The German airman in charge of training NATO combat pilots in the U.S. is facing criticism for hanging a portrait of a Nazi fighter ace outside his office at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.
German Air Force Col. Stefan Kleinheyer, the 80th Operations Group commander, has on display a print of a Messerschmitt 262 fighter jet above a bust of Wolfgang “Bombo” Schenck, along with the World War II pilot’s signature.
It’s one of at least four pieces of art of swastika-emblazoned Luftwaffe aircraft at Sheppard, though it’s unclear whether they predate Kleinheyer’s time as group commander.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a New Mexico-based nonprofit advocating on behalf of current and former airmen who object to the memorabilia, is calling for Kleinheyer’s removal, for the artwork to be taken down and for a formal investigation.
The organization “condemns in the strongest language possible the United States Air Force and German Air Force senior leadership at Sheppard AFB for engaging in the shocking promulgation of wretched Nazi Luftwaffe propaganda with the nauseating prominent display of a number of paintings,” said its founder, Mikey Weinstein.
Col. Brad Orgeron, who took command of the 80th Flying Training Wing on June 24, has launched a review of the wing’s artwork and artifacts to ensure they are professional and include appropriate historical context, Air Force spokesperson George Woodward said in a statement to Air Force Times on Monday. The wing historian, its staff judge advocate, chaplain and public affairs staff will take part in the review.
All historical displays at the wing should “contribute to a healthy work environment, promote the shared NATO values of tolerance and cooperation, and frankly and appropriately address the historical foundations on which the unique [Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program] partnership is built,” Woodward said.
“No one in a leadership position at the 80th Flying Training Wing, ENJJPT or Sheppard AFB endorses the Nazi swastika, nor the ideology it represents,” he said. “There have been no previous complaints regarding the image made to the chain of command at Sheppard.”
The Air Force did not answer why or when the four works were put on display, or whether they have been removed. Kleinheyer did not respond to a direct email seeking comment.
“Although display of this particular artwork does not imply Department of Defense support or endorsement of an unauthorized flag, it has been conferred to the wing historian’s office pending further review,” Woodward said.
Sheppard hosts airmen from 14 countries as part of the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program, which graduates about 200 pilots and 80 instructors each year.
Kleinheyer has served as the ops group commander in charge of the program since July 2019, and is among the highest-ranking German officers in the United States. He previously ran a Eurofighter wing in western Germany and worked as a spokesperson for the German Ministry of Defense.
Publicly displaying Nazi symbols is in many cases illegal in Germany, punishable by three years in jail.
“It is outrageous that a picture of a Nazi who killed countless Allied airmen and others is celebrated on a U.S. Air Force base,” a retired Air Force colonel and judge advocate general, on whose behalf the foundation is advocating, said in a statement provided by Weinstein.
The group did not reveal its clients’ names out of fear that the Air Force would retaliate.
Who was Bombo Schenck?
Schenck received the Knight’s Cross and oak leaves for his performance in combat — among the highest military honors bestowed by the Third Reich. He downed nearly two dozen Allied aircraft during World War II.
He flew in the Nazi blitzkrieg bombing of Poland, Norway and France, then worked at an experimental aircraft test wing, according to the Gathering of Eagles Foundation, a nonprofit that “aims to preserve the United States Air Force’s legacy through the celebration of 70 years of airpower and empowerment of youth in Alabama’s River Region.”
In May 1944, Schenck led Special Command E-51, a German unit that tested the country’s new Messerschmitt 262 jet as a fighter-bomber plane against Allied ground forces in France, the foundation said. He again piloted the Me-262 as commander of a bomber wing, and served in other oversight roles with fighter and bomber forces.
“Schenck flew over 400 combat missions in World War II in a variety of aircraft, achieving 18 aerial victories and sinking 40,000 tons of Allied shipping,” the Gathering of Eagles Foundation said. He died in 2010.
He was included in the Air Command and Staff College’s “Gathering of Eagles” program at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, which hosts lectures by significant figures in military aviation history to “inspire future leaders to achieve greatness,” the foundation said.
Schenck was one of four Luftwaffe pilots in the class of 1990 who were recognized alongside Americans such as Paul Tibbets Jr., the Air Force brigadier general who dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945, and Apollo 11 astronaut and Air Force fighter pilot Buzz Aldrin, according to an artwork of the honorees.
Thomas Wiegold, a German reporter who has covered the country’s armed forces since 1993, told Air Force Times that the artwork appears to be Kleinheyer’s way of commemorating Schenck as a jet aircraft pioneer.
“We’ve had other examples like Helmut Lent or Joachim von Marseille, both fighter pilots with the Wehrmacht [armed forces of Nazi Germany], who’d acted more or less as Nazi regime poster boys,” Wiegold wrote in an email Monday. “I do not see a similar case with Schenck … his decorations — which were quite usual for successful fighter pilots in WWII — notwithstanding.”
Other framed works in the building that houses the Euro-NATO pilot training program include a print of a painting depicting German fighter ace Adolf Galland chasing a Royal Air Force Defiant plane in his Me-109. Galland, a decorated pilot who brought down 103 Allied aircraft, and served as the top general overseeing Luftwaffe fighter aircraft until he was relieved of command in 1945.
Another signed work shows a group of Me-262 pilots, led by Galland, fleeing to the mountains before shooting down an American P-47 later that day, the retired Air Force colonel said in a statement from the religious freedom advocates.
A third print depicts the Ju-52 transport plane carrying regime officials over the mountains.
While Wiegold said the Schenck portrait is arguably aviation history, he added that the others are part of Nazi history — with nothing to glorify.
“The history of the 80th Operations Group began in World War II — defending the United States and training pilots for combat,” the retired Air Force colonel said in the written statement from Weinstein. “That any senior U.S. officer would see this on display and not immediately tear it off the wall is unfathomable to me.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.