Hell Above Earth: The Incredible True Story of an American WWII Bomber Commander and the Copilot Ordered to Kill Him

Hell Above Earth: The Incredible True Story of an American WWII Bomber Commander and the Copilot Ordered to Kill Him

by Stephen Frater


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"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

The U.S. air battle over Nazi Germany in WWII was hell above earth. For bomber crews, every day they flew was like D-Day, exacting a terrible physical and emotional toll. Twenty-year-old U.S. Captain Werner Goering, accepted this, even thrived on and welcomed the adrenaline rush. He was an exceptional pilot—and the nephew of Hermann Göring, leading member of the Nazi party and commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe.

The FBI and the American military would not prevent Werner from serving his American homeland, but neither would they risk the propaganda coup that his desertion or capture would represent for Nazi Germany. J. Edgar Hoover issued a top-secret order that if Captain Goering's plane was downed for any reason over Nazi-occupied Europe, someone would be there in the cockpit to shoot Goering dead. FBI agents found a man capable of accomplishing the task in Jack Rencher, a tough, insular B-17 instructor 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 one of the most incredible untold tales of WWII.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250021205
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 03/19/2013
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 410,332
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

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

Copyright © 2012 Stephen Frater
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780312617929


The thundering ships took off one behind the other. At 5,000 feet they made their formation. The men sat quietly at their stations, their eyes fixed. And the deep growl of the engines shook the air, shook the world and shook the future.
—John Steinbeck, 1942

Perhaps it was the scale, as well as the horror of it all, that still boggles the mind. Before WWII 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, the United States, with the help of more than 3 million workers hustled onto assembly lines, produced 296,000 airplanes at a cost of $44 billion—more than a quarter of the war’s $180 billion munitions bill. The gross national product soared 60 percent from 1938 to 1942. Five million new jobs were created. GM employed half a million persons and accounted for a tenth of all wartime production. At the peak, Boeing was making sixteen 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.”
  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 above 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Asphalt ignited and flowed like lava. People who sought safety in water towers, ponds, and fountains were trapped and “boiled alive.” Others, who sought safety belowground, suffocated from a lack of oxygen.
  In 1945, Newsweek, referring to civilian bombing, published an article entitled “Now Terror, Truly.” Dresden historian Marshall De Bruhl wrote that “in less than fourteen hours, the work of centuries had been undone.” The scene was similar in all major German cities. 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 twelve months of the war. By May 1945, up to 80 percent of most of Germany’s 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. England, by comparison, suffered 60,000 civilian deaths at the hands of the Luftwaffe. During the war, the Allies killed “two or three German civilians by bombing for every German soldier they killed on the battlefield.” It was literally hell on earth.
  The air battle over Nazi-occupied Europe was a different kind of fresh hell. It lasted about three years for the Americans and about double that for the English. It was the longest battle of the war, during which an average of about 115 Allied airmen died daily, as did about 650 civilians, including women, children, pensioners, and slave laborers, most of who died following the United States’ entry into the war.
  In his 1942 book, Bombs Away, Stanford University dropout John Steinbeck neatly summed up the challenge facing bomber crews and their commanders.
  Of all branches … the Air Force must act with the least precedent, the least tradition. Nearly all tactics and formations of infantry have been tested over ten thousand years.… But the Air Force has no centuries of trial and error to study; it must feel its way, making its errors and correcting them.
The errors and corrections were recorded in blood. About 26,000 men and women died in aircraft accidents during the war. In the British-based U.S. Army’s Eighth Air Force alone, another 26,000 Americans, or 12.3 percent of the third of a million men who flew, were killed in action—more than the total U.S. Marines death count for the entire war. Only the United States’ Pacific submariners suffered higher fatality rates—more than 20 percent. Yet in total numbers, the Eighth Air Force alone lost more than seven times the global number of U.S. submariner fatalities. The Mighty Eighth suffered 26,000 combat deaths out of its 350,000 officers and men who flew. By comparison, the U.S. Navy suffered 37,000 deaths out of the 4.1 million who served in the WWII Navy. The battle also cost the British Royal Air Force 56,000 dead. If wounded and captured airmen totals are included, the Eighth Air Force had “the highest casualty rate in the American Armed Forces in WWII.”
  Allied saturation bombing shattered not only Nazi Germany’s industrial spine but also American notions of isolationalism in a rabid war. It washed away all naivety regarding the human and moral costs of industrial war in which the cogs of the machine are not only soldiers but also the civilians supplying their material needs. Air war was, in large part, about the substitution of capital for labor—of machinery for men. A single crew of trained fliers could hope to kill a very large number of Germans even if they flew only twenty successful missions before being killed or captured themselves.
The men who devastated Nazi Germany from the air are dying daily. With them dies the personal experience of setting a continent aflame. Few other men in history have deployed such devastating force for as long as the crews of the U.S. Army Air Force did over Europe: 1,042 days, from 1942 to 1945. The air battle over Europe, one of the longest and costliest of any war, heralded not only the nearly complete devastation of the world’s cultural cradle but also the controversial decision by Western democracies to engage in industrial-scale terror bombing on civilian populations. It neatly ushered in atomic-age rationale for a new corps of battle planners, such as Maj. Curtis E. “Old Iron Ass” LeMay, to whom the wholesale destruction of cities was a near-daily personal routine.
  The men and boys, like Werner and Jack, who carried out these attacks, almost on a daily basis, weather permitting, were truly a unique breed of highly trained specialists utilizing the world’s most sophisticated weapons platforms of the era. To combat the terror in the skies they faced, and Nazi terror on the ground, they were ordered to create a literal hell on earth for enemy military, industrial and, ultimately, civilian targets.
  Although they slept in clean sheets and ate hot meals every day bomber crews flew, even while training, was like D-day, exacting tremendous amounts of emotional uncertainty and trauma. Some men, like Werner, accepted this, even thrived on and welcomed the adrenaline rush. Werner knew death could come in a variety of ways: an unlucky flak burst, Luftwaffe fighters that could appear anywhere at any time, pilot error while flying less than fifteen feet apart. Even the air they breathed four miles above the earth was deadly. Others suffered more as their mission totals mounted; the risks of air combat harrowed them fiercely as they neared the magic number that would allow them to return home, duty done.
  Werner was an exceptional pilot. Gifted. His nerves of steel, combined with his unwavering ability to make split-second decisions, saw his crew safely home, mission after grueling mission. But for Werner, there was an added danger: he didn’t realize that at any moment his family name could cost him his life.

Copyright © 2012 by Stephen Frater


Excerpted from Hell Above Earth by Stephen Frater Copyright © 2012 by Stephen Frater. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“This story resonates today because it’s not about the people—it’s about the war. [Hell Above Earth] leaves a lingering taste of what it was like and at the same time, the feeling that we will never truly understand it.” —Washington Independent Review of Books


Hell Above Earth is a riveting tale that will keep readers on the edge of their seats. It not only tells of the dangerous missions that bomber pilots and crews had to endure, but has an added twist of mystery and intrigue.” —WWII History Magazine


"A meticulously researched and brilliantly reconstructed tale of truth and treachery that's as riveting as it is heart stopping . . . Truman Capote may have coined the phrase 'the nonfiction novel,' but Stephen Frater has mastered it as well." —Providence Journal


“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


“Stephen Frater has told the story of action well . . . His tale is alive to the end, describing the bombing crew’s hell above the earth and concluded with a most unexpected twist.” —The Oklahoman


“Although I’ve read quite a lot about the Eighth Air Force, none brought home the sacrifices the men made in such vivid detail as Hell Above Earth. [Stephen Frater] occasionally allowed his narrative to veer into the moderately crude language that was part and parcel of the airmen’s lives. Hell Above Earth . . . will give readers new appreciation of the sacrifices of ‘The Greatest Generation.’” —Cozy Library


“This is history at its best.” —Seattle PI


“The statistics in Hell Above Earth alone are mind-boggling, let alone its story . . . Blow-by-blow description of numerous combat clashes, narrow escapes, and costly battles . . . One has to put on the work boots and wade in.” —Deseret News


"...Still, none of the stories could have prepared me for Stephen Frater's mesmerizing new work, Hell Above Earth. From the title of the book to the final, riveting chapters, Frater spins a tale with a twist that grabs the reader and never lets go . . . By delving deeply into the lives of Goering and Rencher, Frater helps the reader understand the circumstances that drove two men from totally different backgrounds into the same cockpit. He chronicles the directions their lives took once the war was over. Part buddy story and part courage under fire, Hell Above Earth is a remarkably compassionate account of a friendship cemented in battle — that was one comrade's bullet away from being compromised if the mission called for it." —San Antonio Express


"Just when we thought historians had recorded everything worth knowing about World War II comes Hell Above Earth. Stephen Frater has penned a riveting account of what has to be one of the strangest buddy stories of the war . . . Anyone with an interest in aviation or World War II history will enjoy his fascinating account." —Tom Young, author of The Mullah’s Storm and Silent Enemy


"Stephen Frater has uncovered one of the greatest and most ironic surprises of World War Two . . . A riveting book, every bit as exciting and unusual as Operation Mincemeat, and demonstrating that there are still things we don't know about WWII." —Michael Korda, New York Times bestselling author of Hero and With Wings Like Eagles


"Hang onto your hats for this doozy of a 'truth-is-stranger-than-fiction' story. Packed with comprehensive historical details, memorable characters, and sometimes gruesome battle description, this immaculately researched tale intertwines the story of two friends—one secretly ordered to kill the other—with the history we all need to know about WWII and its aftermath. More than anything, Hell Above Earth sears into our collective imaginations the profound bravery of the men who flew in bombers, risking everything for duty, honor and country."Christina Olds, daughter of Robin Olds and co-author of Fighter Pilot


"For once here is a book with a subtitle worthy of being called an "untold story."  Stephen Frater has skillfully fashioned a real, hitherto untold tale, the background of which is the air war over Europe in World War II, the immigrant experience, the American dream, and a bit of the Wild West…Frater, as few others have done, has managed to convey both the heroism and the terror of the men who flew the bombing missions over Germany. But all the while, he keeps his eyes and ours on the unfolding story of pilot Werner Goering and his best friend and co-pilot—and designated assassin—Jack Rencher. Altogether a riveting tale of men at war." —Marshall De Bruhl, author of Firestorm: Allied Airpower and the Destruction of Dresden.


"As the son of a B-17 pilot in the 303rd Bomb Group and one who has devoted his life to the legacy of the famous Hell's Angels since 1997, the Werner Goering / Jack Rencher relationship was one of the first things that intrigued me . . . Mr. Frater does a remarkable job of telling this fascinating true story—a story I thought I knew well—with a most unexpected twist.” —Gary L. Moncur, 303rd Bomb Group "Hell's Angels" Historian


"From the opening salvo of words, Frater excites and entices. The core story and its surprise ending give us a glimpse of Fate’s tickle twists. Multiple tangents tell the horribly brutal history of the ‘heavies,’ the B-17s 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 Del Vecchio, author of The 13th Valley and For the Sake of All Living Things


"One of the most bizarre stories of the air war over Europe has finally been told in full. Stephen Frater follows American pilot Werner Goering, Nazi leader Herman Goering and co-pilot Jack Rencher in a story of unlikely friendships, unusual loyalties, and breath-taking revelations that readers will find impossible to put down." —Rob Morris, author of Untold Valor: Forgotten Stories of American Bomber Crews over Europe in World War II

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