Long after World War II, former B-26 Marauder medium bomber pilot Jim Vining was in a room with Adolf Galland, the German Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe (Swallow) pilot who’d battled B-26s in the skies over Europe. One of Vining’s fellow American veterans pointed at Galland and said, “That man is a killer.”
“I don’t know what a ‘killer’ might be,” said Vining in an interview. “I know it takes something unique to be a very good pilot. I would like to believe I have it. I don’t know if it’s a gift or an instinct. In tests they look at motor skills and hand-eye coordination, but there’s definitely something they can’t measure. I wanted to fly since I was fifteen years old and I’d like to believe that’s because I possess that special something. But am I a killer, as some called Galland? No. That is not who I am.”
Vining’s most memorable moment came in the midst of a raging battle high over Bavaria, on April 20, 1945, which happened to be Adolf Hitler’s 56th birthday. To add more numbers to the story, Vining was just 20 years old and was on his 40th combat mission. He had received an intelligence briefing on Hitler’s wunderwaffen, or “wonder weapons,” including the Me 262.
As the B-26s began what was intended to be a four-minute bomb run on Memmingen, boring ahead straight and level with bomb bay doors open, Me 262 jets tore into the bomber formation. The Americans did not yet know the names of any German airmen, but we know today that the Me 262 flight leader was Galland, who attacked the Marauder piloted by 1st Lt. Dale Sanders. “It happened right in front of us,” said Vining, referring to two B-26s flown by himself and by Lt. Col. Louis S. Rehr.
“All hell broke loose,” Rehr said later. “Pieces of fuselage and wing were flying all around us, along with smaller pieces that looked like confetti.” The ill-fated plane rolled over and dropped beneath the formation. Calls from other pilots to bail out went unheeded. Sanders and his six-man crew never escaped from the Marauder.
While Sanders’ plane was still coming apart in front of him, Vining decided to fight back.
It was late in the war. Some American airmen were operating from bases inside Germany. The Third Reich’s surrender would come three weeks later on May 8 – but Vining, pilot of one of the war’s best-known medium bombers, was now caught up in a situation that might prevent him from seeing victory.
Vining, a member of the 323rd Bombardment Group, Ninth Air Force, slid his Marauder out of formation in order to draw a bead on one of several Me 262s that were streaking past. His Marauder had four fixed, forward-firing .50-caliber M2 machine guns in the nose. As an Me 262 passed in front of him, Vining squeezed off a short burst.
Cannon fire from another Me 262 caught Vining’s B-26. The crack of an explosion in the cockpit stunned him. Hit, but feeling no pain, Vining realized his B-26 was falling now, its right propeller windmilling. Vining instinctively turned control over to his copilot, jettisoned his bombs, feathered the right propeller, and trimmed his rudder to counteract the yaw.
Vining’s aircraft was now out of the fight. Rehr described what happened to the others:
“As the last six Marauders passed over the initial point of the bomb run, a swarm of jets struck,” said Rehr. “Three jets following one another in ten-second intervals zoomed up from the six o’clock position, and then dove on the formation. The first and second jets barely cleared the lead Marauder flown by 1st Lt. James Hansen. The third jet would have collided with Hanson’s bomber, but at the last second, the German dove his jet under the Marauder’s right propeller. Half the jet’s rudder flew off [in the collision], and the aircraft fell away. Hanson was lucky. He managed to keep both engines running. However, every other Marauder that followed was in trouble.”
Continued Rehr: “The last Marauder in his group of six took a hit and lost both engines. Then the right engine burst into flames, and the bomber dropped through the clouds. Fortunately, its crew managed to bail out over friendly territory.
“P-51 Mustangs arrived on the scene, but they were too little, too late. Eventually, they chased the Me 262s away.”
Eduard Schallmoser, the Me 262 pilot with the severed rudder, managed to parachute to safety. Schallmoser said later that he landed in his mother’s back yard with an injured knee. Before heading back to the base and then a hospital, he enjoyed a plateful of her pancakes.
While Schallmoser was bailing out, Jim Vining looked down at his right foot, dangling from his leg by remnants of flesh. The cockpit floor was slick with his blood. “An artery was pumping out more like a fire hose,” he said.
Vining used both hands to squeeze his lower thigh “tight enough to get it down to a trickle.” His radio operator came forward and improvised a tourniquet from a headset cord.
Vining gave his inexperienced copilot a rapid-fire tutorial on landing a B-26 on one engine. His crew called in fresh jet attacks. Vining used the intercom to coordinate the bomber’s defensive gunfire and evasive maneuvers. The P-51s soon were the only fighters in the sky. P-51 pilots claimed one Me 262 shot down, but German records do not support an aerial victory.
Vining and his co-pilot headed for the big airfield at Trier, Germany, but “we were down to 3,000, and the mountains between us and Trier were 3,500 feet high.” Feeling the effects of blood loss and shock, Vining took the controls again briefly so his crew could prepare for a forced landing. Lined up on a seemingly flat stretch of farmland near Uberherrn, Germany, his copilot “bellied in,” with the landing gear up, but a deep anti-tank ditch appeared in their path. “We pancaked into that ditch and the ship broke into three pieces,” said Vining. The impact killed top gunner Staff Sgt. William Winger.
Vining’s injured crew pulled their critically wounded aircraft commander from the wreckage. By sheer luck, U.S. Army medics were nearby. They gave first aid and sent Vining three hours by Jeep to a hospital in Metz, France. “When I got there, I had no vital signs,” said Vining. A doctor told him, “It would have been easier to pronounce you dead.” Surgeons removed his right leg below the knee, but Vining recovered to walk – and fly – again. Having earned the Silver Star, he retired in 1946 as a captain. In 1981, the Vienna, Va. resident completed a 30-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency.