RUESSELSHEIM, Germany — An American tailgunner during World War II, Sidney Brown barely survived his first bombing run over Nazi Germany.

Two days after their plane was shot down, the 19-year-old and seven fellow airmen were attacked by a frenzied Ruesselsheim mob stirred to murder by a terrifying night of bombing. Six of Brown's comrades were killed.

Fifty-seven years later, Brown returned to the industrial town on Friday to receive an apology from its citizens. He had to think long and hard before accepting the invitation.

"I didn't know what my emotions would be coming here, but it was something I had to put behind me," Brown, now 76, said at a moving memorial ceremony attended by more than 100 people.

A devout Southern Baptist from Gainesville, Fla., Brown said he has long since forgiven the people of Ruesselsheim. "I have told everybody — I have no animosity in my heart against the people of Germany or the people of Ruesselsheim."

Brown and the other Americans had been taken prisoner by the Nazis after they were shot down. On Aug. 26, 1944, they were to pass through the town on the outskirts of Frankfurt by train en route to a prison camp. But the railways had been destroyed and they were forced to walk.

During the trip a mob — enraged by a night of British bombing that killed 198 people, 177 of them foreign slave laborers — descended upon them, lobbing stones, bottles and railroad ties. The U.S. airmen were chased to the cemetery, where they were beaten to the ground. Later, they were hauled outside of town and six were shot to make sure they were dead.

Brown said he is still haunted by the words, "Brownie, pray," whispered in his ear by his co-pilot during the beatings.

The decision to issue an apology to Brown, the only living survivor, and officially commemorate the deaths of the other six U.S. airmen has not been unanimous in Ruesselsheim, best known as the home of the Opel automaker, now owned by General Motors.

Critics have argued that Ruesselsheimers today should bear no guilt for the killings. They cite a trial by a U.S. military court after the war that convicted seven individuals in the deaths. Five were hanged.

But Ruesselsheim Mayor Stefan Gieltowski said at the Friday evening ceremony that the incident must not be forgotten.

"We all have the responsibility to remember what happened in Ruesselsheim," Gieltowski, in his 40s, said in an opening speech. "And we remember because remembering lays the ground for forgiveness — forgiveness we seek from people like Sidney Brown."

Walter Willnow, then a boy of 14, recalled hearing cries and shouts that Saturday morning in 1944. He ran into the street to watch as the mob surrounded the airmen and attacked them.

"You were there? What did you do?" Brown asked Willnow.

"I was just a boy then, what could I do?" Willnow replied.

The town had been under attack day and night because of the Opel factory, Willnow said, recalling how Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels incited Germans to revenge.

"Of course we were angry at the relentless bombing," he said. "And I remember how Goebbels had said 'If you find the flying murderers, you can do with them as you like."'

When the Americans reached the cemetery, Brown recalled, the prisoners crouched behind the brick wall, seeking shelter. But the mob continued to rain railroad ties and milk cans upon them.

"At that point, I was hit on the head with a bottle," Brown said. "Then I fell to the ground and played dead."

The Americans were hauled to another cemetery outside of town, where the mob continued to beat anyone who moved. Wedged in between a wagon's sideboard and John Sekul, the co-pilot who lay on top of him, Brown escaped the worst.

"I felt someone pounding on Sekul," Brown said. "Then I felt his hand, which he'd thrown across my right shoulder, clench into a fist, then relax."

Someone with a gun began shooting the airmen in the head. He only had six bullets: Elmor Austin, William Dumont, Norman Rogers, John Sekul, Haigus Tufenkjian and Thomas Williams all died.

Brown and William Adams, who had escaped most of the beatings by carrying an injured comrade on his back, were spared. Adams died in 1984.

"I firmly believe that God was calling the shots that day," Brown said.

The mob finally dispersed when an air raid siren sounded and the two airmen fled. Four days later, they were captured and held prisoner until the end of the war.