By Paul Gable
A South Carolina native whose family history dates back to colonial times, James Vaught possesses a distinguished military resume from his 38 years in the Army. He is one of very few draftees ever to rise to flag rank in any of the U.S. Armed Forces.
“I am a direct lineal descendent of Francis Marion,” said Vaught. “Some of those unconventional warfare genes carried through the years.”
Vaught graduated from high school in 1943 and attended the Citadel for three semesters before receiving his draft notice.
“The Army panicked after suffering some heavy casualties during December 1944 both in Europe and the Pacific, so they started drafting guys out of college,” Vaught said. “I actually didn’t anticipate a military career when I went to the Citadel. I wanted to be a doctor.”
After completing basic training, Vaught applied for and was accepted into Officers Candidate School. Commissioned in late 1945, Vaught was shipped to Germany as part of the occupation force after World War II.
“I wound up with the Constabulary Headquarters as a traffic and demonstration aide to the commanding general in Germany,” said Vaught.
While in Germany, Vaught also worked for two officers with whom he would reconnect several times during his army career- Col. Earle Wheeler and Lt. Col. Creighton Abrams. Both Wheeler and Abrams went on to become four star generals and Chief of Staff of the Army. Wheeler also served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“You need a mentor in order to rise to high rank in the service and those two were my mentors,” Vaught said.
Vaught returned to the U.S. after 42 months in Germany, but only stayed a short time before being sent to Korea where he served as a company commander with the 24th Infantry Division during the Korean conflict.
“We saw fighting along the 38th Parallel, but the biggest problem we had was with captured Chinese women soldiers that were prisoners of war until they were exchanged after the armistice,” said Vaught.
Vaught returned to the U.S. where he attended the career infantry course at Ft. Benning, followed by Ranger school. After spending one year as an ROTC instructor, he was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, where, among other things, he witnessed an atomic bomb test in the Nevada desert.
“I guess I’m one of the few living Americans who witnessed an atomic bomb blast,” Vaught said. “After seeing one, you don’t want to see any more.”
Promoted to major, Vaught returned to Korea for a 20 month tour of duty before being chosen for the Armed Forces Staff College. Duty in the Pentagon followed where he was attached to the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then, on to the National War College.
Vaught was sent to Vietnam in the fall of 1967 where he served as the battalion commander of the 5th Battalion of the 7th Cavalry during the Tet offensive. His unit participated in considerable action, including relieving the Imperial City of Hue before moving to Khe Sanh to liberate the Marines who had been surrounded there.
“We were pretty much in the middle of it for four months,” said Vaught. “Other than that it was a quiet tour.”
Injured when a truck rolled over on him in the A Shau Valley, Vaught returned to the U.S. in a body cast and spent the next six months in Walter Reed Medical Center before being assigned to another tour at the Pentagon.
Now a full colonel, a second Vietnam tour followed as Combat Development Liaison officer to a Vietnamese Paratroop Division.
“This tour was part of the “Vietnamization” of the war as the U.S. tried to turn the fighting over to the South Vietnamese forces,” said Vaught.
Vaught returned to the U.S. as brigade commander of the 12th Support Brigade at Ft. Bragg. Sixteen months later he was promoted to brigadier general and became the assistant division commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.
He was promoted to major general and assigned as commanding officer of the 24th Infantry Division before going back to the Pentagon as Director of Operations and Mobilization for the Army.
During the Pentagon tour, Vaught was appointed overall commander of the joint service task force that attempted to rescue the U. S. Embassy personnel held hostage in Iran.
Even though the rescue operation failed to free the hostages, after three of the eight Navy helicopters included on the mission suffered mechanical failures, it was from this operation that Vaught developed what would soon become the Joint Service Special Operations Command.
“We had very little special operations capability when we started working on the rescue mission,” Vaught said. “We had to build the force from scratch. Out of that experience, we were able to demonstrate to Congress that there was a very immediate need for a joint service special operations command.”
Promoted to lieutenant general in late 1980, Vaught served his final tour of duty back in Korea as Commander of the combined U.S./Korea forces, a job in which he commanded a total of 350,000 troops, including 81 generals.
“During my career, I had a great opportunity to work with some of America’s best soldiers in two wars and one occupation,” said Vaught. “My goal throughout was to get the mission done and enable the soldiers to live another day.”