Remembering a local World War II hero

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When you begin to write about a topic in American history, old lectures are recalled, notes with yellow margins are dusted, book margins are checked for glib thoughts and oral histories are pursued 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 an age not only of catastrophic events but also a time when heroes emerged. Almost all returning soldiers were treated as special veterans. Their efforts on behalf of the country were officially recognized in the GI Bill of Rights. 

The men and women who fought the four-year conflict were young members of the “Greatest Generation” and were anointed “Freedom Warriors.” 

Hero among us

One such hero lived among us, raised a family after his service, and participated in Veterans events as if what he did during the war was just routine. This hero is William “Willy” Vaughan of Austintown, Ohio. 

I discovered his military life while doing some research on a B-17 Flying Fortress that is being restored at Grimes Field in Urbana, Ohio. 

When Vaughan finished high school, German war clouds were forming over the European countries. Japan was flexing its muscles in the far islands of the Pacific, and the Great Depression still had a grip on the nation’s economic life. 

Born Aug. 14, 1920, Vaughan had spent his childhood hanging around local airports pestering pilots for rides and uncovering the disguised construction of the various flying machines. He loved to tinker with mechanical items — especially radios.

Enlisted

When Vaughan graduated from Austintown Fitch High School in the spring of 1938, he stood five feet nine inches tall, weighed 140 pounds, and had brown hair and brown eyes. He worked a short time as a production clerk for the Pittsburgh Glass Company and then enlisted in the Army Air Corps. 

Willy’s Army Air Corps career began as a private on Nov. 13, 1941, three weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack. He would retire as a Lt. 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 seen action at Corregidor, Java, and Singapore. He had also participated in the airlifting of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and President Manuel Quezon of the Philippines to Australia in early 1942. 

On another mission, his B-17 had to land to refuel at a primitive forward airstrip. While refueling the plane, the crew and airfield personnel were ambushed by a force of five hundred Japanese soldiers. The crew held off the attackers for 10 hours before reinforcement arrived. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Silver Star and was promoted to Technical Sergeant for his efforts. 

Flying Fortress

When Vaughan joined the crew of the Flying Fortress, he was 22 years old, and his time and experience trumped the other nine members, including “cowboy” pilot Jay Zeamer. The shy but attentive Fitch graduate had been in the South Pacific since boot camp and had 200 hours of flight time logged fighting the Japanese.

In the spring of 1943, Zeamer convinced his superiors to give him a plane of his own. None were available because the bulk of the bombers were going to Europe for the Eighth Air Force Group. From the beginning, the American high command had determined that defeating Germany had top priority, which translated into a holding action until the summer of 1943 for the Pacific theater. 

Restoration

In a boneyard of junked airplanes, Zeamer found a rotting skeleton of a B-17E that had been cannibalized for parts. With permission, he assembled a crew and began to restore the B-17 that was originally built by the Boeing Company in Seattle and had the assembly-line number 2477. 

Assigned to the 5th Air Force based near Port Moresby, New Guinea, it was ferried overseas via Hawaii to Australia in May 1942. The Army Air Force assigned the serial number 41-2666 and the initial crew named it “Lucy.” 

Lucky 666

The crew “stripped Lucy down,” gave her a new name “Lucky 666,” souped her up and made her an ill-tempered demon of the heavens. 

By the middle of June 1943, the reconstruction and modifications were completed and gave a new definition to the phrase “flying fortress.” She was the most heavily armed bomber in the U.S. Army Air Force. There were 16 50 caliber machine guns, including one mounted in the nose that Zeamer could fire from the pilot’s chair. 

Bougainville Island was the key to Operation Cartwheel scheduled for Nov. 1, 1943. For the Army, Navy, and Marine’s invasion of Solomon Island, the Army Corps of Engineers needed to map the area for the invasion. They required photographs. 

Because of Japanese air superiority in the area of Rabaul, the mission was considered too perilous to order anyone to do it; it would have to be done by volunteers. 

Reconnaissance mission

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 Zeroes were about to meet the “beast.” 

By 8 a.m., “666” was over the target and photographing when 22 Japanese zeroes, from two airfields, were all over the B-17 like a blanket. It would be the longest continuous dogfight in the annals of the Army Air Force — 45 minutes. 

The bombardier, Joe Samoski, was killed, pilot Zeamer was seriously injured in his legs, and the other eight were injured but not with life-threatening wounds. Vaughan suffered neck wounds. 

The plane and equipment was a mess. She was riddled with 187 bullet holes and five cannon shells that damaged the flaps and tail section, the hydraulic system and most of the instruments. The 666 was literally “flying on a wing and a prayer.” 

Vaughan comes through

Following the dogfight and out over the Pacific Ocean, the crew discovered they had no sense of direction without a radio and compass equipment. Vaughan, nursing a neck wound, remembered an old Navy radio he had salvaged and started to fiddle with the dials and keys. He was soon sending Morse code messages. 

Naval vessels and Australian coast watchers who received the messages were soon sending directions. They were “247°M.” This was an allied airfield, chopped out of the jungle, called Dobodura. It was a 6,000-foot fighter plane runway, but it was one-hundred miles closer than Port Moresby, the “666” home base. 

It was a hard landing requiring the co-pilot, without flaps and brakes, to ground loop the bomber 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 would write, “I owe my life and the lives of our entire crew to Willy.” By his ability and knowledge, he was able to get a landing space for a crippled B-17. “When he handed me a small piece of paper that said simply 247°M, this enabled me to find Dolodura and safety.” 

Vaughan spent two months recuperating from his wounds. He was assigned to another B-17 in October 1943 and took part in the Battle of Finschhafen. Forced to bail out over the Bismarck Sea, he and two other crew members drifted ashore on Manus Island. 

Honored

After 73 missions and 22 months in the Pacific war, he was rotated back to the U.S. Vaughan was officially credited with shooting down nine Japanese planes and four probables. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross with Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, a Purple Heart, a Presidential Citation for bravery, and a citation from Gen.  MacArthur for the mapping mission. He is also a member of the most decorated aircrew in American Air Force history.

Back in the states, Vaughan graduated from the Army Air Corps bomber pilot flight school, and after World War II was over, he served in the Air Force Reserves, reaching the rank of Lt. Colonel. 

He was also a past commander of the Reserve Officers Association, active in veterans affairs, was inducted posthumously into the Ohio Military Hall of Fame and was added to the honor roll at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. 

He died at age 79 in 1999 and was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Youngstown, Ohio, as an American hero. That’s your history!

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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.

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