James D. Vaughn
Included below is part of the story of James D. Vaughn who disappeared, along with the rest of the crew withhim on thir B-24 bomber on a mission of the coast of China, in 1944. We have graciously been given access to many materials on Mr. Vaughn by his family, and will make it all available here. Please also see a story of our visit to the family of James Vaughn here
. James Vaughn--brother, husband, son, cousin, and hero, and never forgotten.
See more photos in the James D. Vaughn Collection
Meet These Unforgotten Tigers:
The Crew of Bomber #44-40785-J
April 15, 2002
After returning from Liuzhou city, Guangxi province, China, last month I felt compelled to uncover the history of the unknown American airmen of Fourteenth Air Force whose plane crashed at Mulong village (Lagou township) during World War Two. I wanted to tell their families what I had seen and heard about the experiences of their loved ones, and I wanted to know what had happened to them after they left Mulong village, and to see if any of those men just might still be alive. What I found was a story of both sorrow and gladness, and surprise.
The eleven men took off in a B-24 bomber from Liuzhou at 18:37 on October 16, 1944 to search for Japanese shipping in the South China sea. Passing through light broken clouds on the way, they arrived over the twilight sea and started searching, using radar. However, soon one of their four engines started losing oil pressure. Their altitude was low—just 7000 feet—so they immediately climbed to 12,000 feet on all engines. Shortly the engine failed completely. Now at a safer altitude they turned back towards Liuzhou on the remaining three engines. But it was not going to be easy. The Japanese had blocked the radio compass beacon at the base, filling that frequency with music and talk. In the blackness the men could not know the exact direction to fly, and could only go in the general direction of Liuzhou. There was nothing else to do so they flew on sightless, by compass. Twenty minutes after they should have arrived—and with the base nowhere to be seen—they radioed in. You are sixty miles to the east, the controllers at the base told them, and gave them a new bearing. With half relief the pilot put the plane on the new course. However, they would not be safe until they touched the earth, as each man on the plane was all too aware as he counted each mile. The men on the ground also knew the bomber was in trouble. Despite the risk to the base, they turned on the searchlights, shining them into the air, to help guide the floundering plane back to Liuzhou.
Yet fate was to be against the men in the air, for they could see the searchlights in Liuzhou when another engine lost oil pressure and caught on fire. While the pilot fought to hold the plane level, and the fuselage filling with thick smoke, the other ten men jumped out of the flaming, rocking plane into the blackness of midnight. After everyone else had jumped, only then did the pilot let go of the controls and stumble back as the uncontrolled plane bucked and spun, to throw himself out of the open bomb-bay doors. He watched from his parachute by the light of the flames as the airplane immediately spiraled away below him and crashed into an unknown earth.
Since the eleven men had jumped out at different times, they were spread over a large area. Six of the men came together at Mulong village, where they were taken care of for a time by the people of the village, then later taken to Liujiang county and hosted by magistrate Yang Chousong, who “fed them well” (as one US military report says), and arranged for them to be taken back to Liuzhou. The other five walked out of the mountains separately having various different adventures and difficulties over a couple days, but all eleven made it back safely to Liuzhou in the end.
Afterwards one of the men had emotional difficulty dealing with his experiences on that flight and in parachuting out—his third time to leap into the sky from a stricken American airplane! He was hospitalized, and then returned to the US. Truly, the experience of those men during that age was hard, and few of us have ever faced anything so difficult or terrifying.
Another six of the men were transferred to a new B-24 bomber back in Kunming, Yunnan province.
At least two of the original crew are alive today.
But that is not the end of the story. For I found this information mostly through the Internet, with the help of generous people in the US I have never met in person, but who have an interest in the Fourteenth Air Force and China. And after a while during my search for information, amazingly, I made contact with someone who was searching for information about this same plane and crew! His cousin, James D. Vaughn, was on that plane, was one of the men who parachuted out into the mountains around Mulong village. James went off to fight the Japanese in China—a land so unknown and far away for them—and never came home. His family has wondered and thought about him ever since.
James, a radioman on the airplane, was one of the six original crew who transferred to a new airplane in Kunming after the crash. They took off in their new plane from Kunming on December 18, 1944—just two months after the previous crash—for a sea sweep of the South China Sea and were never heard from since. Even today, no one knows what happened to them. James and five others who parachuted out near Mulong village, along with new crewmembers, simply vanished. No trace has ever been found. James was only 21 years old.
For someone you love to disappear is the hardest thing. You cannot know for sure if they are alive or dead, and you cannot stop hoping, even when you tell yourself there is no hope. It is an aching in-between world for the living—for those who have a hidden place in their hearts that still waits, though we plead for it not to. Even the US government could not consider them dead for one whole year, and James’ official date of death is listed as December 19, 1945, a year and one day after their disappearance.
And James was loved. He was raised on a small farm in the southern state of Texas. A natural athlete, taking part in American football, basketball, and track, he entered the US Air Force right out of high school. He was one of those special few people who are well liked by all, and his friendship was especially treasured by those who knew him. Indeed, so much so that after the war three different men all named their sons after James—four sons in honor of one young man. But for one small cousin, who was only a boy when James vanished, James was even more special. He was a hero so big in his six year old eyes that even 58 years could not make him smaller, could not take away the vivid memories and dreams, and could never make the love dim.
I got much help from James’ cousin once we made contact—he even mailed to me declassified US military reports about the crash at Mulong village, and a picture of the crew. It helped me understand an event that had gripped me. Yet it was not just me who gained. James’s cousin was getting ready for a family reunion, a traditional type of American gathering of the larger extended family that is organized every ten years or so. They will meet on May 31 of this year, and he wanted to know more about James before that time so that he could share with his family, including James’ younger brother.
When I told the story of my experiences in Liuzhou learning about the crash, and the kind people I had met, I believe that what I shared meant something to James’ family. All these years the family had yearned to know just a little more about what had happened in China during the time this lost son spent here, and to understand what he did, who he met, how he lived, and maybe, even painfully, to understand better how he died. In some way the knowing can make it better in a small fashion—or at least help the living put the lost to rest. And maybe to think that some of the people James met while here were like the good-hearted people I met in Liuzhou may have added to understanding and comfort. I sure hope that is so.
What happened to those men in China is just one story among all the stories of World War Two, however even this small history has not been forgotten. Eleven men on that plane, yet the memory is not complete without their names, for with names we can remember them as real people, who fought and maybe even died—individual men who mean something to people a world away from China, the land where many died, even today.
Crew names, Fourteenth Air Force, 308th Bombardment Group, 425th Squadron, mission number 279, airplane serial number 44-40785-J, October 16, 1944:
Folke W. Johnson, 1st Lt. Pilot *
Edward W. Price, 1st Lt. Co-pilot *
Andrew W. Sustarsic, 2nd Lt. Navigator
Reed Deen, 1st Lt. Bombardier
Alva L. Knox, T/Sgt. Engineer *
James D. Vaughn, T/Sgt. Radio
Paul Hunt, S/Sgt. Assistant Engineer *
William Mitchener, T/Sgt. Radar *
Elwyn Timme, T/Sgt. Radar
Everett Lull, S/Sgt. Gunner
Robert Zolbe, S/Sgt. Gunner
Rocco Leone, S/Sgt. Gunner *
(Names marked with * stayed in Mulong village. The first six men in the list disappeared on December 18, 1944, along with their airplane.)
(A last note: As I was finishing this essay, I sent a copy to James’ cousin, and he responded with a message for the people of Liuzhou: “I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to all the Chinese people who helped our servicemen during World War Two, especially the ones who helped my cousin, James. –Mr. Jim Brunson.” But later he sent me another note, concerned that his message was not good enough, saying, “About what I sent you earlier, feel free to word it any way that you see fit. Sometimes it is hard for me to put the words on paper that I really feel.” Yet his words from the heart, no matter how few, have a meaning greater than the words themselves. These words need no improvement.)
Commotion in the village upon our visit. The crumbling house in the background is where some of the Americans rested after being brought to the village so many years ago.
Distinctive nose landing gear of a B-24 bomber, in the village. Many small artifacts, and many items made into tools or farm implements, could still be found in the village.