Floyd Vaughn served as a Staff Sergeant in the 704th Grand Railroad Division, and for his service was awarded the Army Good Conduct Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, and the Army Occupation Medal for Germany. His son, Louis Vaughn, speaks of his father with both humbleness and reverence: “[They were] just average G.I. Joes, no different than any veteran, yet at one time in their life they wrote the United States Government a check that was payable up to and including their life, it was a blank check. That’s something we better not ignore, don’t take for granted.”
Born in Tunbridge, North Dakota to James and Florence Vaughn during a blizzard, Floyd was delivered by his father because the doctor couldn’t make it to the ranch. His father, sixty at the time of his birth, had learned how to treat animals from his veterinary uncle and was an unofficial vet for the area, which was fortunate for Floyd! His mother had been abandoned by her first husband, along with his older half-brother, in what was then the Dakota Territory. She went to work for Floyd Vaughn’s father and uncle as a cook, and although there was twenty years difference between their ages, they eventually married.
Because Floyd was born in 1922, he experienced the full impacts of the Great Depression. An indication he gave about what he had gone through was relayed in his attitude towards Christmas. Normally a big hearted and caring man, when it came to Christmas, “He was the original Scrooge.” Anything to do with Christmas was done grudgingly, as it seemed excessive after his Depression experiences. Similarly, Floyd would never throw anything away because he might come to need it. He had neatly stacked piles of lumber pieces and other scrap items. When he passed on he had so many records from his business saved over the years that it took three shredders, working at the same time to shred it all. There were six lawn and leaf bags full of shredded documents when it was over.
In his youth, most of the ranching and farming was still done by horse drawn vehicles and Floyd recalled that there always seemed to be at least one mare on the team that was still suckling a colt, which did not make for a pleasant job. One time, while haying, something spooked the horses and they bolted. The sudden jerk caused Floyd to lose his grip on both the reins and the running W, allowing the team to run at will. Floyd, in one of many times when he wasn’t sure why he made a particular decision, but which resulted in his retaining his life, dove to the floorboards. After the team had started to calm down, he came back up and found the seat he had been sitting on completely splintered from a large hinged metal arm that had broken loose and repeatedly slammed down on the seat.
Such quick reflexes would serve Floyd well in the service. When the war started he volunteered with the 704th Grand Railroad Division which was made up of the Great Northern and Burlington railroads. He had worked for the Great Northern Railroad as a telegrapher and continued in that position for the division. The purpose for these railroad divisions was to be able to take over the European railways as they were captured and get them up and running as quickly as possible. The railways transported fuel, food, ammunition, other supplies, and the soldiers themselves. This was extremely necessary as armies, such as Patton’s Sixth, needed 300,000 gallons of fuel a day, along with the 100,000 gallons that the Red Ball Express trucks used in ferrying the fuel, with the trains being the only means capable of transporting such large quantities over long distances.
Floyd completed basic training in Fort Riley in Minnesota in the middle of winter. During rifle qualifications his unit had to stay overnight in granaries that didn’t have any insulation, but did provide some shelter from the wind. With temperatures around thirty below zero and windy, he didn’t care what his rifle range score was, and got through qualifications as quickly as he could, which probably kept him from becoming an infantrymen since he was an excellent marksman. He also later thought that the Army figured they could teach someone to shoot a rifle easier than they could teach someone to send and receive Morse Code and run a railroad.
For grenade practice the guys that were waiting for their turn would be up on a large gravel berm while those who were throwing the grenades would stand at the bottom in pits. Always one looking to lighten the moment, Floyd got the idea that it might be fun to wait until the other group ducked down after releasing the grenades and then throw a handful of gravel down on them. Of course they assumed that it was shrapnel coming down from the grenades. Floyd had just gotten another handful of gravel when the drill sergeant looked up at him and said, “Vaughn, what the hell are you doing?,” quickly dropping his handful he replied, “Nothing drill sergeant.” The dry response, “I didn’t think so,” was the end of the incident.
His drill sergeant decided that Floyd would make an excellent Jeep driver since he was a ranch boy and would be able to use a clutch. Floyd decided that, “The last thing he wanted to do was to drive an officer someplace, so he could stand around polishing the fenders on a Jeep waiting to drive an officer someplace else.” To deal with this problem, he decided to pretend that he didn’t know how to drive a clutch. He became a challenge to the drill sergeant as he attempted to teach Floyd how to drive a Jeep every day. Floyd said that, “I ground the gears, I killed it, I started out in reverse, I’d start it out in third gear. If the guy would have stopped to think about it, you’d have to be pretty good to be that bad.” But no matter how badly he drove, the drill sergeant wouldn’t quit trying to teach him to be a Jeep driver. Floyd made the decision that he “finally had to get real serious” about not driving. The first sergeant had managed to find enough wood to build a small office onto the back of barracks. While not very big, and barely able to fit a desk and file cabinet, it was the first sergeant’s pride and joy. Floyd had an “accident” when he “lost control and ran into the first sergeant’s office. That was the end of my Jeep driving career right there.”
Many men who served in the military during World War II have been reluctant to open up about their combat experiences because of hardships that they faced day in and day out. Floyd Vaughn had his share of troubling experiences during the war. He, along with so many others, saw way more than an 18 year old should see. It was these experiences that he never really opened up about or told stories about. What stories he did tell gave the listener enough of a glimpse into his experiences that they knew he was witness many tragic events. He did speak of a truck full of soldiers backing over a land mine, with no survivors; a pair of sea mines exploding in a rail yard and blowing a metal telegraph pole ¼ of a mile, sticking it into the earth like a big spear. The engine and operators moving the sea mines were reduced to small fragments of metal. Landing in North Africa, at Algiers, not long after the Vichy French had fired on Allied ships, the division suffered its only fatality of the war. A soldier fell sick with an unknown illness and didn’t get better for several weeks. Eventually he was transported to a hospital in Virginia where he died. Another incident at Algiers was when many buildings, including Floyd’s division’s encampment, were flattened by an explosion from a freighter loaded with ammunition, even though they were several miles from the docks.
While he was in Algiers he again avoided a bad situation, this time with a little more knowledge of what he was doing. During one of the night raids by the German Air Force the flack guns opened up on the Germans and, since flack guns essentially shoot giant grenades at the planes, shrapnel began falling down in the Grand Division’s encampment. Hearing the pieces thudding down around the tent, he crawled under his cot, and when it was finally over, found a chunk of shrapnel sitting on his sleeping bag. While probably not fatal, it certainly would not have been a pleasant experience for him.
While some stressful moments were recounted, Floyd liked to tell stories about the funny things that happened, the abnormal things that occurred, and the memories that brought back a moment when a soldier could forget (for even just a fleeting moment) the horrors which surrounded them. Being the type of man who enjoyed laughter and the good times life could bring, he cherished these types of stories the most.
Whether lighthearted or stressful, there is no doubt that Floyd’s WWII service exposed him to a whole host of new life experiences. The recounting of these experiences demonstrate just how different military life was from his youth in North Dakota. For example, Floyd was warned not to wear captured German helmets or boots because the Senegalese troops, who acted as guerrilla units, were trained to tell infantrymen by their shoes and would mistake them for Germans at night and kill them by slitting their throats. The impression that the Senegalese soldiers gave the men was that they were tramps and layabouts, but that was due to their being awake every night hunting behind the lines, thus they rested while American soldiers completed their daytime duties.
Another example of life abroad is in Floyd’s stories of Casbah, a slums area where one could enter a doorway and not emerge back onto the streets for several blocks. Only groups of six or more soldiers were allowed to travel in the Casbah as the area, especially during the war, was a place of rampant crime and violence. Even in larger groups they were forbidden from entering the neighborhood after dark.
Floyd brought back several souvenirs from Morocco including a conical red felt hat called a Fez and some Moroccan slippers. He also decided that he wanted to see a belly dancer, and a civilian railroad worker told him to meet up with him in the evening and he would take him out to see a show. When they got to the building the atmosphere was like a speakeasy, with a slotted viewport on the door for the doorman to check out who was coming in. Once he got in he realized that the ‘show’ also doubled as a prostitution stage for men to choose the girls they wanted. He and his friend sat in the back and when the dancing was over left and headed their separate ways back to their separate camps.
Out of all the places he traveled through during World War II, North Africa was the place he most wanted to go back to see again. He was never able to return.
Passing through Sicily, Floyd was assigned to Rome on the mainland. The crossing from North Africa to the Italian mainland was stormy, causing the seas to be so rough he could stand on deck and watch first the propellers and then the prow alternately stand out of the water. While in Rome, Floyd was assigned to guard Italian prisoners of war who had been conscripted into the war. A single barbed wire strand ran around the camp and there was only one guard posted during the daytime. These Italian prisoners would have had to be driven from the camp forcibly for them to leave. Simply put, if the Allies lost the war they would be returning veterans because they had been prisoners of war, and if the Axis lost, then they would be returned home. Floyd taught one of these Italians to watch for American officers so that if he was tired, he could take a nap in the guard hut. If an officer was seen, the Italian would run into the hut and shake him awake, and hand him his rifle so that he could be standing guard when the officer arrived. Another POW was a tailor and if he needed some sewing done he would bring the item to the guard shack and the tailor would take care of it. Floyd said he didn’t give them any special privileges and they had to obey all the rules, but just treated them with respect. He said they appreciated being treated in that manner, since some of the other soldiers didn’t, and they returned the respect.
Floyd was also stationed in the Is-sur-Tille railyard in Burgundy, France, were there was eighty miles of track. Because of the great confusion caused by the Germans pulling out and the Americans moving in, entire trains would go missing for days until they could be located in the maze of tracks. He and one other soldier were assigned to work with the French civilians at the railyard and get things fixed. They worked 12 hours on and 12 hours off. It took a period of time, but the railyard was finally able to be straightened out to the point where they could find any particular train they wanted and where it was supposed to be. It was because of his duties at the Is-sur-Tille railyard that he was promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant.
During one of his patrols, a German plane made a single strafing run on the railyard. Floyd’s assessment of the situation was that, “it is possible to hide behind a rail. Even though you’re three times thicker, it is possible to hide behind it.” Rounds from the plane landed on either side of him, and the tracks, but after the single run the German left before pursuit aircraft or antiaircraft guns could find him.
Travelling through France, he had to bail out from a train when the Luftwaffe made an attacking run on it and hit a car carrying a load of ammunition. Floyd ran and hid behind an embankment on a hillside while the railcar burned and hurled shrapnel for more than two hours, during which he felt dirt clods striking the back of his neck several times. After the ammunition finally stopped going off, he looked above him to find a three foot rail firmly planted in the embankment just over his head. The spot on the track where the rail car used to be was replaced by a hole a two story house could have been lowered into.
At the same station in France, a tanker car carrying cognac for the French troops was left overnight. It was a bitterly cold night, and there were four French soldiers armed with submachine guns at each corner of the car to guard it. Just over a rise from the tanker car Floyd and his buddies started a campfire and started roasting coffee so that the Frenchmen could smell it. Taking a clipboard and another guy with him, he started down the line of railcars pretending to inspect them. When he got to the tanker, he struck up a conversation in French with the guards, and led the conversation to how cold it was that night. He offered to watch the car for them while they went to grab a cup of coffee and warm up by the fire. The French soldiers had barely gotten over the hill before a swarm of American soldiers descended on the car. The first guy on top began bailing out cognac with his helmet into five gallon water cans, but was overcome by the fumes and almost fell into the tank. He was pulled out and quickly replaced. Twenty or twenty five gallons later, they sealed up the car again.
Once, when visiting a French village they hitched a ride across a river that had been swept for mines and was deemed safe. On their way through they found another ford back across the river and decided to use that to get back. They hired a villager that had an old cart with solid wooden wheels that would wobble back and forth as it went. Halfway back Floyd realized that the Germans had only enough time to mine one of the crossings, and that they were on that one. Right in front of the cart was a Teller (Anti-Tank) mine. Before he could do much more than gasp, the wheel came to the mine, but suddenly wobbled around it. They were then able to safely finish their crossing.
While he was in France, he met a beautiful young French lady, named Jeanne. Jeanne would go on to become his bride and at the end of the war move to North Dakota. Together they would have one son, Louis.
The last town that Floyd was in during the war was Leipzig, Germany. After the war, when the Americans pulled back into what became West Germany, Floyd was put in charge of putting the last train together that was to leave. He was given specific instructions not to take any civilians with them. As the train left, civilians came up to the cars offering anything that they had in exchange for a ride out. Money, jewelry, and furs were offered and several cars took on the civilians, but not the one Floyd was riding in. As the train came to the border, Russian guards started going through the train and the American soldiers started bodily throwing the civilians off as fast as they could before the Russians found the civilians with the soldiers. Thus, as hard as following the orders had been, it saved Floyd heartache in the end.
He also helped to transport “displaced persons,” which were the survivors from the concentration camps. He said, “They would look at you, but they couldn’t see you,” they were, “a skeleton with skin stretched over the top of it.” Floyd thought their eyes looked like their souls had left as well. The only thing they could understand was that they were not in the concentration camps anymore. They couldn’t be fed very much and then only on special diets or they would die from the shock to their systems.
While waiting in Germany to be transferred back to the United States, he spotted a rooster pheasant in one of the fields. Being a good marksmen he used his rifle to shoot the pheasant in the head and traded some of his rations to a German family (no fraternization policy regardless) to borrow a cast iron skillet and some flour and lard. While the bird was cooking he couldn’t think of anything but the taste of pheasant and how he hadn’t tasted any in four years. Before it was done he said he could already taste it. However, when he went to eat it, “I found out why that bird was still alive at the end of World War II. That was the toughest thing in Germany. You couldn’t have drove a fork into the breast of that thing with a hammer.” He took the bird and pan and gave them both to the German family in case they could use it to make a soup, but he said, “You were not going to eat that bird.”
After the war Floyd returned to working for the railroad in North Dakota, but in 1959 realized that the day of rails were over and he retired. He then went into business for himself, buying the old Plaza Motel in Rapid City before briefly running the original El Rancho Motel in California. Returning to Rapid City and then moving to Deadwood, he continued in the motel business before running a laundromat for about six years.
During this time he started dabbling in real estate, especially land and commercial rather than housing. He had a knack for being able to tell if a business venture was a good idea or not. One of his deals was buying land near Rapid City Regional Hospital, now the location of Fox Run. At the time he didn’t have the money to cover the entire cost of the land, so he mentioned it in Rotary Club that he was looking for a business partner for the deal. The man that ended up going in with him told Floyd later that that the fact that Floyd was putting his own money into the endeavor convinced the partner this deal was worth looking into. When they sold it for a profit a year later, Floyd commented that, “You know, it’s kind of funny: when I wanted to buy it, I was nuts and I was crazy. But when I sold it and made a profit, I was a shyster.”
Floyd also went into agriculture and had a tree farm which earned an award. His land was designated as a Tree Farm by the South Dakota Forestry Department in 1983. Outside of his business, Floyd was very active socially as an outrider and parade marshal for the Days of ‘76, a life member of the VFW, a member of the Elks Club, a Mason, and a Shriner. The west side Millstone became his second office and people would stop in to leave messages for him. Once he wrote up a contract on a napkin there and had it notarized.
He was a great outdoorsman and true conservationist. While raising his son, he kept a cabin up in Manitoba. When asked to go fishing when he lived in Rapid City he would respond, “I can’t get excited about fishing for bait,” because he had become accustomed to the much larger fish of Manitoba. He loved to hunt. Even in his later years he would say he had a hard time getting to sleep the night before opening day of a season just because of the anticipation of the upcoming hunt.
He was an amateur taxidermist and before the jackalope became popular he mounted two and gave one to his brother-in-law in North Dakota. Since nobody there had ever heard of a jackalope it became an extrapolated version of a running snipe hunt gag. Some of the lines that he used were statements such as: “you have to hunt them at night, and shoot them in the hind legs so they won’t drive their antlers into the ground and break them off.”
When he was seventy six he found out that he liked hunting bear, and shot one bear each year right up until he died. He took his son and his son’s then fiancée out with him bear hunting, and while they were in the truck, Floyd turned and asked her, “Did you bring a jacket with a hood?” to which she replied that she had, “Good,” he said, “When they come up behind you and put that nose against the back of your neck, it’s so cold.”
People were always drawn to Floyd. One day, during a stay at the hospital for rehab, the cafeteria was pretty full of people and three ladies asked if they could sit with him. They became quick friends and from then on they would always meet for lunch together, and when he passed away the women went to his funeral. His personality was so winning that he could make lasting friendships easily. He was teased about being a babe magnet because women could always see what kind of man he was and that he would respect them.
When he was around eighty years old, Floyd decided to get a visa to go hunting in Canada. When he requested his birth certificate from North Dakota, they told him he didn’t exist, there was no record of his birth. His parents had been given the paperwork to file his birth, but with the demands of ranching they never got around to filling it out, with the result that he had never received a birth certificate. His comment to this was, “You mean I spent four years in World War II, and they didn’t even know I existed?” After looking at his war records and family members, they were able to validate that he had actually been born and issued him his birth certificate.
In June of 2009 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer which had already moved to his liver. Combined with his age and the poor results obtained with treatment for that type of cancer in younger patients, he chose not to undergo chemotherapy. He was given 8 weeks to 6 months to live. He faced death with the same dignity he had been known for all of his life. Two days after the diagnosis he suffered a stroke and then two days later a second stroke. He was placed in hospice and one week after the initial diagnosis, he died on June 26, 2009. He was laid to rest at Black Hills National Cemetery with all the honors earned by such a veteran and patriot.
Written by Caleb Ross