Werner Goering was a skilled B-17 commander, but his family background became a security issue in this strange tale of loyalty to crew and country.
On November 21, 1944, a young U.S. Army Air Forces first lieutenant named Werner Goering climbed into a hulking B-17 bomber called Teddy’s Rough Riders and, along with his nine crewmen, took off on a combat mission from the Molesworth Air Station near Cambridge, England. The Goering crew was hardly alone: 38 other B-17“heavies” from the 303rd Bombardment Group, also known as Hell’s Angels, were there that day as part of a tremendous airborne armada from the Eighth Air Force—1,291 bombers in all, escorted by 954 long-range fighters.
The target was IG Farben’s Leuna synthetic oil refinery in Merseburg, Germany. Comprised of some 250 buildings over three square miles, Leuna was the second largest petrochemical complex in Germany—a key to the Nazi war effort. For that reason, Merseburg was heavily defended: nearly 30,000 troops from the Luftwaffe’s 14th Flak Division manned 600 antiaircraft batteries. Each battery contained several 88mm guns that could shoot a dozen 20-pound shells 37,000 feet in the air every minute, well within the B-17’s flight ceiling. Bomber crews regarded Merseburg as the most dangerous target in Europe; they called it Murdersburg.
Though only 20 years old, the blondehaired, blue-eyed Goering had already proved himself an exceptional B-17 commander with steady nerves. But Goering, a German American from Salt Lake City, was an outsider in the close-knit elite Army Air Forces officer corps. He was a reservist and a devout Mormon who didn’t drink or fraternize with his fellow officers, much less the crew. Goering’s co-pilot and friend Jack Rencher, a tough high-school dropout, described the pilot as extremely quiet, detail oriented, and aloof. “He didn’t say much—then or ever,” Rencher said. Goering seemed fixated on distinguishing himself as a pilot, and did so. He never turned down a combat mission, and would fly 49 of them during his two-tour World War II career, earning a fistful of medals including the Distinguished Flying Cross.
For all his valor, however, Goering was burdened by his family name. He was the nephew of Hermann Göring, the number-two Nazi and head of the Luftwaffe—or so the American pilot believed. For as long as Goering could remember, he had been told by his parents that Hermann Göring was a relation. But the lore surrounding the family name was only one part of a remarkable mystery involving Werner Goering. Not long before he became a B-17 pilot, his name and background sparked investigations by both the military and the FBI—and if an unusual tale from Jack Rencher is to be believed, prompted a plot that could have cost Goering his life.
In the years before he died in 2010, Rencher started telling select people a story he had mostly kept secret for six decades. He claimed that early in 1944, while he was stationed at Fort Douglas Air Base in Salt Lake City, the FBI—concerned about Goering’s loyalty— had recruited him to become Goering’s copilot and to, in Rencher’s words, “shoot him in the head if we were going down over Nazi territory.” And Rencher, a highly experienced pilot and crack shot who tucked three Colt 45s into his flight suit before every combat mission, said he had accepted the assignment.
Karl Goering, his wife Adele, and their 10-year-old son Karl Jr. sailed from Hamburg to New York City in 1923. They were at the tail end of the largest wave of immigrants in American history—one that saw 5.5 million Germans arrive in the United States between 1820 and 1920. The family soon settled in Salt Lake City, and within a year Werner was born. Karl, then 49, had been an accountant and bank clerk in Germany, but he could only find work as a landscaper at a Mormon church. The poor pay and lower social status weren’t easy for Karl to accept— but he had a point of pride: he was, he told people, the older brother of Hermann Göring, the German World War I flying ace who was a close adviser to the strongman then rising in the fatherland, Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler. Werner Goering grew up thinking it was“pretty cool”to have a big-shot Nazi uncle. It was, he said, an accepted fact by everyone—friends, neighbors, and the family itself.
Like most German Americans, from 1923 to 1939 the Utah Goerings believed the Nazi Party was good for Germany. Werner Goering recalls that Salt Lake City’s German community was “ecstatic” about their home country’s economic resurgence during the 1930s. Karl Goering felt a vicarious pride in Germany’s comeback, and sent congratulatory letters to Hermann Göring. Werner recalls that his father got replies on elegantly embossed envelopes from Berlin’s W8 ministry district, with the address of Leipziger Strasse 3, where Oberbefehlshaber der Luftwaffe Göring had his office.
For the Goerings, who spoke German at home, Hermann Göring’s ostentatious displays of wealth and power were a stark contrast to their humble Depression-era existence in Utah. Still, Karl gained status from his famous last name and instilled a spirit of emulation in Werner, who showed signs of possessing Göring’s soldierly qualities. At South High School, Werner was an indifferent student. He played no sports, joined no clubs and graduated at the bottom of his class, yet he was the school’s ROTC cadet commander for several years. He worked as a paperboy, then as a uniformed Western Union telegraph delivery boy, and hung around pool halls. But throughout his teenage years, Werner said, he harbored an ambition, encouraged by his father, to distinguish himself as an officer in the United States military—possibly even as a pilot, like his uncle Hermann.
By the time the war broke out in 1939, Karl Goering and most other German Americans in Salt Lake City had changed their opinions of Hermann Göring and the Nazis. By then they had all seen newsreel footage of Nazi military incursions, provocations, and atrocities, particularly the invasion of Poland. But Werner’s ambition continued unabated. He applied to become an air cadet, but was told that without college credits, his chances of becoming one were nil. He would have to take a difficult aeronautics qualifying test. It was his only shot at becoming a pilot. “Something impressed itself on me that I had to pass this test,” he said. “Had to. I read up on all the math, engineering, physics, mechanics and hydraulics. I thought,‘I’ll never make it,’ but was determined to try—and miracle of miracles, I passed.”
In November 1942, Werner went to Santa Ana, California, for basic and then advanced flight training. He performed well, and then chose to enter the multi-engine bomber program since, he said, “bombers were the cutting edge of aviation technology.” Through “sheer dumb luck,” he became a heavy-bomber commander at age 19 and trained at New Mexico’s Roswell Field, where a pilot and bombardier training school had been established in 1941. After completing a 100-hour B-17 training course, as a commander, Goering was sent to the 18th Replacement Wing in Salt Lake City for crew assignment.
There, pilots and crews were being formed and shipped out daily, but Goering languished in limbo for months. By then, military records show, the U.S. Army and the FBI had become worried about Werner Goering’s name and his intentions. What would happen, officials wondered, if an American pilot named Goering should land his B-17, one of America’s most advanced military machines, in Germany, or otherwise fall into Nazi hands? It would be a huge propaganda coup for the enemy.
Like Goering, Jack Rencher had a hardscrabble background. He was born in Los Angeles but grew up in desolate Reynolds Creek, Arizona, the eldest son of a schoolteacher and a former World War I infantry veteran turned sheriff.“Jack grew up with a pistol in his hand,” his sister Gladys said. Jack attended Union High School in Phoenix, and later elected to stay in that city when his father moved the family to another rural town. Jack lived with friends, worked to earn money, and dropped out of high school in the 10th grade.
Rencher worked a variety of blue-collar jobs, and in 1937 learned to fly during his free time while doing janitorial work for a flying club in Phoenix. In February 1942, after a stint as a mechanic for the Phelps Dodge copper mine, he tried to join the air corps. Like Goering, he had to take the aeronautics-qualifying test. Out of the 140 who took it Rencher was one of two who passed.
Rencher excelled at a preflight training school in Santa Ana, then spent 10 weeks at the Rankin Aeronautical Academy in Tulare, California. After that, he was sent to Minter Field, near Bakersfield, for basic flight training. He flew in the AT-6 Texan advanced trainer, and in late 1943, after graduating as a second lieutenant, requested assignment to P-38 twin-engine fighter training. The army turned him down and instead sent him to B-17 training at Williams Field in Yuma, Arizona, where he was put in a co-pilot slot. There, he trained cadets in B-17s. After 200 flying hours, he checked out as a first pilot but remained unhappily stuck in the co-pilot-instructor slot. In February 1944, he received orders to join the 18th Replacement Wing in Salt Lake City—where Werner Goering was based.
On September 4, 1943, a “confidential letter of transmittal” attached to a fat intelligence file regarding Werner George Goering landed on J. Edgar Hoover’s desk at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. The top-secret file, from Colonel L. R. Forney, assistant executive director of the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Division and a member of the U.S. Army General Staff, would determine Goering’s military future. It was sent to Hoover for “such action as you consider advisable.” That the FBI would be interested in a German American soldier named Goering is not at all surprising: Hoover was obsessed with ferretting out Fifth Column threats, and more than 11,000 German Americans and German aliens were interned.
The Goering file—declassified in October 2009, when portions of it were released after a Freedom of Information Act request—details how both the FBI and the army investigated Goering and his family because of their relationship to Hermann Göring. Months earlier, at the request of Major Lawrence B. Rhodes, the intelligence officer at the air cadet training base in Santa Ana, Goering had been placed under surveillance. Rhodes had recommended that Goering’s personal and family background “be thoroughly investigated to determine whether the subject is disaffected—and…, if such investigation establishes the subject is disaffected, the subject be transferred out of the Army Air Force.”
The FBI office in Salt Lake City was brought in on the case. Its agents interviewed practically everyone associated with Werner Goering from the 6th grade onward—his neighbors, friends, teachers, and employers. His junior-high school and high-school records were reviewed, as were those at the Salt Lake City Police Department. Karl Goering was also scrutinized: officials at the Mormon church where he worked were interviewed, as were his friends and associates. The family’s mail was monitored. One item in the file came from the Office of Naval Intelligence. It was a blurb from the June 14–20, 1942, issue of Collier’s magazine:
“Fort Douglas, Salt Lake City. Eighteen-year-old Werner George GOERING, former errand boy at a local radio station, hopes to drop an egg on his Nazi relative’s fat neck. Werner is a nephew or cousin—he isn’t sure which—of Barrelhouse Hermann, Germany’s air chief; and as a prospective cadet, prays that his future relationship will be closer than in the past. Just once.”
The government’s released Goering file doesn’t tell the full story. Several pages are unreadable and stamped “best copy available.”What’s more, the government released only Goering’s “Army-originated records.” The government noted that“some of the information” in Goering’s FBI file would remain classified on the grounds that its release “would result in an unwarranted invasion of the privacy rights of the individual concerned”— curious given that Werner Goering and his family had requested the documents. The family sent an appeal directly to the secretary of the army in late 2009, but received no response.
While the file describes Werner Goering as “bullheaded…, snotty, difficult to handle, slow and keeps to himself,”it also notes that he is “a good soldier, excellent military bearing…, willing worker, studious, self-sufficient.” Most important, it concludes that there was no evidence that Goering and his family were anything but loyal Americans. The case file was labeled closed.
Based on Jack Rencher’s account, however, it wasn’t. Rencher claimed that in late February 1944, while at Fort Douglas, he was ordered to report to the commanding officer, Colonel Frank W. Wright, in his full dress uniform. Once inside the office, he said, two men in dark suits entered the room—one middle-aged, the other younger. Wright introduced the two men “from Washington,” then left. That struck Rencher as “ominous,” because he had recently received letters from both an aunt in Eager, Arizona, and a teacher in Phoenix saying that FBI agents had made inquiries about him. Rencher said the FBI agents showed him their badges, then one agent said they had come with a top-secret military assignment.“If you choose not to accept it,” Rencher recalled the man saying, “there will be no blemish on your military record, providing you don’t say a word about what we’re about to ask you.”
Rencher asked the agents what they wanted him to do. The men said there were security questions about a pilot named Werner Goering. The older agent then added that they wanted Rencher to join Goering’s crew as co-pilot and fly missions with them in England. But if Goering ever tried to land the plane in Europe or had to ditch, “We want you to shoot him dead before he can ever be captured or land the plane for any reason.” Washington couldn’t take the risk that Goering might desert or be captured alive, the men explained. They told Rencher he had been picked because he was an expert in small arms and was a solid B-17 pilot. Rencher said he was perplexed by the request, and wondered why the army would let Goering fly at all—especially in Europe. But he wasn’t a man to ask questions. He agreed to do it.
Rencher said that the FBI did not ask him to sign any papers, and that after the meeting he never heard from military intelligence or the FBI again. There is no written record of the meeting or of a contingent FBI plan to kill Goering, and the FBI says that it has no file on Rencher. The co-pilot’s personal account is the only source. The only corroboration of Rencher’s account comes from a 2009 interview with Tech Sergeant Orall R. Gustafson of Seneca, South Carolina, who was the top turret gunner and flight engineer for the Goering crew. “I knew about Jack’s orders to shoot Goering,” said Gustafson, who died in October 2011. With a chuckle, he added, “The rest of the crew also felt the same way about shooting Goering if he did anything suspicious. Everybody knew his uncle was Hermann Göring, and the crew was upset by that fact.” Gustafson added: “Jack and I also talked about the [assassination] orders at a reunion in San Diego.” Rencher also told author Rob Morris about the plot against Goering, and it appears in Morris’s 2006 book Untold Valor.
Athan Theoharis, a professor of history emeritus at Marquette University who has authored and co-authored 12 books on the FBI, questions Rencher’s story. He said that if such an approach had been made, “it would have been done by the military,” since there were so-called delimitation agreements between the military and the FBI in the early 1940s that limited the latter’s investigatory purview to civilians only.
In any case, Rencher said he met Goering a day after meeting with the FBI agents, and the two pilots soon became virtually inseparable. They were assigned a crew and started training as a 10-man B-17 unit. Goering and Rencher had different personalities: the pilot was chilly and curt, the co-pilot bumptious and talkative. Goering sensed some resentment from Rencher, who was three years older and had far more flight hours in a B-17 than he did. Though frustrated with his co-pilot role, Rencher acknowledged that Goering was a suburb formation pilot— confident and cool while flying in an airborne box tightly packed with bombers. The two men developed a mutual respect.
On March 4, the Goering crew was sent to Dalhart, Texas, for two months of flight training, and then to McDill Field in Tampa, Florida, where they logged another 100 hours in B-17s. By July 1944, the crew was approved to be shipped out to Britain. On their last night in Tampa, Goering and Rencher took a couple of army nurses to dinner and a few nightspots. Rencher, a self-described roughneck, said he enjoyed hanging out with his Hollywood-handsome pilot friend. At 4 a.m., the men sent the women home, then realized that they were broke—10 miles from the base with no money for a taxi. After sharing a laugh about their predicament, they jogged and trudged back to McDill, arriving just in time for the 7 a.m. roll call. Rencher said a bond between the two men had been forged—one that they would rely on many times in the months ahead. By mid-August, the crew was at Molesworth with the 303rd Bomb Group, their home for the rest of the war.
The only time Rencher even remotely considered shooting Goering, he said, was on their November 1944 mission to Merseburg. As the B-17s approached the target, they descended to a pre-bomb altitude of 19,800 feet. It was then that the Germans started their antiaircraft barrage. A shell hit Teddy’s Rough Riders with a deafening bang and passed through the plane, blowing basketball-size holes in both sides of the thin aluminum fuselage. More flak hits followed. One red-hot metal fragment stripped the sole off the waist gunner’s left boot. Another tore through the ball turret gunner’s Plexiglas canopy and hit Rencher in the side, knocking the breath out of him. Dazed, Rencher glanced at Goering, anticipating a command for the crew to bail out of the rattling plane.
It was at that moment, Rencher later said, when he slipped off his right glove, fingered one of his Colts, and considered shooting Goering. But with his ears ringing and his head pounding, it was all Rencher could do to stay lucid; he realized perhaps it wouldn’t be smart to kill the man fighting to keep the shuddering 30-ton B-17 aloft. Goering then ordered an oxygen check, which brought the co-pilot back to reality. Minutes later, the battered but stable Teddy’s Rough Riders released its bombs over Merseburg—though Rencher had to go back to the bomb bay and, in freezing winds, kick loose a 500-pound explosive that had jammed in the rack to make it happen. The Goering crew made it back to the base, more than eight hours after takeoff, surviving the hairiest of their missions together. That day, 25 of the 1,291 Eighth Air Force bombers were lost and nearly half damaged. Twenty-two crewmen (including 11 from the 303rd Bombardment Group) were killed, 30 seriously injured, and 283 missing—some of whom would emerge from POW camps at the war’s end.
Soon after that mission, Rencher was promoted to First Lieutenant and finally got his own B-17 command. Thereafter, he and Goering sometimes flew on the same mission, but on separate planes. Goering signed up for a second 35-mission tour and was promoted to captain. He went back to Merseburg, was a squadron leader on a fire-bombing mission to Dresden, and crashed once after takeoff at Molesworth. (There were no fatalities.) During a home leave, Goering met a former high-school classmate, a German immigrant named June Schott, and got married soon after.
After the war, Goering remained on active duty. He served as a spy in Potsdam, then in the early 1950s joined the Strategic Air Command and flew nuclear-armed B-47 Stratojet bombers on patrols. In 1962, he took the top U.S. attaché job in East Africa, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He flew diplomats around the Horn of Africa, became a big-game hunter, and befriended Emperor Haile Selassie. Two years later, he took a desk job at the Pentagon. No longer an active pilot, he retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1964 after 22 years of service.
Goering moved to Tucson and became a real estate agent and speculator. Today, at age 87, he lives with his wife in a modest ranch-style house in the Catalina foothills of Tucson. In 2009, during a visit with this writer, he pulled out a large framed portrait of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, wearing his Luftwaffe uniform with his World War I medals, the Iron Cross and the Blue Max, and carrying his marshal’s baton. The photo dates from early in World War II, before Göring became corpulent. “I haven’t shown this to too many people,” Goering said with a rueful smile. “We keep Uncle Hermann hidden, especially when we have Jewish friends over.”
Jack Rencher never told Goering about the plan to kill him. After the war, Rencher ferried planes for a few years, and in 1968 started an industrial cleaning products company. He and Goering spoke on the phone regularly for years, and met occasionally for dinners with their wives, but he never broached the FBI plot—chiefly because, he said, Goering steadfastly refused to talk about the war and did not go to 303rd reunions.“I never did tell him, or thank him for getting me home alive,” Rencher said. “But he deserves to know. The only male friend I ever had came out of the war, and that was Werner.”
Three years ago, Goering learned about the scheme for the first time, and about Rencher’s involvement in it. After a pause, he said, “That doesn’t surprise me—it makes sense.” But after another moment of reflection, he blurted out: “Jack said this? You’re sure Jack said this?” Otherwise, he was stoic. Goering was again taciturn when told last year that two genealogical studies turned up a surprising fact: He was not related to Hermann Göring. The Luftwaffe leader’s father, a diplomat, had nine children by two wives, and two of them had Karl as either a first or middle name. But neither of their birthdates matched that of Goering’s father, and neither had emigrated to America. It had all been a massive case of mistaken identity perpetuated by Karl’s false familial claim, perhaps a struggling immigrant’s reach for a bit of grandeur for himself and his family. “It was the first time in my life that I realized we were not relatives,” Goering said,“but it was not a big deal to me.” He added that he was happy that his family had not joined the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization, before or during the war,“because I would have been behind bars instead of in the cockpit of a B-17.”
And what of Rencher? Was he—a talented flyer who had been stuck for too long in a subordinate co-pilot role—reaching for a bit of grandeur himself with his FBI tale? Did wartime jokes among the crew about dispatching Goering, should he prove disloyal, grow into a tall tale in the postwar years? It’s possible, though there is no doubt that government authorities at one time had serious concerns about the pilot and friend with whom Rencher flew. Until more specific and conclusive details emerge, the Werner Goering story remains highly intriguing— and incomplete.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.