By Stephen Frater
“What the hell was Hermann Göring’s nephew doing piloting an American heavy bomber over Germany?” was a question military and civilian intelligence struggled with and prepared for, with extreme prejudice, if, and when the need arose.
Werner Goering couldn’t shake reminders of his famous uncle, Hermann W. Göring, head of the Luftwaffe and Adolf Hitler’s legal successor.
In the skies over the European theater, he did his best to reclaim the family name.
U.S. Army records confirm that Werner, a 21 year old “Mighty Eighth” Army Air Force captain in early 1945, commanded 49 “Flying Fortress” combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe—well beyond the 30 sorties that then constituted a squadron lead-pilot’s tour of duty.
He could have gone home by Christmas of 1944, as most of his original crewmates did, but at the peak of the bloody air war, Werner signed on for a second tour with the British based 303rd Bombardment Group, “The Hell’s Angels,” one of America’s most storied warrior fraternities and the single most active bomber group in the Army Air Force. He fought until the bitter end—to the May 8, 1945, Nazi surrender.
Among a fistful of other medals, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the nations’ highest military decorations, while quietly carrying the burden of his blood-soaked surname throughout the war and beyond. He battled the Nazi war machine in the war’s longest and deadliest battle for Americans, was nearly assassinated by a suspicious U.S. government, and faced the distrust of other officers.
* * *
Before the Second World War, no one had seen anything like the terrifying spectacle of hundred-mile-long armadas of 2,000 plus bombers and fighters regularly and methodically razing the continent. Day after day, night after night, airmen took flight over Europe, bombing and strafing factories, ports, and cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in the process.
Between 1940 and 1945, America, with the help of over three million women hustled onto assembly lines, produced 296,000 airplanes at a cost of about $50 billion—almost a quarter of the war’s price tag. America’s gross national product soared 60 percent from 1938 to 1942. In his book, The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, Niall Ferguson noted that five million new jobs were created. GM employed a half million persons and accounted for a tenth of all wartime production. At the peak, Boeing was making 16 new Flying Fortresses a day and its 40,000 employees literally worked around the clock. Boeing lost $3 million in the five years before 1941, but enjoyed net wartime profits of $27.6 million. “Ford alone produced more military equipment…than Italy.” (Footnote: quoted material from The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West by Niall Ferguson.)
Across Nazi-occupied Europe, a calculated mixture of incendiary and high explosive bombs obliterated buildings that had stood for centuries. Fire- driven, oxygen sucking winds whipped flames into pyres of biblical proportions; some were hundreds of feet high and as wide as city blocks – convenient homing beacons for subsequent waves of bombers. Automobiles and streetcars melted in temperatures reaching 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Asphalt ignited and flowed like lava. People who sought safety in water towers, ponds, and fountains were trapped and “boiled alive”. (Footnote: quoted material from Bomber Command by Sir Max Hastings. Those who sought shelter in basements suffocated.
In 1945, Newsweek, referring to civilian bombing, published the article “Now Terror, Truly.” Dresden historian Marshall De Bruhl wrote in his book Firestorm: Allied Airpower and the Destruction of Dresden that “in less than fourteen hours, the work of centuries had been undone.” The scene was similar in other major German cities; Cologne, Hamburg, Munich. Most of Berlin was demolished. Toward the end, it was ceaseless: almost three-quarters of all the Allied bombs dropped on Europe fell during the final 12 months of the war. By May 1945, up to 80 percent of some of Germany’s major urban centers were wiped out and up to 650,000 civilians lay dead, 16 percent of them children. Another 800,000 were wounded. In France, 70,000 civilians died, in Italy another 50,000. During the war, the Western allies killed “two or three German civilians by bombing for every German soldier they killed on the battlefield.” It was literally hell on earth.
* * *
It was 1943 when the Army tossed Werner, a 19 year-old former slacker, who graduated at the bottom of his high school class, the keys to a new 4,800 horsepower warplane that topped out at 302 miles per hour and could obliterate an entire postal code. His B-17 heavy bomber would carry two and a half tons of explosives and cruise at altitudes three times higher than a man can breathe.
As a new pilot, Werner had one of the most dangerous training assignments in the Army—15,000 fellow air cadetswould die in stateside accidents without ever seeing combat.
He also would be responsible for the lives of 10 highly-trained youngsters; a ton of intelligence and signals data; a top-secret Norden bombsite; and a hell of a lot of firepower. For the tall, handsome, squeaky-clean, blonde and blue-eyed Mormon son of German immigrants, this was as good as it got.
While other questioned him, he would reclaim the Goering family name in the skies over Germany.
After completing basic flight training, and a 100 hour B-17 training course as flight commander, Werner was sent to the Eighth Replacement Wing in Salt Lake City for crew assignment, when his military career suddenly and inexplicably stalled. Pilots and crew were being formed up and shipped out daily, yet Werner languished in limbo for months.
The American intelligence services, including the Army Military Intelligence section G-2 and the FBI had tumbled to the implications of having a Goering in command of one of the Air Force’s best and biggest bombers over Germany
J. Edgar Hoover investigated Werner thoroughly and although there was no evidence that he or his family were anything other than loyal Americans, Hoover would not risk it all on the 19 year old, “bull headed, difficult, loner,” Werner Goering. It would be a huge coup for the Nazis’ and a great embarrassment to Hoover and the Army if the Nazis got hold of Werner, even if he remained a loyal American officer as a prisoner of war. And if he didn’t remain loyal, it would be even worse. On the other hand, if Werner completed a European combat tour successfully, or died fighting the Nazi war machine, there would be a useful German-American victory for the Allied cause.
So, the top-secret order went out from the director of the FBI: Find someone to place in the co-pilot’s seat next to Werner with orders to shoot to kill, if for any reason – a treasonous decision on Werner’s part, enemy fire, or even mechanical failure – their plane can’t back get to its base or to another Allied airfield. Hoover was taking no chances and ensured, if Werner’s “Flying Fortress” was downed over Nazi-occupied Europe, someone would be in the cockpit to eliminate the problem. Military intelligence and the FBI decided they’d never let Hermann Göring, get his chubby, jewel-encrusted hands on his nephew. Werner Goering would never land alive in Nazi-occupied Europe; if the Germans didn’t kill him, the Americans certainly would.
The FBI and the Army would not prevent Werner Goering from serving his American homeland in war, but neither would they risk the propaganda coup that his desertion, or even his live capture, would represent for Nazi Germany.
In early 1943, FBI agents fanned out across the United States to find a man capable of, and willing to shoot Werner dead in the cockpit; and one who could then get the plane back home.
They found Jack Rencher, 23, a tough, insular, B-17 instructor in Yuma, Arizona, who also happened to be one of the Army’s best shots. He was the eldest son of a hard-drinking, no-nonsense, old-school, World War I infantry veteran and Arizona Sheriff named Guy Rencher, who wore a six-shooter until the day he died. Jack grew up “with a pistol in his hand.” Even better, from the FBI’s perspective, Jack was half-Jewish on his mother’s side and considered Nazis beneath contempt. He was the right man, with the right skills, in the right place, at the right time.
Portions of this article are drawn from the book Hell Above Earth: The Incredible True Story of an American WWII Bomber Commander and the Copilot Ordered to Kill Him by Stephen Frater.
STEPHEN FRATER is a former New York Times Regional Media Group staff writer and columnist, author of Hell Above Earth: The Incredible True Story of an American WWII Bomber Commander and the Copilot Ordered to Kill Him, and Writer in Residence at the University of Rhode Island. For more information about Stephen Frater and his work, visit his web site, www.stephenfrater.com.