by BARTEE HAILE
The Oct. 28, 1946 issue of Time magazine posed the question the whole world was asking: “How did Hermann Goring kill himself?”
How the last surviving member of the Nazi “Big Four” took his life mere minutes before he was scheduled to hang for his monstrous crimes was not, in fact, the issue. By the end of October, everyone knew he had swallowed a lethal dose of cyanide. The burning question was how did Adolph Hitler’s wouldbe successor get his hands on the poison while under 24-hour surveillance in the most secure prison on the planet?
Even though Hermann Wilhelm Goring was one of the most infamous villains of the twentieth century, younger readers may benefit from a brief introduction. As a fighter pilot in World War I, he shot down 22 enemy aircraft, won the “Blue Max” and was the last commander of “The Red Baron,” Manfred von Richthofen. He joined the Nazi Party in 1922, built the Luftwaffe into the most formidable air force in the world and played a vital part in Hitler’s twin policies of aggression and genocide.
With the Russians hot on his heels, Goring gladly surrendered to the U.S. Army on May 9, 1945. American officers gave him a shamefully warm reception eating, drinking and singing late into the night with the war criminal. Their disgraceful behavior brought a stern reprimand from an outraged Gen. Eisenhower.
With Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler all dead by their own hand, Goring was the lone Nazi leader left alive to face the music. Twenty-one other high-ranking defendants joined him in the dock at Nuremberg for the trial of the century, which began on Nov. 21, 1945.
To Goring, who always loved being the center of attention, the courtroom was just another stage. Throughout the ten months of the historic tribunal, he seemed to be having a wonderful time and rarely acted like a man on trial for his life.
The verdicts announced on Oct. 1, 1946 brought Goring crashing back to earth. He was not among the three defendants acquitted nor even the seven given prison sentences of ten years to life. The “reichmarshall” would hang along with 11 others.
Late on the night of Oct. 15, guards went to fetch Goring for his last meal and final preparations. They found him lying in bed on his back in his death throes with two envelopes on his stomach. One contained a cartridge with a removable cap and the other four suicide letters.
A quartet of ranking officers, including the prison commandant, cleared the cell and debated the merits of hanging Goring anyway. They finally discarded the wild idea after agreeing that the truth was bound to get out. There was no alternative but to have the body taken to the execution chamber, where the assembled witnesses could see for themselves that Hermann Goring was dead.
The official inquiry into the sensational suicide was a sham. Goring’s assertion that he had brought the cyanide into the prison with him and succeeded in hiding it for nearly a year was accepted without question. That dubious version of events conveniently let prison personnel from the commandant down to the guards off the hook.
Theories about what actually happened were a dime a dozen. Goring hid the cyanide capsule in a tiny incision in his abdomen or back, in his navel, in a tooth, in his pipe stem or in a book. His wife passed the poison to him with her goodbye kiss. He faked imminent death so the German doctor could come to his bedside and administer the poison.
The hard-pressed prison authorities and their superiors counted on it all blowing over and it did. After all, Goring was no more and that was what really mattered.
Then in 1978 Ben E. Swearingen, a public-school administrator living in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, added to his collection of WWII memorabilia the brass cartridge that once contained the cyanide capsule. He knew at first glance that it was much too big for Goring’s navel or anyplace else on his person.
Swearingen remembered a conversation with the widow of an Army lieutenant on duty at the Nuremberg prison during the trial. She had in her possession an inscribed silver wristwatch, gold fountain pen and cigarette case Hermann Goring had given to his friend Jack G. Wheelis, whom he called “the great Texas hunter.”
The former Mrs. Wheelis added, almost as an afterthought, “They thought my husband gave Goring the poison.”
A seven-year investigation convinced the amateur historian that Wheelis, the officer in charge of the prison property room, allowed his Nazi pal access to his personal belongings on the eve of his execution. And that was how Goring got his hands on the cyanide.
Swearingen presented his findings in the book The Mystery of Hermann Goering’s Suicide published in 1985. Historian and biographer Joseph E. Persico reached the same conclusion nine years later in Nuremberg – Infamy on Trial that was made into a television mini-series.
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