Football a topic in the POW camps of Vietnam
KNIGHTSVILLE - When Air Force Lt. Dick Vaughan was shot down over Vietnam and captured in 1971, the other prisoners peppered him with questions about the outside world.
"Did we really land on the moon?" one asked him, illustrating just how total the news blackout had been for some of the nearly 600 American servicemen who spent years in captivity.
Some of the older prisoners also asked about sports.
"I told the guys about the 'Ice Bowl,'?" Vaughan said - the famous 1967 NFL championship game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers played in an arctic 13 degrees below zero.
Vaughan would describe the snow, the frozen turf and defensive players scraping away at the concrete-hard ground.
"It got to be that you could almost tell the whole game," Vaughan recalled. "I told them about Bart Starr doing the quarterback sneak at the end of the game to win."
On Saturday, football returns to Vaughan's storyline when he and nearly 40 other locally nominated service people will be honored as part of the inaugural Medal of Honor Bowl at The Citadel's Johnson Hagood Stadium; kickoff is at 2 p.m.
The Post and Courier, a sponsor of the game, sought nominations of military veterans or active-duty service personnel to be acknowledged for exceptional duty to country, family and community. Vaughan was nominated by his cousin and teaching colleague Linda Vaughan.
While all the honorees have stories of dedication and sacrifice, Vaughan's represents one of the handful of South Carolina men who were held captive during Vietnam.
Vaughan, 68, who grew up in St. George, joined the Air Force after graduating from Clemson University (he's also a Tiger fan) and launching a teaching career. He had dreamed of flying, and the Air Force was his ticket.
Flash forward to Dec. 18, 1971. Vaughan, then 26, was the weapons system operator in the backseat of an F-4 Phantom of a ground support mission when a North Vietnamese missile took the plane out. Pilot Ken Johnson was captured after ejecting, while Vaughan was able to elude his captors for a few hours, until he was discovered hiding in a crevasse.
Because the pair were the first fliers captured in three years by the North Vietnamese, they were paraded in front of the bright lights of the media and put on display as propaganda trophies.
Through March 1973, Vaughan would be held at three POW camps around Hanoi - code-named by the prisoners the Zoo, the Plantation and the Hanoi Hilton - spending most of the time in solitary confinement. Still, he found ways to communicate with other prisoners through sign language and their secretive "tap-code" while he tried to survive on a diet of pumpkin and cabbage soup.
Sports weren't the only topic of conversation. "We would take turns describing our favorite meal," he said. Or there was "movie" night when the prisoners would describe their favorite films.
After his release on March 28, 1973, as part of the brokered peace plan, Vaughan returned to Dorchester County and married his childhood sweetheart, the former Gale Canaday, and continued with his Air Force career. He retired from the service in 1991, going back into teaching mathematics in Dorchester County until January 2003, when the progressively worsening back injuries (compressed vertebra from his airplane ejection) forced him to retire.
Vaughan, like most veterans, fends off talk describing his time as a prisoner of war as heroic, saying the word is overused today in terms of men called on to do their jobs.
"I wasn't a hero," he said, "but I lived with some."
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.