BY JERRY WOFFORD, Tulsa World staff writer
for the Oklahoma Press Association
WASHINGTON – James Vaughn spent five days lost and alone in the snowy Alps after bailing out of his B-24 when a mechanical failure killed two of its engines.
It was 1943 and Vaughn, of Okmulgee, was cold, tired and hungry. So, he thought the other person he saw in the snow was his mind playing tricks.
He followed footsteps over a ridge and quickly realized it wasn’t an illusion.
“There it was: The biggest gun I’d ever seen in my life right there,” Vaughn said, putting his hand inches from his face.
He was taken in and questioned, but survived and made it back to the states.
Nearly 70 years later, Vaughn was one of more than 100 World War II veterans from Oklahoma who toured the monuments and memorials dedicated to their service on Tuesday as part of the Oklahoma Honor Flights program.
The 103 veterans left Tulsa early Tuesday, Sept. 25, on a chartered flight for the whirlwind tour.
This was the 10th Oklahoma Honor Flight, and it brought the number of veterans who have taken the all-expenses paid trip to the nation's capital to 1,006. Each trip costs about $100,000, and Oklahoma veterans' trips are paid for through donations.
Family members and volunteers who pay their own way accompany the veterans and help them navigate around the monuments.
"This is a thank you 67 years in the making," said Eric Proctor, Oklahoma Honor Flights board member. "A lot who were coming home went straight to the factory or the farm. They didn't have 'the big thank you.'"
Most of the veterans on the tour are in their late 80s, with about a third 90 or older.
With World War II veterans dying at a rate of about 1,000 a day, that increases the urgency of each trip, Proctor said.
"This is something you won't see very often in the future: 103 (World War II) veterans at one time," he said.
Vaughn said that the man with the gun took him to a house and fed them, despite them not speaking the same language.
“They fed me bread and cheese and it was the best meal I’d ever had,” Vaughn said.
He was then taken by the man and another woman, still at gunpoint, to a base where four members of his crew were. They then marched across the former Yugoslavia and were able to escape to allied hands.
Considering his experience there and his life since, each day is a blessing.
“Every day I wake up without dirt in my face, I thank the Lord,” Vaughn said.
George Gideon, 90, of Skiatook has been to Washington before, but not since the National World War II Memorial was opened on the National Mall in 2004.
"That's the main thing I want to see," Gideon said. "I want to see everything they've added."
Gideon was a member of the 84th Infantry Division and said his war experience was vastly different from what's typically portrayed in popular culture.
"I was in the Battle of the Bulge. That was a booger there," he said. "It's not like you see on television where one day and it's over. We got up one day and you get up the next and do it again."
The Japanese pilot meant to crash his airplane into Alvis Holloway's U.S. Navy destroyer, but he missed his target, and the plane crashed into the water.
The sailors thought they were in the clear after the plane sank, but then the bomb the plane was carrying exploded, blowing a hole in the bottom of the ship.
"We stayed afloat for 10 hours," said Holloway, now 90, of Sand Springs.
He lived, as did everyone else on board the USS William D. Porter. But he was wounded and was sent back to the states on leave, where he was when World War II ended.
He said that viewing the memorials was a great experience, but hearing people talk about their service and thank them for their sacrifice is humbling.
"It just gets my heart," Holloway said. "It just gives you goose bumps when they talk about things that happened, and you had seen it."
EDITOR'S NOTE: At the request of the Oklahoma Press Association, Jerry Wofford accompanied veterans to the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 25, 2012. Wofford's transportation was paid by the OPA in return for an article and photos of the historic event. Wofford is a staff writer for the Tulsa World.
Posted on Thu, September 27, 2012