Customer Reviews: Hell Above Earth: The Incredible True Story of an American WWII Bomber Commander and the Copilot Ordered to Kill Him
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on March 17, 2012
Hell Above Earth is a prime example of a World War Two story where truth is stranger than fiction. Who would have imagined that the nephew of German Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering would be flying bombing missions over Germany as an American B-17 bomber pilot? Author Stephen Frater has crafted a gem about Werner Goering, (Herman's nephew), and his co-pilot Jack Rencher, a tough Arizona sharp-shooter who was hired to fly with Goering and kill him if necessary. This truly is one of the most bizarre stories of the air war over Europe. When I tried to write about it in detail in my own book, most of the late Jack Rencher's comments were off-the-record at his request, and Mr. Goering dismissed any close link to his infamous uncle. Somehow, Frater was able to get Jack on the record and also to gain Mr. Goering's trust so that he would open up and discuss a relationship that he probably is none too proud of. So here, finally, the story is told in full. It is 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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on May 8, 2012
I found this book's basic premise difficult to believe. An Army Air Forces B -17 aircraft commander is deemed a security risk because of his close family relationship to a leading Nazi. His co -pilot is therefore armed with three M1911 Colt .45s and authorized to shoot him if he thinks it necessary.
Couldn't all this drama have been avoided by either assigning Lt. Goering to the Pacific theater or retaining him stateside as an instructor ? Also, wouldn't the Federal Bureau of Investigation have been able to establish definitely whether the pilot was actually related to Hermann Goering ?
All this aside, the book is literally filled with errors regarding aviation. For instance, student pilots soloed during the primary stage of their training, not basic.Also, any student pilot seen flying under a bridge would have found himself in the infantry before noon the next day. An aircraft engine starved for oil would not carry a pilot twenty miles upside down to a destination leaving mechanics to marvel over a red hot, glowing engine.
In the case of Richard Bong's fatal accident, his P -80 didn't " stall ". The airplane crashed on takeoff due to a failed fuel pump inducing an engine failure, and Bong died because he jumped from the airplane at an altitude that was too low to permit his parachute to deploy.
There is also a reference to a B-17's " tail rudder". The correct term is rudder. Finally, an airplane is refered to as a C-47 Skytrain Dakota.The airplane in question is either a Skytrain or a Dakota depending on whether it was operated by the USAAF or the RAF. It cannot be both at the same time.There was plenty more where all this came from. I agree with an earlier reviewer who stated that this book could have really used a ruthless editor, and preferably one with a strong background in aviation.
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on May 21, 2013
This book is very poorly written and most of its contents have very little to do with the purported topic. The author jumps back and forth at random and is constantly repeating himself. There are also glaring errors in many places, one example being talking about Hermann Goering leaving the infantry for the air force because his health was ruined by the trenches, then dating the change to a time when the armies were still manuvering and trenches were rare. There are many other factual errors which have been noted by other reviewers.

I think the author camee across an interesting factoid about an alleged relative of the Reichsmarshall serving as a B-17 bomber pilot, then decided to throw in enough random filler to get paid for a book. Even the story hook about his copilot being prepared to shoot him seems poorly supported and overly dramatized. A truly dissapointing book.
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on May 30, 2012
I have to say that the WWII theme is one of my favorites to read about. And when it touches WWII AND the air war over the skies of Europe, even better. That's why I picked up this book. The added premise of the unlikely story of the Hermann Goring's nephew being a B-17 commander fighting against him, was the cherry on top of the cake. But... what a dissapointment. If there is an example of a great story botched in the middle of bad writing, glaring lack of editing, and a complete hodge-podge of irrelevant facts, as well as dubious facts (already mentioned here by other reviewers), this is it.

I can't recall reading a book that has gotten to my nerves as much as this one due to all the repetitions and fillers throughout the book. Here's an example, from page 188 of the hard cover when the author is quoting from Hell's Angels' archives: " (...) Later Captain Eisenhart was known as the only Captain who had urinated in the face of a General and got away with it." Immediately after the quote, the author writes: "Eisenhart became known as the only captain who had pissed in the face of a general and got away with it." I mean... why? Why restate the obvious? It's like telling a joke and keep repeating the punch line. This is a small example, but the book is riddled with such examples. It's maddening!

As for the facts, many reviewers have already mentioned some of them. A glaring one that I caught was the fact that the author attributed the nickname "Iron Ass" to William C. Heller, which is in fact, incorrect. The nickname "Iron Ass" belonged to Heller's mentor, General Curtis LeMay. If one only reads Heller's biography online, specifically in the 303rd website, there is no single mention that attributes this nickname to him, whereas in many other historical and readily available resources, it is clearly documented that the nickname "Iron Ass" or "Old Iron Ass" is attributed to General Curtis LeMay.

The end of the story is also highly unlikely in my view. Why would Werner Goering's father lie about being the Reichmarshal's brother or half brother? What about all the letters mentioned in the beginning of the book? Why would the Reichmarshal write back to an impostor (since it seems to me, according to the author, that Werner's father's letters to Hermann Goring were answered)?

In summary, the story is a actually a great story. It had allot of promise and that's why I read this book from cover to cover, regardless of the distractions. The author made a poor job in telling this story, which is surprising, given his credentials. It's an unorganized, confusing, distracting, poorly written account that could have been saved if a half decent editor had reviewed this work. A real pity and a real waste.
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on May 6, 2012
I want to first credit the author for his attempt at telling an interesting and little known bit of WWII Air Force history and for ultimately uncovering some very important truths. I also want to thank him for telling the story of some our nation's greatest heroes whose story deserved to be told.

Unfortunately, the story-telling is a scattershot disaster of writing. As others who have rated this book (besides the usual friends-of-the-author who ridiculously gave this book 5 stars) have said, the book is replete with redundancies, so much so that at one point I thought there was something wrong with my iPad and I was being taken back to the same chapter over and over. Then, also as others have stated, the text is rife with anecdotes and side-stories which have no relevancy to the tale. It's as though the author was being paid by the page rather than by the content. Was there even an editor for this book or was it self-edited? If there was an editor it's time for him or her to find another line of work. While the book starts off well with some interesting background into the main characters, it quickly veers off into a select history of the 8th Air Force and other select ruminations of the author's mind that has nothing really to do with the main story. I'm guessing that in part this is because this story would have made a great magazine article but just doesn't have the depth for a complete book. Finally, the author jumps around between the main story and complete asides so much that it's practically impossible to follow what's going on. It's just a mess.

I think if Mr. Frater could take the manuscript to a competent editor and publisher this could be made into a short but fine read about some great men. If he would stick to the real heart of what we readers thought we were buying into when we purchased this book the end result would be far better. Unfortunately I could not recommend this book as it is written now.
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on October 10, 2012
This story would have made a wonderful mystery, but instead the author filled the book up with statistics on the awful death rate of pilots and flyers during WWII. Since I hadn't known that flyers were only so much fodder to be sent into combat with not a lot of hope of returning to base alive, the information was welcome. The advertised story just wasn't there. I toughed out listening to it just because I was so appalled by the careless attitude of the military toward the "common guy."
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on May 29, 2012
A fellow passenger on an airline was reading "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand, and we were talking about that excellent book. He recommended "Hell Above Earth" to me, and I thought it sounded like a good read. I took his suggestion.

Sad to say, Stephen Frater told a great story in a repetitive and choppy and repetitive manner. The story was choppy and repetitive. And the book was repetitive, in a way that was both distracting and irritatingly repetitive.

Many, many little details were repeated nearly word-for-word throughout the book, which cycles back and forth among the Eighth Air Force flyers and their wartime missions in a choppy and repetitive way.

Some examples (I have the dead-tree version of the book. Someone with an e-reader will doubtless find more.):

* The story told about the gunner whose arm was severed and who was pushed from the air to parachute into captivity in the Prologue is repeated on page 93.
* We learn that Werner's navigator Markt was "a near-psyche case," but the pilot admired him for not "bugging out." p.95 and p.137, same words.
* Werner's crew wonders if he is "rank-happy, bucking for medals and promotions." page 98, again on page 139.
* "Many men had died ... half a mile from their bunks after otherwise successful 1,500 mile missions." That's a great line -- once.
* "Wounded men suffering from blood loss and shock were highly susceptible to hypothermia" page 105 and again page 167.
* "Three-fourths of all bombs dropped by the Allies in the European theater fell in the last year of the war." This is in there at least three times.
* Compare these two: "...Captain Eisenhart was known as the only Captain who had urinated in the face of a General and got away with it." p. 188 "Eisenhart became known as the only captain who had pissed in the face of a general and got away with it." also p. 188.
* We read about the Messerschmitt 262 jets attacking a squadron of Flying Fortresses near Magdeburg, Germany twice in a chapter -- p. 181 and page 190.
* We read this about Dresden on page 196: "Dresden, a city of baroque palaces, art galleries, and opera houses..." and then on page 197: (about Dresden) "...destroyed baroque churches, ancient palaces, historic museums, and art galleries." First they were Baroque, then they were destroyed, eh? I'm making light of a tragedy, but the repetitive writing is a trememndous distraction. Twice on a page, Dresden gets designated as "Florence on the Elbe." That's on page 197.

So, while I was interested in the stories of Werner Goering and Jack Rencher, this book was a hard slog. The impressive, every-day courage these WWII pilots summoned is a worthy story. The surprise ending, at least, was a surprise. I'll remember the substance and try to forget the style.
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on May 6, 2012
This is the poorest written compelling thing I have read, perhaps ever. Usually something this badly edited, with this much digression into semi-related topics and jumpy transition, would find itself tossed into the corner with all the other trash fiction. (The Kindle makes that a much less satisfying gesture, by the way.)

The underlying story is simply so interesting that I was unable to put it down.

That's even more surprising because it's not just badly written and edited, but it seems to suffer from no editing whatsoever ... all, and I do mean all, the research notes seem to have found their way into the book, no matter how tangentially related to the topic. No doubt the author felt he was offering context on the WWII period, perhaps for clueless readers, although I can't imagine anyone who didn't have some previous knowledge of WWII ever picking up the book in the first place. Perhaps it tells us more about the author's ignorance going into the project than it does about WWII.

It's even worse, if that's possible, in that the contents suffer badly from the "Time Magazine Effect", wherein things seem plausible until you encounter some topic that you actually know something about yourself and find the author is completely wrong on that topic. How is it possible, thereafter, to trust anything the author says on topics you know less about? Another reviewer mentions this in regard to the Empress of Ireland disaster. I realized it when the author talked about playing Russian Roulette with a 7-shot Colt .45, which is a semi-automatic pistol and not something anyone would use for that game. He later mentions the safety lever on the weapon, confirming that he did, in fact, mean the 1911 Model .45 Colt. He has, by the way, one of his main characters, someone experienced with guns, carrying three of them on his person during bombing missions, perhaps the stupidest thing I can imagine someone doing in those circumstances. Clueless author.

Spoiler Alert ... even when we get near the end and find the big reveal about the true genealogy of Goering, it's still such an interesting story that I, for one, pressed on to the end.

It may be that my personal interest in this story arises because my father was an air cadet at the same time young Goering was. The descriptions of the training of flyers for WWII thus grabbed my interest immediately and held it, probably longer than the book deserved.
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on September 25, 2012
Great content, but very poor execution. It lacks a cohesiveness narrative and the author jumps from subject to subject with little structure. Very close to being fantastic.
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on May 20, 2012
I bought this book as like stories on the Air Force in world war II. My Dad flew out of England. This sounded like an exciting book about a German American flyer related to Herman Goering. The book never brings the people to life. They are like paper cut outs.He has way too many random numbers of losses of people & aircraft. The stories of exploits are faily good but mean little over all. Werner never seems like a real person. The ending ( which I won't tell) was a complete disappointment & made the whole book worthless as it killed the main point of this badly told tale. I wanted to like it but over all a D+.
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