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Man who lost legs in WWII and fought for veterans dies at 100

Odell “Boe” Vaughn lived in St. Petersburg and Florida off and on for years.
Odell "Boe" Vaughn, pictured here in 1964, spent 32 years with the Veterans Administration. During his career, Vaughn worked in St. Petersburg, the Philippines, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.
Odell "Boe" Vaughn, pictured here in 1964, spent 32 years with the Veterans Administration. During his career, Vaughn worked in St. Petersburg, the Philippines, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. [ Times (1964) ]
Published Feb. 7

“We were about 9 kilometers south of Pisa,” said Odell “Boe” Vaughn in a 2017 interview about World War II.

His company, the 178th Field Artillery Brigade, learned a fellow soldier had been injured in a minefield.

“We could hear the man screaming for help, and we had no idea how badly he was hurt,” said Vaughn, who was a master sergeant. “The more he screamed, the faster I moved.”

Vaughn stepped on a landmine, launched into the air and landed sitting.

“I looked down and one leg was gone, and the other one was mangled pretty badly.”

He and another soldier took their belts and tied tourniquets around Vaughn’s legs.

“I prayed to the Lord at one moment that I’d die, and in the next moment I prayed that I could live to see my wife and a son I’d never seen,” Vaughn said, “and I don’t recall having thought of anything else.”

Vaughn lived to see his wife and son, and later two daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He danced and skied and golfed. He spent his career working for veterans in Florida and around the country.

That battlefield in Italy wasn’t his last tragedy, or even his biggest.

At each hardship and crossroads in his life, he just kept going, said daughter Jo Peavey, “and appreciated it all like there was some plan he didn’t know about.”

Vaughn died Jan. 16 of natural causes. He was 100.

Boe and Virginia Vaughn grew up and were married in South Carolina.
Boe and Virginia Vaughn grew up and were married in South Carolina. [ Courtesy Jo Peavey ]

Boe

If you knew Vaughn, you called him Boe. He earned that nickname during childhood summers spent on his aunt and uncle’s farm in South Carolina. Boe was short for the boll weevil that tears up the cotton plants.

Vaughn, like that bug, was often causing trouble.

He married his high school sweetheart, Virginia, and enlisted in the Army. Vaughn lost his legs two years later, in 1944, and was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and a French Croix de Guerre.

He reunited with his wife and, for the first time, met his 2-year-old son at Coral Gables Hospital.

“Her attitude was, it wasn’t the end of the world,” Vaughn said in a 1974 St. Petersburg Times story. “Best thing that happened, I was in a ward with 31 other amputees. Pretty hard to feel sorry for yourself under those conditions.”

Odell "Boe" Vaughn won a citation as Handicapped Federal Employee of 1972. Vaughn established the National Records Bureau for the Veterans Administration and rose to deputy director.
Odell "Boe" Vaughn won a citation as Handicapped Federal Employee of 1972. Vaughn established the National Records Bureau for the Veterans Administration and rose to deputy director. [ Times (1972) ]

A different cloth

Vaughn learned to walk using prosthetic legs and built his career with the Veterans Administration. In 1955, he moved his family to Florida and warmer weather.

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“He took a cut in pay and position,” the Times reported, “and came to the VA Regional Office at the Don CeSar on St. Petersburg Beach to take the only job available — as receptionist. But his know-how paid off.”

By 1972, Vaughn was the director of the Veterans Administration Regional Office for Florida. That year, he lost his son, CBS News correspondent Odell Vaughn Jr., in a helicopter accident while he covered Hurricane Agnes.

“That is enough tragedy in one person’s life to make a man give up,” The (Columbia, South Carolina) State reported in 1974. “But Vaughn isn’t made of that cloth. He has consistently refused to let personal hardships and pain sidetrack him.”

Vaughn rose to deputy director for Veterans Affairs, overseeing 17,000 employees, improving the benefits program and reorganizing field offices to speed everything up. In 1978, he resigned from his post because he disagreed with President Jimmy Carter’s cuts to veterans’ hospitals and benefits.

Vaughn spent 32 years with the Veterans Administration.

Virginia and Odell “Boe” Vaughn were married for 68 years. She died in 2010. “He absolutely adored my grandmother, and it was mutual,” said Ginny Peavey.
Virginia and Odell “Boe” Vaughn were married for 68 years. She died in 2010. “He absolutely adored my grandmother, and it was mutual,” said Ginny Peavey. [ Courtesy Jo Peavey ]

A force

He survived war and the loss of two children, then his wife. Vaughn suffered two heart attacks. He wore his prosthetic legs into his 90s, when he had to stop after wearing out his knees. In 2021, he got COVID-19 and recovered.

Vaughn loved fast driving, fast boating and racing his great-grandkids in his motorized wheelchair. He was a woodworker, a big tipper, a cigar smoker and a flirt.

“He was constantly saying, go with the flow,” said granddaughter Ginny Peavey.

Vaughn wasn’t just an example of perseverance for his family, they said, but a positive force. His daughter works to approach life that way.

She slips sometimes. Things get tough.

Then, “I remember whose child I am.”

Odell Vaughn with one of his great-grandsons. “With all his grandchildren, he wasn’t just a grandfather, he really was a father figure and a hero to all of them,” said daughter-in-law Christine Vaughn.
Odell Vaughn with one of his great-grandsons. “With all his grandchildren, he wasn’t just a grandfather, he really was a father figure and a hero to all of them,” said daughter-in-law Christine Vaughn. [ Courtesy Jo Peavey ]

Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

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