A famous quote from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice states that “the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” In the case of one particular American bomber pilot in World War II, one of his father’s sins came very close to costing him his life.
The sin in question – a lie – probably seemed harmless to his father at the time he told it, but it would end up almost having lethal consequences for his son. This was because the lie Karl Goering told was that he was the brother of Hermann Göring, a German WWI air ace who went on to become one of the most powerful members of the Nazi Party.
His son, Werner Goering, ended up flying a B-17 bomber for the United States Army Air Forces during WW2 – and seated next to him on every flight was an undercover FBI agent with orders to shoot him dead if anything even looked like it was about to go wrong.
The claim that Karl made, that he was Hermann Göring’s brother, was by no means a whopper of a lie. Indeed it was quite believable, as Goering’s wife was German too, and the whole family spoke German at home.
As for Hermann Göring, he never mentioned having any relatives in America – but nobody in the US knew this. Instead, they only knew of the fighter ace’s formidable reputation: in World War I, he had been a fighter ace and the last commander of the Jagdgeschwader 1, the fighter wing once commanded by the famous Red Baron.
By 1940 Göring had become the Third Reich’s Reichsmarschall – the supreme commander of all of Germany’s armed forces.
Meanwhile, in the US, after the Pearl Harbor attack Karl Goering’s son Werner immediately enlisted to serve his country in the war. Even though he had graduated at the bottom of his class in high school, Werner applied some fresh enthusiasm and hard work to the task at hand, and passed the US Army Air Forces’ tests to qualify for flight training.
In 1943, he was put in the cockpit of a B-17 Flying Fortress – a 4,800-horsepower bomber that could carry two and a half tons of explosives and hit speeds of over three hundred miles an hour. Not a bad achievement for a former high school slacker.
Of course, a former slacker was not the only thing Werner Goering was. The FBI had made a note of the fact that he was apparently Hermann Göring’s nephew, and this was a matter of great concern to them.
It wasn’t simply the fact that they suspected that he, being a German-American who spoke German at home, might defect to the Nazis – it was also the fact that if such a defection were to occur, or even if he was shot down and captured as a prisoner of war, the propaganda value to the Nazis of having such a captive or, even better, a defector, would be immense.
For this reason, the FBI decided that they needed a contingency plan to prevent such a thing happening. This contingency plan happened to be a co-pilot with secret orders to put a bullet in Goering’s head if it even looked like the German-American was thinking of doing anything suspicious.
The FBI couldn’t assign this duty to just any pilot, though. They knew they needed a man who would not hesitate to do what needed to be done in a moment of crisis, and who in addition would be capable of flying the B-17 back to base on his own.
They found their man in Jack Rencher, a tough, no-nonsense B-17 flying instructor, who also happened to be a crack shot with a pistol. He was also half-Jewish, and had a very keen hatred for the Nazis.
The FBI briefed him on his mission, and he assured them that if it came down to it, he would not hesitate to do his duty. Confident in their man’s ability to perform if necessary, the FBI had Rencher assigned as Goering’s co-pilot for the entirety of Goering’s tour of duty in WWII.
As it turned out, however, the FBI’s fears about Goering’s loyalty were unfounded. While Rencher came close to having to fulfill his secret orders on a few occasions, they were never for reasons arising from any question of Werner Goering’s loyalty. On one occasion, a shell passed through the cockpit, but narrowly missed both pilots.
After making sure that the crew’s oxygen supplies were okay, Goering got the plane back to base. Another time, Goering’s plane was hit by flak while flying a raiding mission over Buer. Despite the flak taking out an engine and starting a fire in the cockpit, Goering managed to get the plane safely back.
All in all, Werner Goering flew forty-nine combat missions, with almost half of these being flown during a second tour of duty for which he volunteered, even though he could have gone home after his first tour.
He ended up receiving a number of decorations for his outstanding service during WWII, including a Distinguished Flying Cross. He stayed on in the Army, joining the United States Air Force when it was established in 1947, and eventually retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 1964.
And what about his father’s claim that he was the brother of Hermann Göring, the claim that could have gotten Werner assassinated by the FBI? Expert genealogists investigated this claim in detail in 2010, and found out that Karl Goering and Hermann Göring were not related at all.
Luckily, Karl’s false claim of kinship with the Nazi Reichsmarschall never ended up getting his son killed, and Werner left the Air Force as a hero.