Valor: Beating the Luftwaffe’s Best

Sept. 1, 1995

April 20, 1945, promised to be a good day for 20-year-old 1st Lt. Jim Vining, a B-26 aircraft commander of the 323d Bomb Group based at Valenciennes in northern France. The 48 crews that were to bomb marshaling yards at Memmingen in southwest Germany had been briefed to expect no opposition from Luftwaffe fighters and little if any flak. Allied armies were closing in on Berlin; German surrender could be only days away.

Lieutenant Vining had flown his 39th mission–a milk run–the previous day. Today’s strike had the earmarks of another. He could not know that he was to become the central character in one of the most unusual but little-noted dramas of World War II.

Jim Vining was assigned a war-weary B-26 borrowed from another squadron. By the time it was ready to roll, the bomber stream had disappeared to the southeast. He would have been justified in aborting, but that wasn’t Vining’s style. At max cruise, he caught up with the formation as it crossed the Rhine. There, the benign operational briefing began to break down. The bombers were greeted by heavy flak. When they turned north at Kempten on a bomb run to Memmingen, they were attacked by some 20 Me-262 jet fighters, each armed with four 30-mm cannon firing explosive shells.

Three of the German jets attacked Vining’s flight leader, the third coming so close that part of its tail was chewed off by the flight leader’s right propeller. As the -262 flashed past Vining, he broke from formation and opened fire with his four forward-firing .50-caliber guns, scoring hits before the jet dove away. Vining pulled back into formation and immediately was hit by a fourth -262 that had come up from behind. The Lieutenant felt what he describes as “a slight sting” in his leg. Looking down, he saw his right foot dangling by a shred of skin, blood gushing from the severed artery. Simultaneously, the right engine went to idle, and the B-26 rolled sharply to the right.

Before attempting to stanch the flow of blood from his severed foot, Vining helped his copilot, Lt. Jim Mulvihill, roll the wings level. He then feathered the right prop, trimmed the plane for one-engine flight, and signaled the bombardier to jettison the bomb load. Only then did Vining use both hands to compress the pressure point behind his right leg to slow the flow of blood.

Now a straggler, Vining’s B-26 was attacked by several Me-262s coming in from all directions and turning violently to avoid each other. Though gradually weakening from shock and loss of blood, he continued to act as aircraft commander, telling his copilot when to break to spoil the enemy attacks and drive them away.

Ten minutes later, three enemy jets returned. Vining continued to direct his crew’s defense. Thanks to his split-second tactical assessments, the jets scored no hits on the B-26. During the two engagements in which his gunners believed they shot down four -262s, Vining gave his copilot, who had come to the group directly from pilot training with no B-26 transition, a cram course on how to get the bomber safely on the ground.

Vining did not believe he would survive, but he was determined to save the crew. He told them to set course for Trier, the nearest field that could handle a single-engine landing flown by a copilot whose controls did not have brake pedals.

During its engagements with the -262s, the B-26 had been forced down to less than 3,000 feet. When the last of the enemy fighters left and waist gunner TSgt. N. C. Armstrong had applied a tourniquet to Lieutenant Vining’s leg, they were near Stuttgart. Vining knew they could not clear the mountains bordering the Rhine. The crew refused to bail out and leave him to die in the inevitable crash. He told copilot Mulvihill to find a suitable field and prepare to belly in, but first bombardier SSgt. J. D. Wells had to get out of the nose. That required the copilot to slide his seat back, out of reach of the controls, to give Wells access to the flight deck.

While that was being done, Vining took control of the B-26 and flew a 360-degree turn to the left before losing consciousness. The belly landing, with flight engineer TSgt. Paul Yates assisting Mulvihill, would have been successful had it not been for an unobserved tank trap. When the B-26 hit the trap, it broke up, killing the top turret gunner, SSgt. Bill Winger, and critically injuring Wells.

By coincidence, they had landed beside a hospital train whose medics gave them emergency care. Vining, near death from loss of blood, was rushed by Jeep to an Army hospital at Metz, three-and-a-half hours away. Both he and Wells survived.

Lieutenant Vining was awarded the Silver Star for extraordinary heroism that April day more than 50 years ago. Copilot Mulvihill received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Vining was promoted to captain, retired for physical disability, and completed graduate school. Later, he spent 30 years with the CIA before retiring in the Washington, D.C., area, where he continues to fly. As the saying goes, you can’t keep a good man down.

Published September 1995. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.