Virginia man shares father's story about surviving the attack
If not for the life-anddeath struggles taking place around him, the story of Melvin Vaughn getting stuck in a ship’s porthole might be amusing.
But Vaughn was on the USS Oklahoma 77 years ago, stationed at Pearl Harbor, and there was nothing comical about the date that will live in infamy.
Early on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Vaughn was topside on the battleship when he heard the hum of a low-flying plane headed his way. His son, Gary Vaughn of Spotsylvania County, said the newspaper probably wouldn’t want to print the choice words his father uttered when he recognized the rising sun image on the Japanese bomber.
Gary Vaughn shared his father’s experience, as well as his gratitude that his dad survived the Pearl Harbor attack that destroyed or damaged eight battleships and a dozen other Navy vessels. The attack also claimed more than 2,400 American sailors, Marines and civilians, including 429 men on Melvin Vaughn’s ship who didn’t make it out alive.
Within 20 minutes of the first torpedo strike, the Oklahoma flipped over, the ship’s masts jammed into the mud on the bottom of Pearl Harbor.
The close call for Melvin Vaughn, a young sailor from Ohio, was one of several he would face during World War II. The third-class seaman never said much about his time in the service until he got older.
About 20 years ago, his family sat him down and peppered him with questions, recording his account of his date with destiny.
Gary Vaughn, a retired schoolteacher, listened to the cassette tape again recently, the first time since his dad died in 2011.
“I was thinking how his voice was so familiar, and it didn’t even dawn on me that I hadn’t heard it for a while,” the son said, adding that his father’s remembrance of Pearl Harbor Day “just fell into place.”
Melvin Vaughn joined the Navy in his late teens and had been on the Oklahoma about 14 months before Pearl Harbor. He was 21 at the time of the attack on that long-ago Sunday morning, helping out a buddy by tossing kitchen waste off the fantail.
As the enemy plane approached, it dropped a torpedo and hit a nearby ship, causing it to rise up in the water. Vaughn made haste to his battle station, below the water line in the plot room, where calculations are done for the big guns.
After the first of what would be at least seven confirmed torpedo strikes, the Oklahoma started to list. By the time Vaughn reached his post, the lights were out and the order was issued to abandon ship.
In the dark and with the ship tilting at a 45-degree angle, Vaughn struggled to find his way out. Floors were slick, presumably with oil, and the environment was disorienting.
He bumped into other sailors, missed the ladder heading to the second deck, and searched for signs of light from a porthole. He finally found one, then had to climb over upside-down bunk compartments to reach it.
Vaughn was able to pull himself through the porthole, up to his waist, as water poured into the ship.
Then, his rear end got stuck. Not because he was a big man; the sailor probably weighed about 155 pounds then, his son said.
Near exhaustion, Vaughn leaned forward on his stomach to rest. On the recording, he didn’t expound on what he was thinking — his family said he was too much of a John Wayne type to admit he was afraid. Or maybe he had too many other things on his mind to contemplate what was happening.
Regardless, the leaning loosened things up, and Vaughn freed his bottom half.
Vaughn was able to get out, stand up and walk on the side of the ship. When the vessel began to roll, the sailor jumped in the water, worried he might get sucked down with the sinking ship.
He swam to nearby wreckage and eventually got transported to Ford Island and Hickam Air Force Base. He bandaged the feet of another sailor who had cut them on coral, drove a pickup loaded with dead bodies to the dispensary, and at one point bummed three cigarettes and smoked them, one after another.
Meanwhile, planes were still dropping bombs and strafing the ground with machine-gun fire as Vaughn and others scrambled around. The account sounded like something out of a Hollywood script, his son said.
At one of the two-story barracks, men were shooting at the Japanese planes with rifles, and a Marine asked Melvin Vaughn to carry 50pound boxes up to the roof. The young sailor would think about that moment for years to come.
“Dad said under normal circumstances, he couldn’t have done that,” his son said. “I can’t imagine the adrenaline. It must have been going to town on him.”
Melvin Vaughn joined others on the rooftop and fired at the planes, which were flying about 100 feet above the ground. He managed to secure an old dishpan helmet — the kind used by World War I doughboys. When a nearby sailor accidentally shot him in the head, the old helmet saved his life.
After Pearl Harbor, Melvin Vaughn spent time in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Theater, working as a welder and pipe fitter. He missed another date with destiny when the destroyer he was assigned to — the USS Hull — was sunk in a typhoon in December 1944.
“Dad had been sent to the states to go to welding class, so he wasn’t on the ship,” his son recalled. “So once again, I’m lucky to be here.”
Melvin Vaughn stayed in the Navy for 21 years, retired as a chief petty officer, then spent another two decades at a civil service job at the Norfolk Naval Station. He and his wife, Virginia, eventually moved to Spotsylvania.
The elder Vaughn joined associations for Pearl Harbor survivors; collected memorabilia, yearbooks and documents; and attended reunions. He never made it back to Hawaii, but his son did several years ago and was grateful once more that his father’s name wasn’t among those carved into the memorial.
In the last years of his life, Melvin Vaughn had problems with his balance and, before he died at age 90, he talked often about being on a ship again.
“He just swore that if he could get back to sea, he wouldn’t have any trouble walking,” his son said. “He’d get his sea legs back.”
Gary Vaughn of Spotsylvania County discusses his father, Melvin Vaughn (top photo), a sailor who was aboard the USS Oklahoma and survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. He died in 2011.