Anita Deason, military and veterans affairs liaison for Arkansas Sen. John Boozman’s office, visited Thomas F. Vaughns, a Tuskegee Airman and World War II and Korean War veteran, at his White Hall home recently to record the memories of his military service for the Library of Congress’s Veteran’s History Project.
Vaughns told stories of how he served his country during the war and how he continues his call to serve today.
Vaughns was born in 1925 in Felton, Arkansas, on a 50-acre farm that was purchased by his great grandfather, Thomas F. Newsome, in 1872. Vaughns grew up working the farm with his parents and five siblings. He said when he wasn’t milking cows, feeding horses and hauling manure to the farm, he attended one of 5,000 Rosenwald schools until eighth grade.
In informal usage, a Rosenwald School was any school, shop or teacher’s home in the United States that was built primarily for the education of African-American children in the south during the early 20th century.
Vaughns later attended high school three-and-a-half miles away in Marianna, where he walked every day until he was drafted into the Army during his senior year in 1942. Vaughns recalled his enlistment date of Sept. 25, 1942, as if it were yesterday.
“Economically, anything was better than working on the farm,” Vaughns said.
After receiving his draft notice, Vaughns said he was given 21 days to respond, after which he went to Camp Robinson in North Little Rock, where he was assigned KP duty, also known as kitchen patrol or police.
“When I got there, they told me: ‘You got a promotion, you’re a kitchen policeman,’” Vaughns said. “I was waiting for my badge, and they marched me around and had me to take a chair, and they pushed a bushel of white potatoes in front of me and gave me a knife. I said, ‘I thought I was a kitchen policeman?’ They said, ‘Yeah, that’s what you do.’”
Vaughns said he stayed at Camp Robinson for five days before being shipped to California, where he completed his basic training and was assigned to the 54th Aviation Group. He recalled the different positions he held, such as garbage man and assistant baker, up until he received the news that he had been selected for the “Tuskegee Experience.”
“There was a guy named Steve that was over the kitchen,” Vaughns said. “He told me to drop everything I was doing and report to my headquarters. I went there, and they had about 18 more guys there out of about 300 to 400 of our group. They said: ‘You guys have been selected to go to school to be Tuskegee Airmen.’”
Tuskegee Airmen is the name that was given to the African American flyers and maintenance crews of the United States Army Air Corp during World War II. This group happened as a result of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s call for racial desegregation of the United States military. It had the backing of an African American newspaper that started a campaign demanding that African Americans be accepted into the Air Corps.
The result was the creation of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where African American pilots and ground crews were trained. The airmen’s mission was to escort bombers during World War II. According to Tuskegee.edu, the airmen have the lowest loss records of all the escort fighter groups and were in constant demand for their services by the allied bomber units.
Anyone who served at Tuskegee Army Air Field or in any programs stemming from the Tuskegee Experience between the years of 1941-49 is considered a documented original Tuskegee Airman.
Vaughns said he was trained as a mechanic for the B-25 bomber and later assigned to the training command. His job was to make sure that the B-25 Bomber was in good condition for training.
Once the planes passed inspection, they were then used by a pilot to train a cadet for war. Vaughns said he would go wherever training was needed. He went from California to Arizona, from Arizona to Oklahoma, and from Oklahoma to Tuskegee. He said there were hundreds in the training command, and of those hundreds, only about 60 were African American.
Vaughns spoke to his experience with segregation after graduating from Tuskegee University.
“After we graduated, we were working in the hanger installing the engine, and the first sergeant asked how everything was going,” Vaughns said.
“We said everything is going alright, they have white water and colored water and colored bathrooms, so he said, ‘I’ll be down there to check.’
“They had the colored signs tacked up on the wall, and they weren’t very secure. He asked the hanger manager to take him around the hanger, and every time he saw a colored sign, he would yank it off and throw it in the container where we would throw our dirty rags. After he was done, he looked up at the guys and said: ‘Yeah, it looks like everything is going along fine.’”
Vaughns said that after all the signs were taken down, they were instructed to never use the colored bathroom again.
“It was quite an experience,” Vaughns said.
Vaughns ended his service on Feb. 16, 1946. He said he was given the option to sign up for the United States Army Reserve, so he did, thinking there couldn’t be another war. He went to St. Louis, where he finished high school at Washington Technology School. He later returned to Arkansas, where he graduated in 1950 from Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff).
“That was a big decision to make when you get out. You don’t know what direction to go,” Vaughns said. “I thought I wanted to be an embalmer, so I got a couple of books. I wanted something quick. A cousin of mine said there is no quick fix, you have to go to college after you finish high school.”
Vaughns used his degree from AM&N College to land a job with Veteran’s Affairs teaching a course called On the Farm Training, where he taught what he described as “technical things that you only learn in college.”
Several years later, he said he married the love of his life, Luvada Lockhart, who was also from the Marianna area. But within four short months, he received another draft notice. It was 1951: The Korean War.
“That’s when I got the letter with Uncle Sam pointing (and) saying, ‘We want you,’” Vaughns said. “My boss told me to check my mail. He said I had some important mail on my desk, and it was mail from Uncle Sam ... I just knew that I was going to get out of it, but I didn’t, so I had to go back in, and the Korean War was going on.
Vaughns said he served as a supply sergeant in Fort Hood, Texas, and within three weeks he was promoted to sergeant first class, which he described as unusual. He said he was responsible for ammunition, tanks and guns for the reserve servicemen who came in after the 11 days that it took them to get conditioned to being back in the service.
“That was a lot of work, I tell you,” Vaughns said. “I think I worked about 20 hours without any rest, so I went to the first sergeant and I said, ‘Listen, I want you to bust me down to a private.’ He asked me what’s wrong, and I told him, ‘I’m tired.’ He said, ‘Take off a few days and you’ll be all right.’”
History books suggest that the United States military was nearly desegregated by the end of the Korean War. Vaughns said it was still “very much segregated” during his in service there, however.
“It was about like it was when I left,” Vaughns said.
Vaughns said he served one year and was given the option to leave or sign-up again. He chose to leave and discharged in 1952.
“I’d had enough,” Vaughns said.
Vaughns said that if anyone is considering joining the military, they should be dedicated.
“Don’t just get in it for money or anything like that,” Vaughns said. “Think about what you can do for your country.”
His first job after his discharge from the military was teaching for Veteran Affairs in Marianna. Since that time, he has served as county agent for 4-H and a horticulture specialist at UAPB, where he retired.
And although he retired, he didn’t stop working. The walls inside of Vaughn’s den are covered with plaques and awards that he has received over the years for his service to his community and to the youth of Arkansas.
Looking back on his career, the one thing he said that he is most proud of is being a member of the church and being a born-again Christian at the age of 15.
“That’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” Vaughns said.