Remembering a local hero from WWII
When you start writing on a topic in American history, old lectures are recalled, notes with yellow margins are dusted, book margins are checked for offhand thoughts, and oral histories are continued for a personal touch. Then, out of the blue, you discover something that has managed to simmer under the radar for several years.
World War II was not only a time of catastrophic events, but also a time when heroes emerged. Almost all of the returning soldiers were treated as special veterans. Their efforts on behalf of the country have been officially recognized in the GI Bill of Rights.
The men and women who fought the four-year conflict were young members of the “greater generation” and were anointed “warriors of freedom”.
Heroes Among Us
One of these heroes lived among us, raised a family after his service, and attended veterans events as if what he did during the war was routine. That hero is William “Willy” Vaughan of Austintown, Ohio.
I discovered his military life while researching a B-17 Flying Fortress that is being restored at Grimes Field in Urbana, Ohio.
When Vaughan graduated from high school, German war clouds formed over European countries. Japan was straining its muscles in the distant Pacific Islands, and the Great Depression still had a hold on the nation’s economic life.
Born August 14, 1920, Vaughan had spent his childhood hanging out at local airports harassing pilots for rides and learning about the disguised construction of various flying machines. He liked to tinker with mechanical objects, especially radios.
When Vaughan graduated from Austintown Fitch High School in the spring of 1938, he was five feet nine inches, weighed 140 pounds, and had brown hair and brown eyes. He worked briefly as a production clerk for the Pittsburgh Glass Company, then enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
Willy’s career in the Army Air Corps began as a private on November 13, 1941, three weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He would retire as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force reserves.
By the time he joined the crew of the 666 B-17 bomber, assigned to the 5th Air Force / 65th Bombardment Squadron, Vaughan had already participated in operations in Corregidor, Java and Singapore. He had also participated in the airlift of General Douglas MacArthur and President Manuel Quezon from the Philippines to Australia in early 1942.
On another mission, his B-17 had to land to refuel on a primitive forward airstrip. While refueling the plane, the airfield crew and personnel were ambushed by a force of five hundred Japanese soldiers. The crew detained the attackers for 10 hours before the arrival of reinforcements. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Silver Star and was promoted to Technical Sergeant for his efforts.
When Vaughan joined the Flying Fortress crew, he was 22, and his time and experience won out over the other nine members, including “cowboy” pilot Jay Zeamer. Fitch’s shy but attentive graduate had been in the South Pacific since training camp and had spent 200 flying hours fighting the Japanese.
In the spring of 1943, Zeamer convinced his superiors to give him his own plane. None were available because most of the bombers were heading to Europe for the Eighth Air Force Group. From the start, the US high command had determined that defeating Germany was the top priority, which resulted in sustaining action until the summer of 1943 for the Pacific Theater.
In an abandoned aircraft graveyard, Zeamer found a decaying skeleton of a B-17E that had been cannibalized for parts. With his permission, he assembled a crew and began to restore the B-17 which was originally built by the Boeing Company in Seattle and carried assembly line number 2477.
Assigned to the 5th Air Force based near Port Moresby, New Guinea, he was flown overseas via Hawaii to Australia in May 1942. The Army Air Force assigned the serial number 41-2666 and l The initial crew named her “Lucy”.
The crew “stripped Lucy”, gave her a new name “Lucky 666”, puffed her up, and made her a cranky sky demon.
By mid-June 1943, the reconstruction and modifications were completed and gave a new definition to the term “flying fortress”. She was the most heavily armed bomber in the US Army Air Force. There were 16 50 caliber machine guns, including a nose mounted that Zeamer could fire from the pilot’s seat.
Bougainville Island was the key to Operation Cartwheel scheduled for November 1, 1943. For the army, navy and navy invasion of Solomon Island, the Army Corps of Engineers had to map the area. invasion. They needed photographs.
Due to Japanese air superiority in the Rabaul region, the mission was considered too perilous to order anyone to do it; it should be done by volunteers.
Captain Zeamer, who had flown 45 combat missions, volunteered the crew, and June 16, 1943 was the day. They were to photograph Buka and Bougainville – a 1,200 mile mission to the target and back. The Japanese zeros were about to meet the “beast”.
At 8 am, “666” was over target and photographing when 22 Japanese zeros, from two airfields, were all over the B-17 like a blanket. It would be the longest continuous air combat in Army Air Force history – 45 minutes.
The bomber, Joe Samoski, was killed, the Zeamer pilot suffered serious leg injuries, and the other eight were injured but not with fatal injuries. Vaughan suffered neck injuries.
The plane and the equipment were in disarray. It was riddled with 187 bullet holes and five cannon shells which damaged the flaps and tail, the hydraulics and most of the instruments. The 666 was literally “fly on a wing and a prayer”.
After the aerial combat and over the Pacific Ocean, the crew discovered that they had no sense of direction without radio equipment and compass. Vaughan, nursing a neck injury, remembered an old Navy radio he had collected and started playing with the dials and keys. He was soon sending messages in Morse code.
The Australian warships and coast guards who received the messages promptly sent instructions. They were “247 ° M.” It was an Allied airfield, cut out of the jungle, called Dobodura. It was a 6,000-foot fighter runway, but it was a hundred miles closer than Port Moresby, home base “666”.
It was a hard landing which forced the co-pilot, without flaps or brakes, to buckle the bomber to the ground at the end of the runway. Two days later, the Army Corps of Engineers had the trimetrogon cameras.
Fifty-seven years later, Captain Jay Zeamer will write: “I owe my life and that of all our crew to Willy. By his ability and knowledge, he was able to secure a landing space for a crippled B-17. “When he handed me a small piece of paper that simply said 247 ° M, it allowed me to find Dolodura and safety.”
Vaughan spent two months recovering from his injuries. He was assigned to another B-17 in October 1943 and took part in the Battle of Finschhafen. Forced to jump over the Bismarck Sea, he and two other crew members drifted ashore on Manus Island.
After 73 missions and 22 months in the Pacific War, he was returned to the United States. Vaughan was officially credited with downing nine Japanese planes and four probable. He received the Distinguished Service Cross with Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, a Purple Heart, a Presidential Citation for Bravoure, and a Gen. MacArthur for the mapping mission. He is also a member of the most decorated crew in the history of the United States Air Force.
Returning to the United States, Vaughan graduated from the Army Air Corps Bomber Flight School, and after the end of World War II he served in the Air Force Reserves, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel.
He was also a former Commander of the Reserve Officers Association, active in veterans affairs, was posthumously inducted into the Ohio Military Hall of Fame and was added to the National World War II Honor Roll Museum in New Orleans.
He died at the age of 79 in 1999 and was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Youngstown, Ohio, as an American hero. It’s your story!
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