Photo by Stephen Frater
Bomber co-pilot JACK RENCHER had orders to kill his commander if he tried to land their B-17 behind enemy lines. They became good friends instead.
Stephen Frater was a staff writer and columnist for the New York Times subsidiary, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, when he stumbled on one of the most bizarre and compelling stories to come out of World War II. As a fan of military history, his articles and reviews were often about the history of conflicts.
“I was working on a review for a book about the Battle of Britain when I just stumbled upon this story claiming Herman W. Goering, Hitler's successor, had American relatives, including a nephew, Werner G. Goering, who was a WWII bomber pilot in Europe,” said Frater. “Well, I set about tracing these stories and heard about his co-pilot having orders to kill the nephew if he ever tried to land his plane in enemy territory and give it to the Germans.”
Frater learned that Army records confirmed 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, which 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, famed as The Hell’s Angels; what Frater called “one of America's most storied warrior fraternities and the single most active bomber group in the Army Air Force.”
He fought until the Nazi surrender on May 8, 1945 and earned “a fistful of other medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross,” one of the nation’s highest military decorations.
Frater saw a great story and when he got in touch with Gary Moncur, the son of “Hell’s Angels” Captain Vern Moncur and historian for the group, who featured Werner’s story on the unit’s website in a page outlining the irony of Goering’s nephew fighting the Luftwaffe of his Uncle Herman.
“When I called him for information about Werner, Gary said, ‘Good luck, I’ve never met, corresponded, nor spoken with him.’ He told me that Werner pretty much walked away from the war. He never went to reunions. He never talked to his family or anyone else about the war and his uncle. I found Werner’s son in Arizona and he said pretty much the same thing but I did learn that his co-pilot, Lt. Jack Rencher, was alive and living in Idaho.”
Frater said Werner attended only one group reunion in 1992 in Boise, Idaho, Jack Rencher’s hometown. Frater said Goering's appearance of the still taciturn Goering and withdrawn Goering did that more as a tribute to his old friend than to rekindle old acquaintances.
“They went through a lot together and they formed the kind of bond that only comes from that shared experience,” said Frater. “It took months to reach Werner for a brief phone call and he still didn't want to talk about the war or his family with a stranger. But he did agree to meet me, if I went to Tucson. But, he warned, ‘It will be a waste of your time and money, since I didn’t do anything special and left the war behind a long time ago.’”
Frater said it occurred to him on his way to Tucson to talk with a man who avoided the spotlight for nearly seven decades.
“It hit me that it was the chronological equivalent of meeting a Civil War veteran in 1930,” said Frater. “He is among the very last of his peers, a man who saw and did things the world had never previously experienced, and never will again.”
For those of us who are used to modern warfare, Frater said it’s hard to imagine that heavy bombing was considered an absolute necessity to bring down the Nazi war machine but that was the strategy, and our young men paid a heavy price for it.
“Most people don’t know this, but bomber pilots had one chance out of seven of coming out of the war alive,” said Frater. “Most people are not aware that 15,000 of our kids – and they were just kids – died training and flying and testing bombers and to pilot error even before they got overseas.”
To paraphrase an advertising cliché, with a name like Goering, you have to be good, and Werner was determined to do the job, even if he didn’t want to talk about it, or about his family tree.
Unfortunately, Werner’s father, a working class man living in Salt Lake City after WWI, encouraged people to believe that he was related to Herman Goering, the WWI flying ace and friend of the infamous Red Baron, and by the time Hitler came to power, the Goering name was not something a patriot would brag about. With a name like Goering, the FBI was certain to take a close look at you, especially if you were an excellent pilot going to England as a bomber fighter. Werner was very young, stubborn and not fond of socializing, which only enhanced suspicion about him.
“They pretty much cleared him [Werner] for duty but Edgar J. Hoover worried that he might have some sort of burst of German pride and land his plane in Germany and offer up all their secret codes, plans and advanced equipment like the Norden bomb-sight,” which was the closest thing to a smart bomb any air force had up to then. That’s where Jack Rencher comes in.
Jack Rencher’s father was an Arizona lawman and, according to Frater, he practically grew up with a gun in his hand.
“He scored a 98 out of a possible 100 on a shooting test, and that was what Hoover was looking for. He was also a flight instructor, a technical and mechanics instructor and was kept here in the states doing that when the FBI called on him.
“They were pretty sure that Werner Goering was loyal but they would have looked like such idiots if he did [defect].” Rencher agreed to be Werner’s co-pilot and executioner, should Werner stray from his mission to blow up everything Nazi in Europe.
“The odd thing was, Goering and Rencher were both ‘damned reservists,’ blue collar kids who probably wouldn’t have been made officers if they [the military] had enough college graduates, whose families could afford to send them to college during the depression, in the Army,” said Frater. “In the crucible of the cockpit, they formed a special bond and became lifelong friends.”
Frater said, somewhat sadly, that Jack Rencher never told his friend he had orders to shoot him on the spot if he tried to defect. He never explained to Werner why he could never tell anyone about his secret orders without the FBI coming after him and putting him away for good, or at least send him to rot in some out-of-the-way federal prison. They didn’t see that much of each other after the war but the bond endured, and when Rencher finally got old enough to realize that the FBI would probably leave him alone, he planned to tell his old friend the truth. Frater’s efforts and persuasive powers convinced both men that they had a story that deserved to be heard and when Rencher knew his role as assassin in waiting would come out with the book. He told Frater he wanted to tell Werner in person about his special orders but died before he got the chance. It fell to Frater to tell Werner as he was finishing their book.
“It was kind of a shock to him at first,” said Frater, “but after he thought about it, he said it made sense. But it was easy to see that he was shaken by it.”
One of the real ironies of the story is that, if the Goering name had prompted the FBI to keep an eye on Werner, it was the friends and neighbors who remembered his father’s seemingly harmless boast about having a famous relative. If his father had said nothing about Herman Goering, the focus wouldn’t have been as intense, or as dangerous.
Frater’s account of this unconventional friendship has been out for about a month and has already topped Amazon’s Military Aviation category and has been moving up on the Military History chart as well. “Hell Above Earth” is available in bookstores or through Amazon.com. Frater will give a reading of the book April 3 at 4 p.m. at URI’s Kingston campus in Lippitt Hall Auditorium, Room 402.