Military history

FOURTEEN

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MARAUDER MAN

The girls always told him he had a special shine in his eyes. In fact, they still say that.

Jim Vining nowadays touches the throttle on his high-tech wheelchair and threads his way through people and furniture at Sunrise Senior Living in Oakton, Virginia. Look closely for that glint in his eyes. Look closely for a hint of how Vining used his deft touch on the throttle to fling an eighteen-ton Martin B-26 Marauder medium bomber all over the wartime sky.

“Adolf Hitler was pretty much an abstraction to us. His jets, we knew about. We had a briefing from a grim-faced intelligence guy who showed us silhouettes of the Messerschmitt Me 262. We also had information in a classified publication called Impact,” Vining said. “Years later, someone told me that Hitler believed even in April 1945 that his miraculous jet fighters were going to turn the tide. His obsession, we knew about. He was a man obsessed.”

Interviewed on July 20, 2012, Vining, eighty-seven, was spending his days in an assisted care facility partly because his wife, Mary, is experiencing Alzheimer’s and needs more care. They’re together, just as they’ve been for sixty-four years. They’re the parents of four children. Look at them and they, too, have that remarkable brightness in their gaze, a look that exudes cheerfulness. If you have those eyes, you’re comfortable in your own skin and others can see it.

But somewhere in his heart, Vining is still piloting the B-26 that was shot down by a Messerschmitt Me 262.

February 21, 1945

Robert Des Lauriers, copilot of a B-17G Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bomber coming away from a bomb run on Nurnburg, saw an Me 262 approaching his formation. Des Lauriers, a first lieutenant, saw “a khaki gray blur with some kind of symbol on it,” he recalled, coming toward him in front of his right wing. “He was moving very fast and he kept going right past us and hit the group behind us, which was the 100th Bomb Group,” he said. Des Lauriers’s own 34th group was unscathed but shook up: “We had heard about jets, but we had not seen any before.”

The Me 262 came up on the tail of a B-17 at such high speed that a collision looked certain. The planes didn’t collide, but the cannons in the nose of the German jet opened up. The muzzle flashes were visible from the distance. Pieces of the number three engine on the B-17 began flying loose. Crewmembers began tumbling out. Parachutes snapped open and drifted with the wind.

At this late juncture in the war, fully operational German jets were claiming aerial victories over U.S. bombers almost every day. On one day, there were half a dozen kills.

Moments later Des Lauriers saw an Me 262 climbing straight up with a P-51 Mustang behind it. He has always wondered whether the P-51 pilot was successful. No official credit for an aerial victory corresponds to this event, so it’s likely the Mustang pilot did not get a kill. The jets, however, claimed several bombers. That day, 1st Lts. Harold E. Whitmore and Russell N. Webb of the 361st Fighter Squadron, 365th Fighter Group, tangled with an Me 262 pilot who apparently was Oberfeldwebel (First Sgt.) Gerhard Ronde. After Ronde apparently shot down an F-5 Lightning reconnaissance aircraft, Whitmore closed in on the Me 262 with Webb close behind. Whitmore fired a long burst from four hundred yards that set the jet afire. The two American pilots watched it disintegrate and Whitmore was credited with the kill.

Jerry Wolf, a top turret gunner on a B-17 who was visiting Berlin for the fourth time on February 21, 1945, looked out and saw a Messerschmitt Me 262 coming up behind him. “That thing was so fast, we needed two guys to describe it—one to say, ‘Here it comes!’ and one to say, ‘There it goes.’ ” I had never seen one before and I reacted quickly—too quickly. My brain and my head were turning to follow the jet, but my gun mount was stuck in the forward-firing position. I saw this jet get hits on a B-17 and then it was gone. I didn’t see the B-17 or the Me 262 again.”

Des Lauriers, Wolf, and the tens of thousands of airmen who fought in the freezing air high above the Reich were well aware by early 1945 that the B-17 Flying Fortress was no match for an Me 262. They knew that a quick burst from the jet’s four 30mm cannons could inflict so much damage to a B-17 or B-24 Liberator that the bomber crew would have little chance of making it safely home.

Des Lauriers, Wolf, and other B-17 crewmembers also witnessed the fast, blurry flying disks of indeterminate size that after the war would be known as unidentified flying objects, or UFOs. During the war, they were called foo fighters. American airmen wondered if they were some new and mysterious German weapon. They had no idea that German pilots looked at these objects and wondered if they were some new and mysterious American weapon.

The foo fighters were luminous flying objects witnessed by both Axis and Allied airmen in the skies over Europe. According to one description, they were balls of light that followed and hovered around aircraft in flight, day and night. Some of these sightings undoubtedly were misperceptions by men caught up in combat, but perhaps not all.

A radar operator in the 415th Night Fighter Squadron, Donald J. Meiers, gave the objects their name—from the cartoon-character firefighter Smokey Stover, drawn by Bill Holman, who declared, “Where there’s foo, there’s fire.” The word foo itself was a nonsense term widely used in the 1930s and 1940s. In at least some cases, Allied intelligence reported that foo fighters reported in the European theater represented advanced German aircraft or weapons.

In a debriefing following a November 27, 1944, night mission, Capt. Fritz Ringwald, the 415th squadron’s intelligence officer, stated that Don Meiers and Ed Schleuter had sighted a red ball of fire that appeared to chase their Bristol Beaufighter through a variety of high-speed maneuvers.

In Black Thursday, his account of a fateful B-17 bombing mission, Martin Caidin wrote of members of the 384th Bombardment Group seeing clusters of disks that were silver-colored, an inch thick and three inches in diameter:

And then the ‘impossible’ happened. B-17 Number 026 closed rapidly with a number of discs; the pilot attempted to evade an imminent collision with the objects, but was unsuccessful in his maneuver. He reported at the intelligence debriefing that his right wing ‘went directly through a cluster with absolutely no effect on engines or plane surface.’

The intelligence officers pressed their questioning, and the pilot stated further that one of the discs was heard to strike the tail assembly of his B-17, but that neither he nor any member of the crew heard or witnessed an explosion.

Critics question Caidin’s report that foo fighters made an appearance over Schweinfurt. No one disputes that sightings were reported during other missions in Europe, though.

February 25, 1945

In numbers the Americans hadn’t seen before, the German jets swarmed into the air in 1945. Supporting the front-line 104th Infantry Division near Duren, Germany, was the 386th Fighter Squadron of the 365th Fighter Group, “Hell Hawks,” with P-47D Thunderbolts. First Lieutenant John H. Rogers, leading eight of the Thunderbolts, was pulling off of one ground target and headed for another when ground control, call sign Sweepstakes, informed him that Me 262s were operating near Duren.

Rogers had been briefed on the capabilities of the Me 262—American airmen in some combat groups were, airmen in others weren’t, for no apparent reason—and believed he could engage a jet fighter. Rogers and his fellow Thunderbolt pilots had seen a British report, based on captured wreckage of an Me 262, that told them what to expect. In part, it read:

The outstanding advantages of the Me 262 are its high level speeds, very high diving speeds and probably high ceiling. [These] give it a good performance at 35,000 feet. Its disadvantages are due chiefly to its high wing loading—namely a high takeoff speed requiring a long takeoff run, a high stalling speed and poor maneuvering qualities. It will also tend to overshoot its target at high speed like any jet-propelled fighter.

The Me 262 will have the usual poor performance of a jet fighter at low speed. Thus, it can be attacked most easily by fighters now in service when it is cruising or climbing. In maneuvers, the Me 262 should be forced into tight turns or into a zoom, unless the altitude at which it is encountered is near the ceiling of the attacking aircraft.

When conventionally engined aircraft are avoiding the Me 262, they should not dive since the Me 262’s acceleration in a dive will be larger than that of a conventional fighter, enabling it to escape the attack, or to press home an attack on its opponent. If jet-propelled aircraft are used against the Me 262 [something that never happened], diving tactics may of course be employed. In fact, both aircraft can carry out the same maneuvers. British jet-propelled fighters now in service [Gloster Meteors] have a lower wing loading than the Me 262, and thus better turning qualities. They should be able to out-maneuver the Me 262.

Rogers and his P-47 flight made visual contact with no fewer than fifteen Me 262s. First Lieutenant James L. “Mac” McWhorter led some of the Thunderbolts in a climb hoping to reach the jets’ altitude. Just when an eyeball-to-eyeball encounter seemed imminent, McWhorter’s wingman, 1st Lt. Albert Longo, encountered engine trouble and had to turn for home. As he crossed the Roer River, Longo looked back to his right and saw an Me 262 firing at him.

Longo made an abrupt turn to the left. The Me 262 overshot him. The Me 262 pilot veered to the left as well, enabling Longo to latch onto his six o’clock position and line him up in the Thunderbolt’s gunsight. Too focused on the foe and not enough on his own instruments, Longo was firing a prolonged burst from his eight .50-caliber guns when his aircraft lurched into a stall.

He’d hit his mark. Longo saw debris fly loose from the Me 262. The German pilot went into an abrupt climb, apparently seeking to hide in a blanket of stratus above them. If a jet couldn’t outmaneuver a Jug, its pilot was going to outrace the heavily armed Thunderbolt. The jet fighter plunged into the white cloud and vanished. Longo turned for home but remained alert, wondering if the German would come back. Longo didn’t know what happened to the jet, didn’t claim a kill, and wasn’t credited with one.

McWhorter was at four thousand feet in his Hell Hawks P-47 when he spotted two Me 262s diving at him from behind, perfectly positioned to lock in on his vulnerable six o’clock position. McWhorter racked his Thunderbolt around in a violent turn with the wings vertical to the ground. He turned into the pair of German jets. “I never felt so intent,” he said.

“I turned into them. We were in a head-to-head pass. Those two Me 262 pilots were a pair of brave men, I’ll tell you. They were fully prepared to play a game of chicken with me. They came straight at me. I shot at them, but most of my attention was devoted to avoiding a collision,” he said. “Just try to imagine a Jug and an Me 262 coming together at a combined closing speed of almost a thousand miles per hour.”

McWhorter was certain his guns were scoring hits on both of the onrushing jets. His glimpse of this used up a split-second. And then, the moment was gone: McWhorter’s P-47 and the pair of Me 262s whipped past each other with very little space to spare. He estimated that they were twenty feet apart. McWhorter cranked his robust Thunderbolt around into another tight turn intent on pursuing the two jets, but they were speeding away. He knew a tail-end chase would never succeed.

McWhorter added throttle and climbed over Duren. At twelve thousand feet, he observed another Me 262 making a firing pass on a brace of Thunderbolts. He pulled up and fired a ninety-degree deflection shot from two thousand yards. He continued to pull lead, closing to one thousand yards and observing many strikes on the Me 262. The German jet wobbled and emitted spurts of black smoke. The German pilot banked to the left and settled on a heading that would take him north of Cologne. With his maneuvers, McWhorter had now slowed the speed of his Thunderbolt and had no realistic possibility of chasing after the faster jet. He abandoned the chase and returned to his Hell Hawks Thunderbolt formation.

As the P-47 group reassembled in the sky high near the front lines, the American pilots saw an Me 262 that appeared to be strafing ground troops. Flight leader Rogers was contemplating a fast dive to try to catch the Me 262, but it flew away before anyone could act. No more enemy aircraft appeared to be nearby and fuel was low, so the P-47s returned to their airfield on the continent.

The Hell Hawks were in the air again later in the day, with flight leader 1st Lt. Lowell Freeman Jr. up front. The members of the 365th group’s 386th Fighter Squadron received orders from a ground controller and were preparing to dive-bomb a ground target when a radio call announced that more Me 262s had been spotted.

Too distant to engage, the Americans watched two Me 262s fly over Duren, arrive at the front, and make a strafing run on friendly ground troops. The Hell Hawks were unable to pursue.

February 25, 1945 (continued)

This busy day was not, however, over for the fighter pilots of the Eighth Air Force, including those of the 55th Fighter Group. Captain Donald E. Penn covered the fray in an after-action report:

I noticed two Me 262s airborne and two more taking off from Giebelstadt airdrome. We were flying at 13,000 feet and I ordered the squadron to drop tanks and engage the enemy aircraft, dived on one jet, using fifty inches of mercury and 3,000 RPM.

He was making a slight turn to port at 1,000 feet, heading back toward the drome, so I leveled off 3,000 yards behind him and went to full power. My indicated air speed was about 500 miles per hour and I expected him to use full-power, as well, to attempt to pull away from me. However, I closed rapidly from 1,000 yards.

At 500 yards, I observed the 262 had his wheels down. I cut down on my power and at 300 yards started striking the aircraft in the power unit. Closing to 50 yards, I broke sharply over the top of the jet, watching him as he rolled over, went straight in, and exploded.

Other P-51 Mustang pilots who had success fighting Hitler’s jets included Capt. Donald M. Cummings, who bagged two Me 262s, and 2nd Lt. John F. O’Neil, who was credited with one. First Lieutenant Milliard O. Anderson, 2nd Lt. Donald T. Menegray, and 1st Lt. Billy Clemmons were other 55th group pilots who shot down Me 262s. A member of Donald Blakeslee’s 4th Fighter Group, 1st Lt. Carl G. Payne, also knocked down an Me 262 that day.

April 10, 1945

On April 10, 1945, no fewer than 1,300 bombers of the Eighth Air Force set out to destroy the last of the Luftwaffe’s jet force. However, unknown to the bomber crews and their fighter escort, the enemy jets were already airborne and waiting to spring their deadly trap. As the war in mainland Europe entered its final, bloody phase, the German armies defending Berlin fought on with a savage determination, slowly disintegrating before the mighty weapon of war unleashed against them. What remained of the Luftwaffe was mercilessly pounded from the air, their airfields hammered relentlessly. Aircraft, fuel, spare parts, ammunition, and pilots all were in short supply, but still they fought on, with deadly effect. At the forefront of the German offensive, and pivotal during the defense of the Reich, were the highly advanced jet fighters of the Luftwaffe, and in particular the Me 262.

“They must have thought it was a fearsome weapon,” said medium bomber pilot Jim Vining. Considering what was about to happen to him, he should have been more impressed. But Vining had a lot of faith in his own airplane.

“The B-26 was our best twin-engined bomber,” said Vining. “It was almost as maneuverable as a fighter.” At low level, where much of the war on the European continent was fought, the B-26 Marauder was a hot, metal-smelling, cramped, sweaty airplane with six men busily occupied keeping it aloft and defending it with guns. At high altitude, it was cold. In the war in Europe, it was always cold.

“It was a cold, wet day, like so many of them, but above the weather it wasn’t a bad day for flying,” Vining said.

He was referring to the fact it was Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday.

WONDER WEAPON

April 20, 1945

The Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe, or Swallow, looked like a shark. In dense green camouflage sullied by rain from low-hanging clouds, Hitler’s Wunderwaffe was almost the color of the ocean predator it resembled. The twin-engine jet fighter looked grimly functional and weather worn.

Me 262 pilot Adolf Galland, until recently wearing the title General of the Fighter Force, or General der Jagdflieger, was considerably higher rank than Unteroffzier (Corporal) Eduard Schallmoser, and Galland’s dark features and moustache gave him a grimly serious look in contrast to Schallmoser’s boyish smile. The two were brothers in a way that transcended military rank. They were among the couple of dozen who had been at the controls of a jet fighter in combat—and they would be again today. Their outfit was Jagdverband 44 (JV 44), also known as “Der Galland-Zirkus” (The Galland Circus), and was stationed at Munich-Riem. It was the place to which Reichsmarshall (Marshal of the Realm) Hermann Göring dispatched the inconvenient Galland in the fond hope Galland would be killed in action. Another of their brotherhood was Unteroffzier (Cpl.) Johan “Jonny” Müller, who would later believe himself, incorrectly, to be responsible for shooting down Jim Vining’s B-26. Another still: the 1,100-sortie, 196-kill air ace Hauptmann (Capt.) Walter Krupinski.

Gifted with a better sense of humor than Galland, even on this brooding day, Schallmoser couldn’t resist a complaint about the unreliable Jumo turbojet engines that were the main flaw of the Me 262. “I may have to ram an American plane,” Schallmoser said, “if I want to get a new plane of my own with engines that work.” It wouldn’t be the first time. Two weeks earlier on April 4, Schallmoser racked up the first aerial victory for his flying unit by colliding with the prominent twin tail of a P-38 Lightning in an ear-grating collision that sent the P-38 tumbling wing-over-wing toward the ground. The P-38 pilot bailed out. Schallmoser saw his parachute, a gray-white blemish, drifting across farmland. Schallmoser limped partway home and bailed out too—but in massive battles with P-51 Mustangs, the Me 262 force lost eight aircraft in a single day. Now, Schallmoser was getting into the air again.

On April 20, 1945, Vining and his crew tromped through a damp drizzle to sit down for a briefing at Valenciennes-Denain airfield, also called A-83, in France. They were members of the 454th Bombardment Squadron, part of the 323rd Bombardment Wing, which came ashore just after D-Day and had been caught up in heavy fighting, including the Battle of the Bulge, while the men struggled with the discomforts of living with crude accommodations on the continent. Vining was twenty years old and was about to command his crew of six while flying his fortieth combat mission. As predicted, the weather began to clear when the men walked to the revetment where their B-26 awaited.

“It shouldn’t have been a bad day for me,” Vining said. “Sure, there might be flak over our target, the railroad marshaling yards at Memmingen in southwestern Germany, but we had flown through flak before. Sure, we had been briefed that the Germans had a new jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me 262—we had seen one in the distance, two weeks earlier—but we felt we could handle ourselves.”

To everyone except perhaps those in Hitler’s bunker in the German capital, it was apparent that the war was near its end. For a month, the Red Army had been hammering at the outskirts of Berlin. On this date, April 20, 1945, Soviet artillery reached inside the German capital for the first time, beginning the Battle of Berlin, which would last for a dozen days. Hitler and his minions, ensconced in the Führerbunker, were shielded from the shelling, unlike almost everyone else in the capital. And on this date, a weathered-looking Führer made what most historians agree was his final, above ground appearance to award Iron Crosses to boy soldiers of the Hitler Youth. A handful of conspiracy theorists suggest that Hitler was making an escape and that the faux Führer who made this final public appearance was a double.

Either way, Vining and other American airmen went into action aware of a situation that Vining called a mixed blessing—the Allies absolutely dominated the skies, yet the jet fighters flying in the defense of the Reich were taking a heavy toll of friendly aircraft. The Eighth Air Force, which began with a handful of airmen back in the early days, could now put a thousand bombers over a target anywhere within what remained of the Reich. The Ninth Air Force, to which Jim Vining and his fellow Marauder Men belonged, was on the ground, on the continent, blasting away at withering resistance on the Western Front. At least a few German pilots were deserting or defecting, but the Luftwaffe remained formidable and was still able to put its sharklike Me 262s aloft to challenge the conquerors.

“My regularly assigned bomber wasn’t available, so I was piloting a borrowed aircraft,” Vining said. “Usually, when you had to borrow a plane, they gave you a hangar queen. They gave me a plane with the name The Ugly Duckling painted on the side. It just didn’t have the smooth, easy performance of the Marauder I was accustomed to.”

In the front right seat next to Vining was copilot 1st Lt. James R. Mulvihill. Looking ahead from behind the Plexiglas nose cone of the Marauder was the togglier, an enlisted version of a bombardier, Staff Sgt. J. D. Wells, who was geriatric at age thirty-three and had never been inside an airplane before joining the army. Unlike the others aboard the B-26, neither Mulvihill nor Wells trained with Vining stateside, but this crew had been together in the combat zone for some time now. Vining was aware of small tensions among the men, but for the most part the crew performed well.

Filling out the six-man Marauder crew were three who had been with Vining in the United States—engineer/gunner Cpl. Henry C. Yates, radioman/gunner Cpl. Newton C. Armstrong, and gunner Sgt. William “Bill” Winger.

Vining said the Marauder was far from comfortable. On combat missions, crews flew without heat because the heaters were built around the exhaust stacks, “and if those got hit you’d have carbon monoxide inside the plane,” he said. The Marauder was not pressurized.

“Starting engines: We have a guy on the ground with a fire extinguisher, staying on alert in case of fire. He signals the pilot to start the prop. You start with the left engine, the number one engine. We begin each combat mission knowing when we’re expected to taxi out; you have to be in the right place at the right time because we take off in twenty-second intervals,” he said. “You get up and get into a formation and headed out.”

But before all that, the crew just had to get into the B-26.

“How do you get into a Marauder?” Vining said reflecting on his time in the B-26. “We climb up through the nose wheel well. The guys in back climb into waist windows. You have to be acrobatic: they don’t have ladders for the waist openings.

“You can move back and forth between the front and back of the fuselage by going through the bomb bay. The crew consists of six men: pilot, copilot, bombardier (or togglier), and three gunners, one each with additional duty as a radioman, an engineer, and an armorer.”

Forty-eight B-26s were part of a larger strike force hitting hard from the air. In a memoir, Louis S. Rehr, who was commander of a Marauder squadron, wrote, “Our initial point was a town called Kempten, south of Memmingen. Here we tightened up our individual groups of six for a four-minute bomb run. We opened the bomb bays and held steady. Arcs of light flak, probably from positions in the higher terrain, crossed our path. Fifteen more seconds until the drop.”

“Suddenly, an aircraft ripped the skies directly overhead. Instantly, all hell broke loose. Within seconds, flames billowed from the left engine of a Marauder flying directly behind box leader Smith,” he added. Rehr was referring to Me 262 ace Krupinski’s 197th and last aerial victory of the war, a Marauder that careened to earth on fire, taking its crew with it.

In a history, Robert Forsyth wrote that when Schallmoser, flying a jet marked as White 11, attacked one of Jim Vining’s fellow B-26 pilots, his MK 108 cannon jammed. “Schallmoser quickly looked down at his gun firing button, and, as he did so, the Me 262 took a him dangerously close to the bomber formation. When Schallmoser looked up, it was too late.

“Attracting fire from the Marauder gunners, White 11 scraped into the starboard engine propeller of the B-26 piloted by Lt. James H. Hansen. On impact, the jet rolled over and nosed down through the enemy formation streaming black smoke, with pieces of its own debris falling behind it. One American gunner reported seeing ‘parts of the right wing break away.’ ”

Hansen struggled mightily and succeeded not only in keeping his bomber aloft but in keeping the right engine turning over, even though the propeller was badly smashed. This was a very bad day for Marauder Men, but not for Hansen and his crew, who made it safely back to their base.

Vining peered through his windshield and saw an Me 262 spitting 30mm cannon shells at him and his crew. He decided to fight back.

“You were supposed to turn and run. I wasn’t going to do that,” Vining said.

Vining slid his B-26 out of formation. This gave him a good aim at the Me 262 in front of him and he squeezed off a burst from his bomber’s four fixed .50-caliber machine guns.

Cannon fire from a second Me 262 caught Vining’s B-26. The crack of an explosion in the cockpit stunned him. Hit, but feeling no pain, he realized the B-26 was falling now, its right propeller windmilling. Vining turned control over to copilot Mulvihill, jettisoned his bombs, feathered the right propeller, and trimmed his rudder to counteract the yaw.

Vining looked down at his right foot. It was 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 radioman Armstrong came forward and improvised a tourniquet from a headset cord.

Another flight of Me 262s stalked the Vining’s now-crippled bomber. While Vining gave his inexperienced copilot a rapid tutorial on landing a B-26 on one engine, his crew called in warnings of fresh jet attacks. Vining used the interphone to coordinate the bomber’s defensive gunfire and evasive maneuvers.

Like the cavalry coming to the rescue, a pair of American P-51 Mustang fighters arrived. In a series of rapid, high-speed maneuvers, the P-51 pilots shot down one of the German jets and chased away the rest.

Vining and Mulvihill headed for the big, U.S.-held airfield at Trier, Germany, but “we were down to 3,000, and the mountains between us and Trier were 3,500 feet high,” Vining said. Feeling the effects of blood loss and shock, Vining took the controls again so the crew could prepare for a forced landing.

But Vining was too weak from loss of blood to stay on the controls. Lined up on a seemingly flat stretch of farmland near Uberherrn, Germany, Mulvihill was about to belly in when the crew saw a deep antitank ditch in its path. It was too late, though. The Marauder slammed into the ground with tremendous force. “We pancaked into that ditch and the ship broke into three pieces,” Vining said. The impact killed top gunner Staff Sgt. William Winger.

Vining’s battered crew pulled their critically wounded aircraft commander from the wreckage. By sheer luck, army medics were nearby. They gave first aid and sent Vining on a three-hour Jeep journey 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, the nation’s third highest award for valor, he retired in 1946 as a captain.

In 1981, Jim Vining retired from a thirty-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency. He doesn’t talk about the CIA, but he will say working there wasn’t as interesting as fighting Hitler’s jets.

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