It was one of the most baffling mysteries of the World War II era.
How did convicted war criminal Hermann Goering manage to poison himself as U.S. soldiers prepared to hang him?
A dozen competing theories have swirled for nearly half a century about how the onetime Nazi second in command was able to commit suicide despite around-the-clock surveillance of his military prison cell.
Some historians assert that Goering had the cyanide poison with him throughout his 11-month war crimes trial in Nuremberg, Germany. The poison was hidden under a gold dental crown, or in a hollowed-out tooth, or beneath slicked-back hair, or inserted in his navel or his rectum, various accounts have theorized.
Others contend that someone sneaked poison to him shortly before his death -- maybe a U.S. Army officer Goering bribed with a watch, or the German doctor who regularly checked on him, or a Nazi SS officer who passed it to him in a bar of GI soap, or his wife, Emmy, who slipped it from her mouth to his in “a kiss of death” on their last visit.
They’re all wrong, according to Herbert Lee Stivers.
“I gave it to him,” said the retired sheet-metal worker from Hesperia.
Stivers, 78, said he had kept the secret of his role in Goering’s death for nearly 60 years, fearful that he could face charges by the U.S. military. Now, at the urging of his daughter, he has decided to go public, he said.
Whether Stivers is telling the truth is impossible to know. Other key players in Goering’s case are dead.
An Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon declined to comment on Stivers’ statement. But military records do show that Stivers was a guard at the Nuremberg trials.
And some historians contacted by The Times believe his story has a ring of truth. At the very least, they say, Stivers’ account underlines the continuing puzzle of how one of the 20th century’s worst criminals evaded final justice.
“It doesn’t sound like something made up,” Cornelius Schnauber, a USC professor who is director of the Max Kade Institute for Austrian-German-Swiss Studies, said of Stivers’ tale.
“It sounds even more believable than the common story about the poison being in the dental crown.”
Schnauber said he believes that someone smuggled in the poison ampul that Goering bit into two hours before he was to be hanged. “It could have been this soldier,” he said.
According to Stivers, Goering escaped the hangman because of a teenager’s puppy love.
A 19-year-old Army private when he was assigned guard duty at Nuremberg, Stivers said he was only trying to impress a local girl he had met on the street when he agreed to take “medicine” to a supposedly ailing Goering.
Stivers was a member of the 1st Infantry Division’s 26th Regiment, whose Company D was assigned to serve as the trial’s honor guard. The white-helmeted guards escorted the 22 Nazi defendants in and out of the Palace of Justice courtroom and stood at parade rest behind them during court sessions.
It was boring, Stivers said.
“We spent two hours on and four hours off. They wanted us to be alert and look neat. People had come from all over the world to see the trial,” he recalled.
“We didn’t carry guns. We had short billy clubs that we held behind our backs. That helped us hold our hands behind us. You’d get pretty tired standing at parade rest.”
The guards were free to chat with the prisoners and even collect their autographs.
“Goering was a very pleasant guy. He spoke pretty good English. We’d talk about sports, ballgames. He was a flier, and we talked about Lindbergh,” Stivers said. Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly nonstop across the Atlantic, had received a medal from Goering before World War II.
Between court sessions, there were few diversions for the guards. “Off-hours, we had company clubs,” Stivers said. “That was the only recreation, except for Frauleins.”
Stivers had a German girlfriend -- an 18-year-old named Hildegarde Bruner -- to whom he gave candy bars, peanuts and cigarettes he got from the military commissary so she and her mother could trade them for food on the black market.
But he had an eye for pretty girls. And one day outside a hotel housing a military officers’ club, Stivers said, he was approached by a flirtatious, dark-haired beauty who said her name was Mona.
“She asked me what I did, and I told her I was a guard. She said, ‘Do you get to see all the prisoners?’ ‘Every day,’ I said. She said, ‘You don’t look like a guard.’ I said, ‘I can prove it.’ I’d just gotten an autograph from [defendant] Baldur von Schirach, and I showed it to her.
“She said, ‘Oh, can I have that?’ and I said sure. The next day I guarded Goering and got his autograph and handed that to her. She told me that she had a friend she wanted me to meet. The following day we went to his house.”
There, Stivers said he was introduced to two men who called themselves Erich and Mathias. They told him that Goering was “a very sick man” who wasn’t being given the medicine he needed in prison.
Twice, Stivers said, he took notes hidden by Erich in a fountain pen to Goering. The third time, Erich put a capsule in the pen for him to take to the Nazi.
“He said it was medication, and that if it worked and Goering felt better, they’d send him some more,” Stivers said. “He said they’d give him a couple of weeks and that Mona would tell me if they wanted to send him more medicine.”
After delivering the “medicine” to Goering, Stivers said, he returned the pen to the young woman.
“I never saw Mona again. I guess she used me,” Stivers said. “I wasn’t thinking of suicide when I took it to Goering. He was never in a bad frame of mind. He didn’t seem suicidal. I would have never knowingly taken something in that I thought was going to be used to help someone cheat the gallows.”
But two weeks later -- Oct. 15, 1946 -- Goering did just that. He left a suicide note bragging that he’d had the cyanide in his possession all along. A subsequent search of Goering’s belongings locked in a prison storeroom uncovered another cyanide vial -- standard-issue for Nazi leaders -- hidden in luggage.
Stivers was shaken by Goering’s suicide. Guards who were on duty at the time of the death were grilled by Army investigators. But Stivers and other honor guard team members were asked only if they had seen anything suspicious.
The Army’s investigation concluded that Goering had the cyanide all along. The report pointed to Goering’s note and concluded that the vial was “secreted in the cavity of the umbilical” and at other times “in his alimentary tract” and behind the rim of his cell toilet.
Some historians and others have long been skeptical of the official account. Some Jewish leaders have wondered if Goering escaped the hangman with help from a sympathetic American.
In his 1984 book “The Mystery of Hermann Goering’s Suicide,” the late author Ben Swearingen brushed aside the Army’s conclusion as well as numerous alternative theories.
Swearingen speculated that Army Lt. Jack Wheelis, who had a key to the prison storeroom, had allowed Goering to visit the storage area shortly before his death to retrieve the poison pill from his luggage. Wheelis -- who died in 1954 -- had previously been given a wristwatch and other personal items by Goering.
Swearingen did not explain how the closely watched Goering might have gotten to the storeroom. But his research does suggest how the Nazi might have briefly hidden something like the “medicine” Stivers said he delivered.
Goering, who was obese, had lost a lot of weight in prison. By the end of the trial, he was draped in sagging skin that could have easily concealed the capsule. And during the two weeks before his suicide, Goering had passed up opportunities to bathe in a heavily guarded shower area where a concealed vial might have been spotted.
Stivers said he has been haunted by his actions with the fountain pen for 58 years.
He said he has pondered the various theories on Goering’s poisoning in an unsuccessful search for a plausible explanation that would ease his sense of guilt.
“I felt very bad after his suicide. I had a funny feeling; I didn’t think there was any way he could have hidden it on his body,” he said.
The Army’s explanation never rang true to him, Stivers said, noting that Goering “was there over a year -- why would he wait all that time if he had the cyanide?”
It was daughter Linda Dadey who urged him to reveal his role. He disclosed the fountain pen story to her about 15 years ago.
“I said, ‘Dad, you’re a part of history. You need to tell the story before you pass away,’ ” said Dadey, 46, of Beaumont. “It’s been on his conscience all his life.”
Stivers agreed to do so after learning that the statute of limitations had run out long ago, preventing any prosecution of a case against him.
His story “is crazy enough to be true,” said Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. “But there’s no way in the world it can be proven. Nobody really knows who did it except the person who did it.”
As for Stivers, he’s convinced that he’s that person. And, he said, “I feel very bad about it.”