Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Dick Vaughan has no problem telling the story about how he served in the Vietnam War and spent 468 days in captivity. In fact, he feels those who share their war stories tend to feel better than those who keep their stories bottled in.
The night of June 5 was no exception, when Vaughan and his wife Gale gathered at the Sew ‘n Sew store in Summerville, joined by the store’s employees who eagerly wanted to hear his story of being a POW in Vietnam.
Prisoner of War
Vaughan, who grew up in St. George, served in the Air Force. In December 1971 he was in the back seat of an F-4 Phantom, flying over the Vietnamese border when the plane was struck by a North Vietnamese missile at 25,000 feet in the air.
Vaughan and the pilot were ejected from the plane, and subsequently both were captured by the Vietnamese. Vaughan was 26 years old at the time.
Upon being captured, Vaughan was forced to march with the Vietnamese to a village – one full of civilians who had probably never seen an American before, Vaughan said.
Vaughan was sure of two things: “I ain’t going to get killed, and I ain’t going to get saved.”
Vaughan would be moved around three POW camps around Hanoi: dubbed by the POWs as the Zoo, the Plantation and the Hanoi Hilton.
Vaughan and other POWs survived off of different dishes — one delicacy the prisoners called “weed soup,” which Vaughan described as being what you got if you mowed your lawn and took all the cut grass and put it in a bowl. They also got cabbage soup which, Vaughan said, at least had a little bit of salt.
When the POWs entered pumpkin season they lived off of pumpkin juice and bread. They sometimes had “mystery meat,” which was mostly fat. Sometimes they had “greasy” fish that Vaughan forced himself to eat, and occasionally soybean curry. Vaughan had gone into the war 148 pounds and came back 113 pounds.
“They didn’t eat much better than what they gave us,” Vaughan said.
When Vaughan and the pilot of his plane had been captured by the North Vietnamese, they had been the first fliers captured in three years. The Vietnamese used them for propaganda – Vaughan’s picture made it into magazines, so his family back home knew he was alive. Vaughan was also allowed to write letters.
Day by day, Vaughan spent a lot of time in solitary confinement. At one place he was in a 16-by-16 foot room, and communicated to fellow prisoners by tapping through the wall. Sometimes they were given magazines – most were in Vietnamese, some were in French.
“It is amazing what your brain can do when you exercise it – when you’re in a room by yourself and you got nothing to do,” Vaughan said.
Vaughan would pass the time drawing the layout of St. George. At one point he drew out his parents’ house and an English-speaking guard came into his room to ask what he was doing. Vaughan showed him the drawing of his parents’ house. The guard was very inquisitive – wanted to know how big the master bedroom of the house was and how many people lived in it, and was amazed with Vaughan’s description of his parents’ house having things like mattresses and built-in bathrooms.
The POWs would sometimes get the chance to wash themselves at a trough. Vaughan said these bath times were sporadic – sometimes once or twice a week, sometimes only once a month. The water was slimy and the air was hot and humid for the most part.
On Vaughan’s last day in captivity the Vietnamese gave the POWs clothes, put them on the bus and told them they were going to the airport. They were released in groups of 40 people – Vaughan’s group was the second-to-last to be released in March 1973. He retired from the service in 1991.
Quilt of Valor
Upon finishing his POW story at Sew ‘n Sew, Vaughan was surprised by being draped with the Quilt of Valor in recognition of his service. The quilt was made by the store’s quilters — a team effort that started earlier in the year. After the quilt top was cut, pieced and sewn together by Sew ‘n Sew staff, it was quilted by Kathy’s Kreations, which donated its service.
Vaughan was draped by Sheila Moore from the Quilters of South Carolina and Sew ‘n Sew store manager Lisa Kister. It is the first time the store has ever made and delivered a Quilt of Valor.
“It’s absolutely wonderful,” Vaughan said. “It’s more than I deserve.”
Moore said the Quilts of Valor have gotten popular in South Carolina in the last two years. The quilts are meant to express gratitude for veterans’ service.
“It’s kind of our community service,” Moore said.
Vaughan was joined by his wife Gale, who dotes on the women from Sew ‘n Sew.
“I think it means a lot,” she said. “This is a very strong group. I think it was very thoughtful, very meaningful.”
Store owner Diane Walker said she remembers how the troops who fought in Vietnam were treated when they returned home because it had been such a controversial war. Years later, she is happy that her store is showing appreciation for a former POW.
“It speaks for the wonderful ladies that work here,” she said. “This is an incredible group of ladies.”
Kister said the women of Sew ‘n Sew are grateful for Vaughan’s service.
“It’s special because it’s a long-time customer’s husband,” she said.
Vaughan said sharing his story does not bother him a bit, and said he survived because: what was the alternative?
“You do what you have to do to survive,” he said.