Vir­ginia man shares fa­ther's story about sur­viv­ing the at­tack

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - BY CATHY DYSON

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.”

MIKE MORONES/THE FREE LANCE-STAR

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.

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