His first job in the Marine Corps wasn’t the rough-and-tumble work he had envisioned when he enlisted.
James G. Vaughn’s first assignment was shipping textbooks from Washington, D.C., to Marines enrolled in correspondence courses.
Before he signed up, the 1940 Gowanda High School graduate had worked at the old Ford assembly plant on Fuhrmann Boulevard, clocking 75 cents an hour. When that job ended in a layoff, he pumped gas and counted the days until he turned 18 and could find his destiny in the elite military branch his father, James H. Vaughn, had tried to join during World War I but was rejected for being underweight.
“I just liked the thought of being in the Marines, and there wasn’t any future in Perrysburg,” he said of the tiny town in northern Cattaraugus County. “There still isn’t any future here.”
That first job in the Marines wasn’t exactly what he had dreamed of, but history soon intervened. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and Vaughn was assigned to recruiting duty in Cincinnati and then Columbus, Ohio, for a year.
But he still wanted to be in the thick of it and transferred to sea school training in Portsmouth, Va.
Soon afterward, he was placed in a Marine detachment aboard the just-built aircraft carrier USS Hornet, a name that became famous by the launch of B-25 bombers in the Doolittle raid against Tokyo.
Aboard the Hornet, Vaughn manned a 20 mm anti-aircraft gun, frequently fending off the dreaded waves of kamikaze pilots.
“We never got hit, but one time, a kamikaze had been shot by other guns on the ship and was on fire,” he recalls. “It flew in so close to me, over our heads, and I could feel the heat from the fire. The plane crashed into the water right alongside the ship.
“We just shrugged it off. You didn’t have any choice.”
The suicidal attacks, he says, were a way of life as the Navy fought battles across the Pacific, taking one strategic island after another, often with heavy casualties suffered mostly by invading Marines.
Once during those deadly times, Vaughn and his shipmates came face to face with the enemy when Japanese prisoners were taken aboard the Hornet.
“They had been on a cargo ship that was sunk by one of our destroyers, and we were big enough to accommodate them,” Vaughn said. “They were very docile and didn’t give us any trouble whatsoever. They were in a tough position. All they had were the clothes on their back.”
After bringing the POWs to Ulithi Naval Base, the ship resumed its battles, and nature even got into the act.
“In June 1945, our task group was hit by a typhoon. I’ll tell you, it was pretty rough. They say the waves were 70 feet high and the winds 120 mph. The thought occurred to us that we might sink. It was very violent,” Vaughn remembers.
“About 35 feet of the flight deck at the forward end of the ship was bent over, and I have pictures of it.
“We tried to launch a plane, but the wind currents were such that the plane just couldn’t fly. It went in the drink. They rescued the pilot, but we lost the plane.”
Damage to the Hornet was so severe that naval officials ordered it back to Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco for repairs.
“While we were there, the war ended,” Vaughn says. “They then put us to work ferrying troops back from the Pacific. We made three or four trips between San Francisco and Hawaii. The Marine detachment was then disbanded.”
After the war, Vaughn attended the University of Buffalo and obtained a degree in business administration, launching a 10-year career as an FBI agent, followed by 19 years as a special investigator with the U.S. Department of Labor.
But his military duty was not over. He had joined the Marine Corps Forces Reserve and was called up to active duty during the Korean War. Luckily, he remained stateside, assigned to recruiting duty in Buffalo and Lockport.
In 1980, after a decade in the nation’s capital as a supervisor with the Labor Department’s organized-crime group, Vaughn retired to his boyhood home in Perrysburg, where to this day he resides in his parents’ home in the peaceful hills of the Southern Tier.
“I’m comfortable here,” he says, though memories of the battles of World War II revisit his thoughts.
In fact, he has made two trips to the West Coast to visit the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda, Calif.