Hell Above Earth
The Incredible True Story of an American WWII Bomber Commander and the Copilot Ordered to Kill Him
By Stephen Frater
(St. Martin's Press, Hardcover, 9780312617929, 320pp.)
Publication Date: March 13, 2012
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“The riveting true story of a World War II bomber pilot and the co-pilot who received orders to kill him…After the twists and turns in Goering's many missions, Frater finishes with a stunning revelation…the author delivers an exciting read full of little-known facts about the war. A WWII thrill ride.” ―Kirkus Reviews
An unforgettable and thrilling tale of two WWII American bomber pilots who forged an unexpected friendship in the flak-filled skies over Nazi Germany.
The air battle over Nazi Germany in WWII was hell above earth. It lasted three years and cost 125,000 Allied aircrew men, including 26,000 Americans from the US Army's Eighth Air Force in England, their lives. For bomber crews, every day they flew was like D-Day, exacting tremendous amounts of emotional uncertainty and trauma. Some men, like twenty-year-old U.S. Captain Werner Goering, accepted this, even thrived on and welcomed the adrenaline rush. They knew that death could come in a variety of ways: an unlucky flak burst, Luftwaffe fighters that could appear anywhere at any time, or pilot error while flying less than twenty feet apart. Werner Goering was an exceptional pilot. He was also the nephew of Herman Goering, leading member of the Nazi party and Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe.
When Werner qualified to become a bomber commander in 1942, J. Edgar Hoover issued a top secret order to ensure that if his plane was downed for any reason over Nazi-occupied Europe, someone would be there in the cockpit to shoot Captain Werner Goering dead. The FBI and the American military would not prevent Werner 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. So 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, a tough, insular, B-17 instructor in Yuma, Arizona, who also happened to be one of the Army's best pistol shots. That Jack and Werner became unlikely friends is just one more twist in Hell Above Earth, one of the most incredible untold tales to come out of WWII.
Stephen Frater was a staff writer and columnist for the New York Times subsidiary The Sarasota Herald-Tribune. His articles, biographical features and military themed nonfiction book reviews have been published nationwide. He is currently an adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Rhode Island's Harrington School of Communication and Media. He lives in Rhode Island and Florida.
“The riveting true story of a World War II bomber pilot and the co-pilot who received orders to kill him. At the beginning of the war, U.S. pilot Werner Goering was “an exceptional pilot” whose “nerves of steel, combined with his unwavering ability to make split-second decisions, saw his crew safely home, mission after grueling mission.” However, writes Sarasota Herald-Tribune staffer Frater, he was also the nephew of Hitler’s right-hand man and head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering. As a national-security precaution, FBI officials ordered his experienced co-pilot, Jack Rencher, to kill him if their B-17 was going down over Nazi territory. In addition to examining the friendship that developed between the two, the author packs the narrative with rapid-fire history and statistics about the 303rd Bomb Group, the growth of the U.S. Air Force and the overall tenor of the war. Frater captures the strength, fear and bravery of Goering and Rencher's crew, but never fully explains the details of the men's lives. The narrative is more a factual recounting of Goering's career, which began as an untrusted pilot and continued for more than 20 years as a risk-taking spy during the Cold War, ending at a desk in the Pentagon. After the twists and turns in Goering's many missions, Frater finishes with a stunning revelation. Despite occasional repetition, the author delivers an exciting read full of little-known facts about the war. A WWII thrill ride.” ―Kirkus Reviews
"Stephen Frater has uncovered one of the greatest and most ironic surprises of World War II. A riveting book, every bit as exciting and unusual as Operation Mincemeat, and demonstrating that there are still things we don’t know about World War II.” ―Michael Korda, New York Times bestselling author of With Wings Like Eagles
"From the opening salvo of words Frater excites and entices. The core story and its surprise ending give us a glimpse of Fate’s fickle twists. Multiple tangents tell the horribly brutal history of the ‘heavies,’ the B-17 Flying Fortresses of the Mighty Eighth Air Force (Army Air Corps), in the flak filled skies over Germany—1944-45. I would expect to see this story on the silver screen in the near future." ―John M, Del Vecchio, Author of The 13th Valley and For the Sake of All Living Things