Unspoken Words: A Remembrance Day Reflection

TEXTS: Micah 4:1-5 and John 15:1-17

Words that must not be spoken. Forbidden words. Every family has them. Don’t mention so-and-so’s parentage. Don’t mention Sybil’s hospitalization. Don’t mention George’s prison term. Don’t mention the ex-girlfriend. Don’t mention where she was brought up. Don’t mention that side of the family. Don’t mention politics or religion.

Words that must not be spoken. Forbidden words. Every family has them. Even church families have them. So do neighbours, friends, and communities. The things that cannot be said. In North Winnipeg, when I was growing up, it was, for a long time, “Don’t mention the war.”

Our neighbourhood was a mixture of different types of European stock: many of Jewish heritage; many who could trace their roots back to Germany, Poland, or the Ukraine.

Some were fairly recent immigrants; of these, many had arrived in Canada shortly after the Second World War. Most of the men were veterans of that conflict—although not all of them had fought on the same side.

So, it was not comfortable to talk about the war. You just didn’t know the boundaries of what could be mentioned or not. When I think about the friends I had when I was young, most of their fathers and uncles had been involved with the war somehow.

One of these men—whom I came to know a little bit—had fought for Germany on the front lines of the European theatre. Now, this was already more than a quarter-century after the end of World War Two, but when I visited my friend’s house, his dad was sometimes to be found sitting in an armchair in the corner of their darkened living room—deep in thought, and clearly in anguish. We knew never to disturb him when he was like this.

I can only imagine what he was reliving deep in the recesses of his mind. He never, ever spoke about the war in detail, but sometimes he would pass cryptic comments, like, “We were all young men, and young men believe what they are told.” He never, ever ventured out of the house on November the eleventh. Today, what he was experiencing would, I suppose, be called “post-traumatic stress”—but back then, no one ever heard of such a thing. A tormented man, he died too young. But no one dared mention what we all knew had shortened his life.

If things had been said—if matters had been brought out into the open—would his life have turned out differently? Well, who knows? But this I do know: some things must be said. Because words can change things. People can be healed by words spoken at the right time, in the right way.

The prophet Micah calls out to the nations of the earth, saying: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob.” Why? Because there, he says, they will hear the word of the Lord. A word which will teach and instruct them.

In that holy place, they will recover their sense of belonging together; and that will turn the implements of war into tools for life. Swords shall be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks—and it is speaking that will make this happen.

“The mouth of the Lord of hosts” will speak “out of Zion”—that is, through God’s people—to usher in a day of peace. For in God’s kingdom, things are shared, thoughts are expressed, and words are held in common. There, all the peoples shall find that the word spoken is a common word. Some things must be said. Some stories must be told.

Here’s a story—a true one—about two men who met on opposite sides of a great conflict. Both were Second World War airmen—one, an American bomber pilot; the other, a Luftwaffe ace.

It was December 20, 1943. After a bombing mission over Bremen, Germany, 21-year-old Second-Lieutenant Charles L. (“Charlie”) Brown was attempting to limp back to an English airfield after his first combat mission.

His bomber had been shot to pieces by no fewer than 15 swarming German fighters, and it was now alone in the skies above Germany. Half his crew was wounded, and the tail gunner was dead, his blood frozen in icicles over his machine guns. Of the bomber’s four engines, three had been damaged. One was not working at all. Oxygen, hydraulic and electrical systems were also damaged, and the controls were only partially responsive. The bomber’s eleven defensive guns were reduced by the extreme cold to only the two top turret guns and one forward-firing nose gun.

But suddenly, Charlie Brown had an even bigger problem. Looking outside his cockpit, he saw—hovering just a few feet off his wingtip—a gray German Messerschmitt BF-109 fighter. The American pilot thought he and his crew were doomed.

However, the German did not fire at them. Instead, he waved at the Americans. Then—after escorting them for several miles out over the North Sea—the Luftwaffe pilot saluted, rolled his plane over and vanished.

The crippled B-17 did in fact make it home, landing 250 miles away at Seething near the English coast. Her crew was debriefed, and Brown related his strange encounter with the BF-109. Then, Brown’s commanding officer—worried about spreading positive reports about the enemy—ordered him to keep the story to himself.

Lieutenant Brown flew many more missions before the war ended. Life moved on. He got married, had two daughters, supervised foreign aid for the U.S. State Department during the Vietnam War, and eventually retired to Florida.

Late in life, though, the encounter with the German pilot began to gnaw at him. He started having nightmares, but in his dreams there was no act of mercy. He would awaken just before his bomber crashed.

So Brown took on a new mission. He had to find that German pilot. “Who was he?” Brown wondered. “Why did he spare my life?” He scoured military archives in the United States and England. He attended pilots’ reunions and shared his story.

Finally, he placed an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe flyers, retelling the story and asking if anyone knew the pilot.

On January 18, 1990, Brown received a letter. He opened it and read these words: “Dear Charles: All these years I wondered what happened to the B-17, did she make it or not? ”

The man who penned those words was named Franz Stigler. In December of 1943, Stigler was a 26-year-old Luftwaffe ace with 22 victories to his credit. One more kill, and he would be awarded the Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest award for valour. Yet Stigler was driven by something deeper than glory. His older brother, August, was a fellow Luftwaffe pilot who had been killed earlier in the war. For Franz, this was worse than any of the other losses inflicted upon him.

Stigler was standing near his fighter on a German airbase when he heard a bomber’s engine. Looking up, he saw a B-17 flying so low it looked like it was going to land. As the bomber disappeared behind some trees, Stigler tossed his cigarette aside, saluted a ground crewman and took off in pursuit.

As Stigler’s fighter rose to meet the American plane, he decided to attack it from the rear. He climbed behind the bomber, squinted into his gun sight, and placed his hand on the trigger. He was about to fire when he hesitated. Stigler was baffled. No one in the bomber was shooting at him.

He looked closer at the tail gunner. The man was still, his white fleece collar soaked with blood. Stigler craned his neck to examine the rest of the aircraft. Its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns knocked out. He could see men huddled inside the plane tending the wounds of other crewmen.

Then he nudged his plane alongside the bomber’s wings and locked eyes with the pilot, whose expression betrayed his shock and horror. Stigler pressed his hand over the rosary he kept in his flight jacket. He eased his index finger off the trigger. He could not shoot. As far as Stigler was concerned, that would be murder.

“For me,” he later said, “it would have been the same as shooting at a parachute. I just couldn’t do it.”

A German pilot who spared the enemy, though, risked much. If someone reported him, he would be court-martialed—and, probably, executed. Yet, in his mind, Stigler could hear the voice of his own commanding officer, who once told him: “You follow the rules of war for you—not for your enemy. You fight by rules in order to keep your humanity.”

Alone in the sky with the crippled bomber, Stigler changed his mission. He nodded at the American pilot and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground would not shoot down the slow-moving bomber. The Luftwaffe, you see, had B-17s of its own—captured planes which were used for secret missions and training. Stigler gambled that German gun crews would think this B-17 was one of those. The ruse worked. Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot. Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away and returned to Germany.

“Good luck,” Stigler said. “You’re in God’s hands.”

When he returned to his base in Germany, he told his superiors the B-17 had crashed into the sea. Just like Charlie Brown, Franz Stigler could not tell his story to anyone. But he always wondered what had happened to the American pilot he encountered in combat.

After 1945, Stigler emigrated to Canada and became a successful businessman in Vancouver, where he eventually retired. Then, decades after the war, he came across Charlie Brown’s ad, and chose to respond to it. This led to several telephone conversations between Stigler and Brown, and—finally—to a face-to-face meeting in the lobby of a Florida hotel.

One of Brown’s friends was present to record the event—and, by the way, you can find this video on YouTube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8EkmyoG83Q

Sporting neat ties and formal shirts, the two former pilots reminisced about their encounter in a light, jovial tone. But then the mood changed. Someone asked Stigler what he thought about Brown. At this, Stigler sighed and his square jaw tightened. He began to fight back tears before he said in heavily accented English: “I love you, Charlie.”

The two old enemies became close friends. They took fishing trips together. They flew cross-country to visit each other’s homes. They went on road trips together to share their story at schools and veterans’ reunions. In sharing their experiences, both men found healing—and genuine peace.

Charlie’s nightmares went away. And, in a book Stigler gave as a present to Brown, he inscribed these words:

In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, four days before Christmas, I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying. The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me, as precious as my brother was. Thanks, Charlie.

Your Brother,


Some things need to be said. Some stories need to be told—because words have great power.

There’s a similar idea in chapter 15 of John’s Gospel, where Jesus speaks of himself as “the true vine.” Before he says to his disciples, “Abide in my love,” he tells them this:

“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)

Branches of the one true vine. We belong together as closely as that. From that belonging flows abundant life—life that is profound, and creative, and caring. Or, in the words of the gospel, “life that bears fruit.”

Some things must be said, because the saying of them changes us. Some things must be said, because—in the word shared—we become a common people, belonging to one another. Some things must be said, because spoken words can heal our human souls.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). Amen.

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