James Vranna, A Life Well Lived

I had met James Vranna years ago when I was attending an art show in Washburn where I was showing some of my World War 2 aviation paintings.  In visiting with him I gathered he had been a WW2 pilot and that he had been injured in a crash in England.  I could tell by scars on his face that he had gone through a devastating injury but he didn’t want to talk about the crash and I didn’t press him about it.  He did say he spent a long time in hospitals after the crash.  He told me one humorous story about when he was in the hospital after getting back to the states.  It seems that the doctors were worried about Jim and another patient because they had a hard time putting on any weight.  The doctors decided to give them several cans of beer a day in an effort to get them to “fatten up”.  Jim said he and his beer buddy were the envy of the whole ward as beer was not normally available to the patients.
As the years went by I continued to interview other veteran aviators and do paintings to honor their service.  All the while I remembered Jim and thought someday I would like to document his story.
In the summer of 2012, I was looking through the obituaries and with sadness saw that James Allen Vranna had passed away.  He was 91 years old.
It was then that I decided to research his service and life story.
Jim had grown up and graduated from High School in Taylor, ND in 1939 and attended Mayville State collage for 2 years.   Jim volunteered and joined the Army Air Force in 1942, trained as a multi-engine pilot and ended up getting his wings as a 2nd Lieutenant, flying the B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber.   Jim often commented that he got his pilot license before he got a driver’s license!
Lt. Vranna had the thrill of flying a brand new B-17 across the Atlantic to England and was assigned to the 544th Squadron of the 384th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force, stationed at Grafton Underwood.
Jim was in the process of going through operational training, preparing for flying missions against the Germans over the continent.  The number of missions a bomber crewman was expected to fly this time of the war was 30.  James Vranna never got the chance to fly his first bombing mission.
Jim had volunteered to copilot a B-17 in the late afternoon of  August 4th 1944.  They were to “slow time” a new engine that had been just put on the bomber.  Slow timing an engine was necessary to make sure the engine was running properly before putting it under a full combat load.
James took off with a minimal crew of five with Lt. Howard Jung as pilot, 2nd Lt. Thomas Bates as navigator, Sgt. William Sellars as radioman and Sgt. Harold Perry as tail gunner.  A full crew would have required 5 more for a bombing mission, a bombardier and four additional gunners.
Lt. Jung took off and the plane gained altitude, all the while James was making performance checks on the new engine.
It has been said that the second enemy for the flyers out of the United Kingdom was the Germans.  The first?  The English weather.
It was at this time that the unpredictable English weather reared its ugly head.  Before the crew realized it, the pea soup fog had rolled in and before they had a chance to try to land, the ground was totally obscured.  To make matters worse, it was also getting dark.
Fog lowered the ceiling over their airbase at Grafton Underwood to only 300 feet.  The tower advised Lt. Jung to find another field to land but all the other fields were also fogged in.
Grafton Underwood tower Flying Control tried using flares and mortars to guide the aircraft in.  Jung made two passes over the field but could not land.  On his third pass the aircraft’s wing tip struck a tree and the B-17 spun into the ground and burned.                                                                                                   All on board were killed except for James, who suffered major multiple injuries and third degree burns.  Jim’s injuries were so bad that the first accident report listed him as a fatality as he was not expected to live.
Jim was hospitalized in critical condition for over a week and much to everyone’s amazement his condition improved.  As soon as he was well enough to make the trip, he was sent back to the states.  James spent the next three years recovering in hospitals and went through a series of reconstructive surgeries.  One day when Jim was at Valley Forge General Hospital in Phoenixville PA, and in a dark depression combined with survivor guilt, a kind nurse laid a beautiful rose on the table next to his bed.  Jim concentrated on the beauty of that rose and it encouraged him to look forward to the future and not dwell on the pain of the past.  That rose strengthened his faith and awaken in him his life time interest in gardening.
Upon his discharge from the hospital and the military, he returned home to North Dakota and completed his degree in history at Dickinson State College.  It was during this time that he met Miss Viola Boschee, the love of his life, who was teaching in Taylor.  They married on Dec. 26, 1948.  The couple spent the next decade in Taylor, where they both taught.   Jim also served as principal, coach and athletic director.
Jim, Vi and their first two sons moved to Washburn in 1958, where he continued to teach and serve as principal, and where their third son joined the family.  He also served as superintendent of schools for a period of time, directed many plays and coached student speakers.
After retirement, Jim enjoyed hunting, fishing and golf.  He also kept up with his gardening that was started by that rose so many years before.
I found the records of the crash that Jim was in at the 384th Bomb Group web site.  The records of the crash listed no survivors.  Jim was listed killed in an aircraft accident on August 4th 1944.
I contacted the web site manager to inform him that the James Vranna, listed as killed that fateful day, actually went on to live a long and very productive life until he passed away on July 22nd  2012.
The manager thanked me and corrected the records immediately!
Sources:  Jim’s son, Greg Vranna              384th Bomb Group records and accident report