Thomas Franklin Vaughns served in the U.S. Army as a member of the original Tuskegee Airmen in the 1940s and was later drafted into the Korean War.
After his service in the Korean War, however, Vaughns, out of desperation to come home, didn’t stay to collect his Korean medal – the National Defense Service Medal.
Now, at the age of 99, Vaughns has finally received the medal in a ceremony at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) on Wednesday.
Arkansas Congress members presented him with the Korean War medal alongside four replacement awards for his service in the second world war.
The four replacement medals were the World War II Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal-World War II, the Good Conduct Army Medal, and the Honorable Service Lapel Button.
Vaughns had received these four awards after the war, but he unfortunately misplaced them over the years.
During World War II, Vaughns was a mechanic for the Tuskegee Airmen, serving the U.S. Army during a period of legalized segregation and pervasive racism, according to a report by Arkansas Online.
Segregation would formally come to an end in 1948, two years after Vaughns was discharged the first time.
“We all know about his great career in the military, going off at a young age to serve his country, willing to do whatever he was asked to do,” U.S. Senator John Boozman said while presenting the medals. “Then he came home and, like the greatest generation, rebuilt the country.”
“You are the ultimate patriot and the ultimate hero because you served when even by law and by practice many said you couldn’t and you shouldn’t,” said Arkansas state representative Vivian Flowers who was also at the ceremony.
“There was discrimination on every level of society and you served despite that.”
After the Korean War, Vaughns returned to Arkansas and began setting community youths towards success through his work with AmeriCorps VISTA, Delta Service Corps, and 4-H Clubs of America.
He also began a career in education and became a mentor to many young people in subsequent years.
Vaughns recalls helping about 90 students pursue degrees at the UAPB and some of his mentees who were at the presentation ceremony attested to that.
Ben Mcgee of Little Rock said Vaughns helped him and his two brothers through college at UAPB.
“I didn’t have any money,” McGee said. “When I got off the bus in front of Caldwell Hall on Sunday morning, I had 20 cents in my pocket. I got on this campus and never got a penny from home in four years. I got on work study, got in the agriculture department and worked every evening on the college farm.”
“He’s a hero in every sense of the word,” Boozman said, “not because of his military service — that’s part of it — but he’s a hero because of the way he’s lived his life.”
World War II veteran Vaughns, who was elated about his awards, said in a humorous tone: “These honors, I don’t know whether I deserve these things…but, anyway, I’m enjoying it.”
Serving at a time when the American Army was segregated, the Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American aviators in America.
The 332nd Fighter Group and the 99th Pursuit Squadron were the only black groups that fought in World War II and were considered highly successful despite facing discrimination in and out of the army.