Book review: 'Hell Above Earth' a chilling story on several fronts

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 22 2012 3:33 p.m. MDT

"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, $25.99, 302 pages (nf)

The statistics in "Hell Above Earth" alone are mind-boggling, let alone its story of a talented bomber pilot assigned to take out his friend lest he fall into enemy hands. ("In the Army Air Forces, there were 52,651 stateside aircraft accidents over the course of the war, killing 14,903 personnel.")

Jack Rencher's story of growing up pretty much on his own is a powerful one on its own. When he's cleared for a unique mission, he doesn't realize it might ultimately involve shooting a man who has become a best friend.

As the story unfolds (buried somewhat beneath tons of detail), it's easy to begin to hope that Rencher will never have to follow through with his task.

The book includes so much story and so many people — from two pilots who miraculously survive their rigorous training tests with "flying" colors and a little bit of cheating, unfair treatment of German immigrants to the parents and families all along the way and secrets kept by Presidents Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

Werner George Goering is a problem. He, too, is a bomber pilot destined for greatness, but his family name, his father's connections to infamous Nazi powers-that-be and his potential for perhaps being a traitor have U.S. government officials worried.

The story represents meticulous, impressive personal research and painstaking writing.

There's a blow-by-blow description of numerous combat clashes, narrow escapes and costly battles, showing the brutality of war and, at times, it becomes more of a textbook tale than a novel-type narrative.

One has to put on the work boots and wade in.

There is a fair amount of local detail: readers in Salt Lake City and Utah will recognize the call letters for KSL and the masthead for the Deseret News and genealogical research by historians in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Also, Goering's father worked for the LDS Church. Also, Rencher is a Mormon.

There's a bit of soul-searching going on as Rencher and Goering become fast friends. He decides his friend deserves at least a clean death and actually draws his pistol at one point.

Together they save their crew on a number of occasions.

They save each other.

The rest is actual history.

Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with 35 years experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.

Email: haddoc@desnews.com

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