? Well, Jesus told a story to answer that very question. It’s the story of the Good Samaritan in the tenth chapter of the Bible book of Luke.
“There was once a Jewish man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him for dead by the side of the road. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw the man he ignored him and crossed to the other side of the road. Then a respectable Temple assistant came along. He walked over and looked at the man lying there, but then he also crossed to the other side of the road and avoided the injured man.
“Next, a hated Samaritan, a people who had been the despised enemies of the Jews for generations, came along. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, soothed his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning the Samaritan took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’
After telling this story, Jesus asked a very pointed question. “Which of the three men was a good neighbour?” “The third one, the one who showed him mercy,” his audience responded.
From this story we see that first, a merciful person sees the distress of another. He or she doesn’t ignore it for any reason, whether for religious reasons, cultural or political reasons, or for reasons of self-interest.
Second, a merciful person responds internally, from a heart of compassion for another in need. A merciful person feels compassion for another, because they’re able to put themselves inside the skin of the one who is suffering.
Third, a merciful person doesn’t just feel for another. They actually do something for them. They make a practical effort to relieve the suffering. They don’t just respond internally, but also externally through their actions.
Fourth, a merciful person doesn’t discriminate between people. They respond with mercy even when the person in distress is an enemy. Right in the heart of the Lord’s Prayer are these words:
“Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors”. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:12,14–15).
So, how do you become merciful? Well, Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the merciful” without any context. Prior to this, he had taught,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit…
Blessed are those who mourn…
Blessed are the meek… [and]
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… “ (Matt 5:3–6)
These first four beatitudes reflect our total dependence on God. The last four represent how this dependence is reflected in our lives. This beatitude about mercy is the first in this last set of four.
You see, mercy comes from a heart that has first felt its spiritual bankruptcy, a heart that grieves sin, and a heart that has learnt to wait meekly on the Lord. It comes when we hunger and thirst for the righteousness that we know we need ourselves. When we have walked the road of the beatitudes, then we will be merciful to others.
Mercy comes from mercy. The mercy we show to each other comes when we have understood and accepted God’s mercy to us. As the sequence of the beatitudes tells us, the key to becoming a merciful person is to recognise our brokenness and our total dependence on God and His mercy. Notice what the Bible says here in Hebrews 4:16:
“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
And then it says this in Ephesians 2:4,5.:
“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4,5). Yes, Mercy comes from mercy. The mercy we show to each other comes when we have experienced God’s mercy to us.”
Jesus said that the merciful will receive mercy. The citizens of the kingdom of God will reflect in their own hearts, however imperfectly, the heart of God. They are recipients of God’s mercy and therefore they are dispensers of mercy. They’ve received God’s mercy and therefore they show and share God’s mercy. It’s the natural process.
Being merciful is a characteristic that is contrary to human nature. Mercy doesn’t come naturally. For someone to be truly merciful requires them to have a new heart, which only God can provide.
This is ultimately why showing mercy to others isn’t a condition of receiving God’s blessing. Rather, it is the result of having been blessed by God. This is why it is the merciful who will receive mercy.
Jesus isn’t saying it is because they are merciful that God will show mercy to them. Instead, he is saying that showing mercy to others demonstrates that we are Christians – followers of Christ. There is no better evidence that we have been forgiven by God than our willingness to forgive others.
Throughout the Bible, God gives us six different ways in which we can show mercy.
When we forgive others, we are showing mercy, as we’ve already seen.
When we show compassion for others, we are showing mercy. We are not to look down on the suffering, but to identify and to embrace the fallen and the downtrodden.
Another way to show mercy is by giving. Ultimately, everything we have belongs to God, and we demonstrate his mercy to others in the way that we give to meet the pressing needs of others. Mercy doesn’t mean that we throw away our resources, but rather that we use them wisely in helping to meet the needs of others in distress.
We also show mercy in how we speak to others. Someone has said that mercy is giving others a piece of your heart and not a piece of your mind. Of course, an important way in which we show mercy to others through what we say is by sharing with them the Good News about Jesus; about the forgiveness and mercy that is found in him.
The Bible also tells us to show mercy by praying for others. We can intercede with God for their needs, and we can pray for their conversion.
So, there they are: 6 different ways to show mercy.
1. Forgiving others
2. Showing Compassion
3. Giving to others
4. Speaking kindly
5. Sharing the good news about Jesus.
6. Praying for others.
THE SOURCE OF MERCY
Of course, the source of all mercy, and the supreme example of mercy is found in how God has treated us. He didn’t come to humanity as a remote and lofty God, but in human flesh. He came as a man: the Word made flesh. God truly walked in our shoes and He experienced our suffering and our struggles.
He came to us, not just as a great teacher but as an example of how to live. Christ’s redeeming death on the cross of Calvary is the greatest demonstration of mercy the world has ever known.
This beatitude is a challenge to everyone. “Blessed are the Merciful.” If you are bearing a grudge, looking for revenge, or maintaining bitterness in your heart let it go. It is as simple as that. Because the mercy you show to others reflects the mercy you yourself have accepted from God.
If you would like to accept the forgiveness and grace that God freely offers you; if you would like to experience the mercy of God that will allow you to be merciful and forgiving toward others, and have peace, then I’d like to recommend the free gift we have for you today.
It’s the book, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing. This amazing book shares the wonderful details of the Beatitudes in more depth, and is our gift to you and it’s absolutely free. I guarantee there are no costs or obligations whatsoever. So, make the most of this wonderful opportunity to receive the free gift we have for you today.
If you have enjoyed our journey through the Beatitudes and our reflections on the blessings of being merciful, then be sure to join us again next week when we will share another of life’s journeys together. Until then let’s pray together..
Dear Heavenly Father, We thank you because you are a God of mercy. Despite our mistakes, our failures, and our sins, you extend your kindness and compassion towards us. Help us, because you have shown us mercy, to be merciful to others and find peace. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.