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Send Me

General Jim Vaught and the Genesis of Joint Special Operations

Written by Paul Gable and Bryan Vaught

Table of Contents


Special thanks to God for providing the vision to see this book through all the way to completion! We are also extremely grateful for all the photos and encouragement that were received from Aimee, Ben, Cathy, David, Debra, Florence, and Johnny Vaught. Finally, we appreciate the help with editing and reformatting from Stase Wells at the Marine Corps University Library.


A Soldier’s Soldier

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying,

“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”

The above quote from Isaiah 6:8 best describes the 38-year career of Lieutenant General James B. Vaught (USA ret.). From his first permanent duty assignment until retirement, Vaught frequently found himself in the position of being selected for some type of special assignment or mission. His attitude and answer were always the same: “We’ll get it done.”

The “We’ll” in that statement was the key to Vaught’s success. He never forgot the Army required teamwork from the most junior private to the most senior general. It is not an organization that can have one person going off and doing his own thing. Nobody succeeds alone.

Drafted out of college in the late stages of World War II, Vaught passed his induction physical on April 12, 1945, the same day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt died, and he entered the Army as a private. After completing basic training and infantry training, he applied and was accepted for Officer’s Candidate School, earning a reserve commission as a second lieutenant in the Army of the United States on February 20, 1946, at the age of 19.

During his career, Vaught served in combat as a company commander in Korea and a battalion commander in Vietnam. In addition to his initial infantry training, Vaught also completed glider flight, paratrooper, and Ranger school at Fort Benning, Georgia and Army flight school for fixed wing and helicopters at Geary Air Force Base, Texas.

While on active duty, Vaught found time to complete his college studies earning a Bachelor’s Degree from Georgia State University and a Master’s Degree from George Washington University. He also successfully completed all the special military schools necessary for promotion including the Army Command and Staff College, the Armed Forces Staff College, and the National War College. He still proudly wears the pair of gold cuff links presented to him by General Lemnitzer, per school commandant Admiral Fitzhue Lee, for graduating as the number one student in his class from the National War College.

Among the numerous medals that graced the left breast of Vaught’s uniform when he retired were two combat infantry badges, two silver stars, two bronze stars, a distinguished flying cross, and three Legion of Merit medals. Over the course of his Army career, Vaught had literally “been there” and “done that.”

When asked which decoration meant the most to him, Vaught put his right hand next to his ear and snapped his fingers several times, imitating the sound of small weapons fire.

If you haven’t been in a position to know what that sound means, you haven’t been in the real Army,” he said. “The combat infantry badge stands above all others because it means you’ve been tested in combat over a period of time and passed the test.”

Vaught and the men he commanded passed many tests during his long career. He looked for two traits in those men: courage and competence. Both come from the experience of having done something and knowing you can do it again, according to Vaught.

With those two traits, a person develops a willingness to get the job done whatever it takes,” Vaught said. “Those were the unique men I looked for when something out of the ordinary came up.”

Using the term special operations to mean any mission outside the purview of normal Army doctrine, Vaught participated in various special operations-type missions during his career. The last of these, the Iranian hostage rescue mission of April 24, 1980, remains the most bittersweet moment of his career, but also was the most important for the development of the Army as it is today.

On November 4, 1979, several hundred Iranian students, fueled with Islamic fundamentalist passion and led by a small, hardcore nucleus inspired by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, broke through the gate and stormed over the walls surrounding the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran. They took the 66 Americans inside hostage.

Since overthrowing the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in late 1978, Khomeini, a Shia fundamentalist, had been Iran’s spiritual and government leader. He had set about making Iran an Islamist utopia under Koranic Law. Khomeini preached that America was the “Great Satan” that had to be driven from Islamic lands. Shortly before the students took over the embassy, Khomeini had called on “all grade-school, university and theological students to increase their attacks against America.”

News quickly reached the American government that the students who had invaded the U.S. Embassy compound were armed and had threatened some of the hostages at gunpoint while severely beating others. With 66 Americans in captivity in a foreign country, the Pentagon began looking for ways to rescue the hostages.

At that time, Vaught was a Major General serving at the Pentagon as the Director of Operations, Readiness, and Mobilization in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff Operations, Department of the Army. Chief of Staff of the Army General Edward “Shy” Meyer selected him to work for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General David Jones (USAF) as the overall Joint Task Force Commander for the hostage rescue mission.

It was a testament to Vaught’s distinguished Army career that he was selected to lead the mission. It was also one of the biggest challenges he ever faced. In fact, it could be said he was asked to perform the impossible.

The American military in general was still going through its post-Vietnam hangover. Special operations units that had been used for certain types of missions during that conflict had, by 1979, largely fallen out of favor with traditional military planners. Fortunately, the Army had not totally abandoned the idea of the need for a special operations force. It had moved forward, if somewhat reluctantly, with the establishment of Delta force.

Delta had passed its final readiness exercises at Fort Stewart, Georgia and been certified as an operational unit just hours before the hostages were taken on November 4, 1979. Much of Delta’s operational training to that point relied on the force operating in a permissive, or at least neutral, environment where it would have the help of local authorities for support and information in achieving its mission.

At the time, Delta was not trained, equipped, or disciplined to go into a contested area and operate,” Vaught said.

Delta would serve as the Army’s main contribution to the Joint Task Force. The mission, however, would require the force to go a thousand miles into hostile territory, into the middle of the capital city with millions of residents, free the hostages, and get out without becoming bogged down in a pitched battle. To make matters worse, there was no plan for such a joint task force command. All four services—Army, Air Force, Marines, and Navy—contributed their best personnel and service equipment to the mission, but retained command authority to themselves.

Nevertheless, over a period of five and one-half months, Vaught and his men from all four armed services gathered the necessary intelligence, put together a plan of operation, trained the various elements of the force, staged the units to their respective “jump off” points, and got the rescue force inside Iran to a location now known as Desert One. The mission had to be aborted at this point due to mechanical problems with the helicopters, which were provided by the Navy. The helicopters’ role in the mission was to transport the rescue force from Desert One to the embassy and, after the hostages were freed, to fly the rescue force and former hostages to the extraction area at Manzariyeh where they were to be transloaded to C-141s and flown out of Iran. Vaught and Company “C” of the 1st Ranger Battalion were to provide security in the area while the transfer to the C-141s was being accomplished.

While the details of the planning, training, and the mission will be dealt with later in this book, events at Desert One were confusing. Vaught, back at the task force forward headquarters in Masirah, Egypt, initially believed the mission was able to go forward and radioed General Jones to that effect. Several minutes later, Vaught received communication from his commanders at Desert One that they would have to abort the mission because of problems with the helicopters that brought their operational number below the level the on-scene commanders believed was necessary to carry on.

I was very disappointed because we had come so close and I believed we could continue to Tehran,” Vaught said. “If I had been at Desert One, and maybe I should have been, I would have continued the mission. However, I wasn’t willing to give that order from so far away, and felt I had to leave the final decision to continue or abort to the commanders on the scene.”

Instead of going into Tehran with the hostage rescue force, Vaught had chosen to move to the extraction point at Manzariyeh to oversee the security of the area provided by the Ranger battalion.

In my experience, it’s when you’re getting everybody loaded up and ready to go that major problems can occur and you can take the most casualties,” Vaught said. “That’s why I chose to be at the extraction point.”

After returning to the United States, Vaught met with President Carter and a representative from the National Security Council.

I told the president I apologized for failing to complete the mission,” said Vaught. “He was very gracious and said we gave him our best shot, and he accepted full responsibility for the mission’s failure.”

Nevertheless, as always happens in the military when this type of high-profile mission fails to meet its ultimate goal, reasons and, often, scapegoats are sought. Members of the task force were called to testify at closed-door hearings of both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees whose stated intentions were to find out what went wrong with the mission. The results of the committee hearings were inconclusive.

Next, Admiral James Holloway, a retired Chief of Naval Operations, was put in charge of convening a special commission to study the mission and deliver a report of the findings. Vaught took issue with many of the members of the commission, especially Holloway, who he believed was looking to deflect criticism from the Navy’s faulty helicopters and lay the blame for the mission failure elsewhere.

A feisty man with strong opinions, Vaught, after appearing before the commission, went to General Jones with an ultimatum.

I told him the press was making inquiries and wanted a statement from me about the mission,” said Vaught. “I told him I was willing to keep quiet and protect the people who screwed the mission up unless the commission went headhunting. If that happened, I would immediately resign my commission and hold a press conference on the steps of the Pentagon and tell the press who screwed this thing up with his name at the top of the list.”

The final report of the commission went way wide of the mark in Vaught’s opinion. It was conducted by a group of officers who had no familiarity with special operations. Specifically, Vaught was extremely upset that nowhere in the final report was there mention of the problems associated with the helicopters.

The Navy sabotaged the mission, in my opinion,” he said. “They gave us faulty helicopters, then, when the helicopters failed, they had the Admiral who bought the helicopters and with absolutely no experience in special operations put in the position of chairing the investigating committee to find out what went wrong.”

However, two recommendations came out of the report that changed the structure of today’s military. The first was for the establishment of a permanent, ready-to-go joint task force for hostage rescue and other sensitive missions. The second was for the establishment of a Special Operations advisory panel of qualified, high-ranking officers that would review and critique military readiness to respond to future crises.

In later life, Vaught would describe the mission as a “magnificent failure.” It is better described as a magnificent attempt to achieve the impossible that nearly succeeded. The staff Vaught left behind would shortly become the first staff of the newly formed Joint Special Operations Command.

Vaught remained at the Pentagon for another fifteen months before receiving his third star and being transferred to Korea in September 1981 as Commander of the Combined Field Army Republic of Korea until he retired in January 1983.

As he reflected back on his career, the pride was evident in Vaught’s voice when speaking of his many accomplishments. However, he still got emotional when speaking of the aftermath of the hostage rescue mission. Vaught said, in his opinion, there are four types of generals (or flag officers) in the military: the warriors, the bureaucrat managers, the politicians, and the incompetents. One look at his record tells you Vaught was of the warrior category. Listening to him speak of his career, you know Vaught has little respect or time for those who fit into one of the other three categories.

Vaught was always on the cutting edge of performance and led the way in integrating modern technology and development into military service including the use of jet skis, satellite communication, and night vision technology. After retirement, he continued to serve as a consultant to private defense contractors where he was involved with building the MH-47 and was often called on by the Army for advice.

The impact General James Vaught made on an international scale is immeasurable. In 1981, The Washingtonian magazine ranked him one of “Twenty Real Men” because “he fit the traditional image of masculinity: rugged, outspoken, commanding.” This was not the first nor the last time Vaught was recognized for bravery, leadership, commitment, and devotion to his country. These traits, which took him far and influence a large part of American history over the last century, are due in large part to his Horry County, South Carolina roots.

I had a very interesting career,” Vaught said. “For a little old country boy from Horry County I did all right. My upbringing and my roots in Horry County enabled me and were a real foundation and motivator for all the things I was able to do throughout my career. I was very happy and pleased with what I had accomplished, and I left the Army with good feelings after thirty-eight years of service.”

Chapter One

After emigrating from Hannover, Germany, the Vaught family came to Horry County, South Carolina through the port of Charleston in 1683. Peter Vaught secured a land grant of 8,000 acres from King Charles II of England. The land grant ran from the Atlantic Ocean, at the location of the present-day Dunes Golf and Beach Club, west to the Waccamaw River near the current Highway 90. The high ground along that route is still known to locals as Vaught Ridge, dating back to the original land grant.

Understanding the early history of Horry County is helpful in understanding the character of its native sons. Charleston was settled by a diverse group of people who established one of the most tolerant early societies in the English colonies.

“Charleston was an extremely tolerant city during colonial times, especially in the area of religion,” said one local historian. “People who couldn’t get along in other colonies often moved to Charleston to live.”

However, not everyone was able to fit into Charleston society. In colonial times, Charleston established twelve outposts in a rough semi-circle radiating out from the city as a first line of defense against Indian and other attacks. King’s Towne, later Kingston and now Conway, was one of those original outposts. It could be said, with tongue in cheek, that those who couldn’t get along in other colonies went to Charleston and those who couldn’t get along in Charleston settled the outposts.

Whether Peter Vaught fit into that description is lost to history, but he was among the early settlers of what is now Horry County. Today Horry County is best known for the East Coast resort city of Myrtle Beach. Millions of visitors arrive each year from the states east of the Mississippi to lie on the beaches, play golf, and enjoy the other attractions throughout the county. However, the Horry County of Peter Vaught’s time was, for all intents and purposes, an island unto itself.

The area was essentially cut off from much of the rest of South Carolina by the water barriers of the Waccamaw and Pee Dee rivers. The only transportation network that tied Horry County together was the rivers, tributaries, and streams. Travel to the rest of the state was accomplished by boat until well into the 19th Century. Sitting in the coastal plain, much of the land was swamp and bogs. Inland, there was considerable sand mixed in the soil making even subsistence farming a difficult undertaking. Residents, especially the early settlers, had to be rugged individualists in order to survive. That individualism has continued to the present day. Horry County natives still take great pride in the county’s nickname, “The Independent Republic.”

The Vaught family established a salt works at the beach location as well as a blacksmith’s shop, an oaken barrel production business, and a commercial fishing business throughout its holdings. The remains of the dipping vat for the barrels are still visible today behind the ninth green of the present Waterway Hills Golf Club off U.S. 17 just north of Myrtle Beach.

The Vaughts and their extended family took part in many of the early causes of the American colonies, including the Revolutionary War. Matthias Vaught, an ancestor of James, was a member of the Little River Regiment of the South Carolina militia that contributed to the defeat of a force of British Army regulars by Continental Army forces at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781. The victory at Cowpens was a decisive moment in the Southern Campaign of the Revolutionary War that initiated the re-conquest of South Carolina from the British.

Francis Marion, another direct lineal ancestor of James Vaught, played an even bigger role for the Continental Army during the war. Known as the “Swamp Fox,” Marion is credited as being the first American commander to consistently use special operations guerilla style warfare as his typical plan of attack. Marion and his men traveled on paths in the swamps, emerging to conduct surprise attacks on larger British forces and then quickly disappearing back into the swamps.

The British were successful in taking and garrisoning much of South Carolina, including Charleston with the help of Loyalist Tories, but were never able to garrison the Pee Dee region controlled by Marion’s Williamsburg Militia. A combination of excellent intelligence and the ability to “live off the land,” both important elements in special operations today, was the key to the success of Marion’s militia. Peter Horry, for whom Horry County is named, served under Marion in the Williamsburg Militia.

Marion and his militia were successful in keeping a southern front open in the Revolutionary War tying up British troops that could have made the difference in the war had they been deployed against Washington’s forces further north. An argument can certainly be made that Marion made as important a contribution to victory for the Americans in the Revolutionary War as any commander in the Patriot army.

James B. Vaught was born into this family on November 3, 1926 in the town of Conway, South Carolina, the county seat of Horry County. The son of John Marion Vaught, Sr. and Ruth Thompson Vaught, James was the fourth of eight children. When James was born in 1926, his father was a partner in a haberdashery located in Conway, South Carolina. After the 1929 stock market crash, the business followed the same path as much of the American economy: a consistent downward pattern.

John Vaught’s partner, Austin Permenter died in 1931, automatically dissolving the partnership. After the liabilities of the business were settled and the assets divided up, Vaught was left with a total of $83 cash. The business was closed, and the Vaught family moved out of town to a small farm in the county that John was able to put a down payment on with his remaining money.

“We were self-sufficient on the farm so we didn’t have to worry about having a roof over our head or food on the table,” said Vaught. “We got along fairly well during the Depression, but there wasn’t really any extra money.”

At that time, schools in South Carolina ran from grades 1-11. The age for entering school was six, but Vaught’s mother enrolled him in the Tilly Swamp School at the age of five.

“I had a brother one year older, but I was bigger than he was,” Vaught said. “I could already read and write, so, when it was time for my brother to go to school, my mother took me along to the Tilly Swamp Grammar School and insisted I be enrolled also.”

Vaught’s youth consisted of school, church, and family activities, much as any child growing up on a family farm in rural America in the 1930s. Farm life required work from everyone in the family. Living in the “Bible Belt,” the church not only served spiritual needs, but also much of the social needs of rural families. To this day, Sunday services and Wednesday church dinners are attended by most of the families in Horry County.

“From the time we could walk, we had chores to do around the farm,” Vaught said. “The only two social centers we had were school and church. We really didn’t go into town that much, and there wasn’t much to do there when we did.”

After spending seven years at the Tilly Swamp School, Vaught moved to Conway High School, which served grades 8 through 11. In addition to his studies, Vaught was involved in many extracurricular activities, the most important being the Conway Tiger football team. Weighing a solid 170 pounds by his final season, Vaught was the quarterback on offense and a linebacker on defense of a Conway team that went 7-1-1 and won a regional championship.

“There weren’t a lot of substitutions in those years, so I played a full 48 minutes each game,” Vaught said. “We had a pretty successful season, and I was known as “Mr. Tiger,” a nickname that followed me to the Citadel in 1943.”

Among his other Conway High activities was membership in the school’s Calliopean Literary Society where he would meet Florence Epps, an event that would take on great importance for Vaught in later life.

Vaught applied to and was accepted by the Citadel, the South’s answer to West Point. Even though World War II was raging at the time, it wasn’t visions of a military career that entered into Vaught’s decision to apply to the school.

“I wanted to be a doctor, and I would have been a good one,” Vaught said. “Most people don’t know it, but, at that time, nearly one-third of the graduates from the Citadel went on to become doctors. That’s why I chose the school.”

Vaught entered the Citadel in the fall of 1943, still two months shy of his seventeenth birthday and more than a year away from being eligible for the military draft. Although an honor student at Conway High School, Vaught experienced early struggles in his college math course. Already possessing a fierce determination to succeed, he sought out a tutor and put in extra hours in order to pass the course.

“I quickly realized that my math background was not as strong as that of most of the other students, but I saw that as a challenge to be overcome, not an excuse to fail,” Vaught said.

He completed his freshman year with solid academic achievements and excelled at the military training required for all students at the Citadel. Vaught returned for the fall semester of his sophomore year, but soon the war would interfere with Vaught’s plans of a medical career.

“In the fall and early winter of 1944, ten American divisions suffered considerable casualties in the Argonne Forest in Europe and in the islands of the Pacific,” Vaught said. “The Army panicked and decided to draft college students. When I turned eighteen in November 1944, I knew my days as a college student were numbered.”

Drafted early in 1945, the military student was about to embark on a military career that would stretch thirty-eight years. Although he didn’t know it at the time, Vaught’s plans to become a doctor were at an end. Instead he would go on to become one of the highest-ranking generals in the U.S. Army.

In April 1945, Camp Croft, South Carolina was booming with new recruits, one of which was Private James Vaught. Since early 1942, 65,000-75,000 draftees (called selectees) per year received basic and advanced infantry training there in preparation for joining a combat unit in the European or Pacific theaters. Camp Croft was an Infantry Replacement Training Center whose mission was to train soldiers as individual replacements and supplements to units already in the field. Initially these soldiers were known as fillers to help get units up to full strength in the beginning of the war and later as replacements for those lost to combat. The firing ranges at Croft consisted of pistol, rifle, machine gun, mortar, antiaircraft, and antitank ranges.

The course was nineteen weeks long and was designed first to turn a civilian into a soldier, and then provide that soldier with the skills necessary to survive his coming combat experiences. All the men received basic infantry skills. They were next split up to receive specific skills in preparation to joining a rifle, heavy weapons, cannon, anti-tank, headquarters, or service unit. The emphasis was on rifle companies where the most casualties were experienced with ten of the sixteen training battalions devoted to that mission.

During Vaught’s training at Camp Croft, the war in Europe ended with the unconditional surrender of Germany on May 7, 1945. Shortly after Vaught completed basic training, Japan accepted the terms of surrender in the Potsdam Declaration of July 26, 1945. The Japanese government notified the U.S. government of that acceptance on August 19, 1945 with the official surrender documents signed in Tokyo Bay on the battleship USS Missouri on September 2, 1945.

With combat operations winding down in the Pacific and ended in Europe, Vaught applied for immediate entrance into Officer’s Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia after completing his training at Camp Croft. The first step was to pass a preliminary OCS interview, which he did. To aid his application, Vaught called on General C.P. Summerall who was currently serving as the President of the Citadel and whom Vaught knew slightly from his three student semesters at the school. General Summerall wrote a letter of recommendation for Vaught urging the Army to immediately appoint him to OCS.

Vaught was accepted into the OCS program and transferred to Fort Benning to await the beginning of the next class of officer candidates. While waiting for the officer class to start, Vaught worked his way into a class at the airborne school, which was also located at Fort Benning. “I didn’t want to waste the time, and I thought any extra training I received would help me later,” Vaught said.

Vaught joined his OCS training class in October 1945 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army of the United States on February 20, 1946 at the age of nineteen. In ten months, he had risen from the rank of private to the rank of 2nd lieutenant, at least in part because of his Citadel experience, but he was also on the bottom rung of the officer’s ladder.

The Army has a hierarchical system for officers, which can play an important part in promotion. On the top rung are those who graduated from West Point and are immediately commissioned into the Regular Army. The middle rung is made up of graduates from Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) courses, who are commissioned as reserve officers. The bottom rung is the OCS graduates who are also commissioned as reserve officers, but have generally not completed four years of military training like those graduating from West Point or ROTC courses. Most OCS graduates remain in the Army only for their initial commitment. Those who decide to make the Army a career need to convert to a Regular Army commission at some point in order to be competitive for promotion, but they still are generally looked on as second-class citizens when competing against West Pointers and ROTC Distinguished Military Graduates.

There have been exceptions, the most notable of which was General George C. Marshall who graduated from Virginia Military Institute and rose to the job of Chief of Staff of the Army (the Army’s top general) during World War II. After the war, Marshall went on to become Secretary of State and, later, Secretary of Defense, both in the Truman administration. However, the other top generals associated with World War II—Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, and MacArthur—were all West Point graduates. Regardless of the type of commission he held, Vaught was on the way to Germany in early 1946.

Cadet Vaught at The Citadel in 1943

Chapter Two

Bamberg, Germany is a town in Bavaria located on the Regnitz river near where it joins the river Main. Bamberg was one of the few cities in Germany that suffered very little damage during World War II because an artillery factory was located near the town. The proximity of the factory and its anti-aircraft defenses kept Allied planes from making bombing runs on the town.

When Vaught arrived in Bamberg in the spring of 1946, the U.S. Army in Germany was now an army of occupation. A four-power Allied Control Council had been established on August 30, 1945 for the administration of Germany. Each of the four—France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the U.S.—had a zone of occupation within Germany where the Commander-in-Chief of the respective forces issued commands and directives.

In reality, the administration of each zone of occupation lay with the forces within it. Initially, the American plan called for harsh treatment of the defeated Germans and strict non-fraternization between U.S. troops and German citizens. There was a general feeling among U.S. government officials and U.S. Army commanders that Germany had been treated too kindly after World War I, a condition that eventually led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party taking over the German government and leading it into World War II. This time, it was felt the duty of American troops was to treat Germans with such sternness that they would be thoroughly degraded and never allowed to again threaten Europe with a general war. The initial plans called for Germany to be de-industrialized and reduced to a country of small farms, which could not support the rebuilding of a large military force.

The purpose of the Allied Control Council was to provide central administration over the country, but differences between the United States, Great Britain, and France on one side and the Soviet Union on the other led to the council’s demise. It could not act except upon unanimous agreement of the four powers, which was difficult to achieve due to the Soviet Union acting in its own interests almost from the beginning of the occupation. Acting on orders by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin from Moscow, the Soviet occupation forces effectively refused to work with the other three occupying powers in administering Germany. The ultimate goal of the Soviet Union was to force the United States, Great Britain, and France out of Germany, laying the entire country, and virtually all of Europe, at the feet of the Soviet Union. While the Soviet plan was not entirely successful, the Soviet representative to the council walked out on March 20, 1948, never to return, effectively ending the combined forces administration of post-war Germany by that body.

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