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Book review: “Hell Above Earth” by Stephen Frater

By Russ Long Published: March 25, 2012

“Hell Above Earth” (St. Martin's Press, $25.99) is a true story that recalls wartime memories of people who lived during World War II, experiencing trying, dangerous and thrilling times. Stephen Frater has brought to life the unlikely friendship of an American bomber commander, Capt. Werner Goering, and his co-pilot, Lt. Jack Rencher.

Together, they flew 48 combat missions into heavily flak-protected factory areas and German cities. Goering was recognized as a highly skilled, exceptional bomber pilot and was believed to be the nephew of the German Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering, a leading Nazi and commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe.

Goering thrived on the adrenaline rush of combat, and was advanced by his flying ability to become a flight leader of the 8th Air Force's 303rd Bomb Group at the height of WW II air activity over Germany.

In 1942, J. Edgar Hoover issued a top secret order: If Werner Goering were downed for any reason over Nazi-occupied territory, he was to be shot dead. It was feared he would be a great propaganda coup if captured.

Rencher, a Texas B-17 flight instructor and pistol expert, was selected as capable and willing to shoot Goering dead in the cockpit, should the circumstances warrant. Rencher became Goering's co-pilot during interdiction raids flown by the 303rd Bomb Group on their strikes against factories in Germany. His secret directive was not disclosed to Goering. Their friendship and admiration developed during their joint bombing missions and as losses of crews for which they were responsible mounted.

Frater's sometimes gruesome accounts of the air combat are packed with historical details and descriptions of memorable characters. The men faced unbelievable terror during daily bombing raids from opposition fighter planes and dense flak. The men of the 303rd often found themselves in wild and dangerous flak and fighter-plane-filled skies for long hours. For Goering, danger was from inside and outside the cockpit, although he was unaware of the death edict.

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