Jim Vining touches the throttle on his high-tech wheelchair and threads his way between people and furniture at Sunrise of Hunter Mill in Oakton.
Look closely. You can catch a hint of how Vining used his deft touch to fling a B-26 Marauder medium bomber through the freezing-cold high blue of northern Europe during World War II.
"The B-26 was our biggest twin-engined bomber," said Vining in a July 20 interview. "It was almost as maneuverable as a fighter. If you got into an air-to-air battle, you could do a lot with it."
Vining, 87, is living at Sunrise partly because his wife Mary, who is experiencing Alzheimer's, "needs assisted care more than I do." They're together, just as they've been for 64 years. They're the parents of four children.
Assisted living is just the latest challenge for Vining, who has a special kind of sparkle in his eyes. That brightness was evident when he pinned on Army Air Forces' second lieutenant's bars and pilot wings Jan. 7, 1944, becoming at 18 the youngest B-26 aircraft commander in the AAF.
Before long, he was a seasoned veteran.
On April 20, 1945, Vining and his crew of six took off from Valenciennes-Denain airfield in France to attack a German marshalling yard. Vining was now 20 years old and flying his 40th combat mission.
"My regularly assigned bomber wasn't available, so I was piloting a borrowed aircraft," said Vining. "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."
High over Bavaria, the jet fighters recently introduced by the Germans intercepted Vining's 48-plane bomber force. The jets were called Messerschmitt Me 262s. They were the wunderwaffe, or "wonder weapons," with which an increasingly desperate Adolf Hitler hoped to turn the tide of a war he was losing.
Vining peered through his windshield and saw an Me 262 spitting 30-mm. 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 his copilot, jettisoned his bombs, feathered the right propeller, and trimmed his rudder to counteract the yaw.
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 radioman came forward and improvised a tourniquet from a headset cord.
Another flight of Me 262s stalked 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 intercom 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 his co-pilot 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." 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 was about to "belly in" when they saw a deep anti-tank ditch in their path. It was too late to change course and the Marauder slammed into the ground with tremendous force. "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 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.
The war in Europe ended three weeks later on May 8, 1945. Having earned the Silver Star, the nation's third highest award for valor, Vining was medically retired in 1946 as a captain.
In 1981, Jim Vining retired from a 30-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency. He and Mary lived in Vienna for many years before a recent move to Oakton.