From the icy shoreline where he stood, a tall gaunt man took off his goggles and stared out into the rough seas. It was nearly impossible to see anything through the descending fog, and he was alone except for his dogs. He was on the lookout for U-boats or any signs of prowling Germans.
The lonely sentinel had been sent to the remotest part of Greenland by the U.S. Army Air Forces, which feared that one of its top-secret Norden bombsights—intended to allow precision bombing of enemy targets regardless of flak and fighters—was about to fall into German hands. Word was out that one of the sights lay amid the wreckage of a downed Boeing B-17 somewhere in a remote and forbidding corner of Greenland.
The USAAF had reason to be fearful. The Germans had set up a mobile weather station in the vicinity in late 1941 and had been tracking weather—and Allied activity— for more than a year. They were well positioned to snatch the prized bombsight from under the very noses of the Americans.
Already an “old man” by military standards, 37-year-old Colonel Norman Vaughan had been sent to prevent just such a dreaded occurrence. Disguised as a trapper, he had set out to recover the Norden before the Germans could. Despite his age, Vaughan was confident of success. He had convinced the USAAF to allow him to set up a group of dog teams that could reach the remotest parts of the Arctic to rescue pilots and aircrews that came down while ferrying aircraft from one side of the Atlantic to the other.
Thus far, Vaughan had been very successful. In the first year of operations alone, he had rescued the crews of six P-38 fighters and two B-17s from almost certain death. By the end of 1943, his unusual command had grown to include more than 400 dogs and dozens of handlers. It was one of the crews Vaughan had rescued that had brought him back to this forbidding part of the world. On returning from the crash site, the bombardier mentioned to his rescuers that in his haste to leave he had forgotten to destroy the Norden. Well aware of the device’s importance, Vaughan got the crew back safely, then set out again to find it.
Using skills few men possessed in 1943, Vaughan and his dog team were able to reach the bomber and salvage the coveted bombsight ahead of the Germans. It was just one of the many services the Arctic explorer performed for his country. By the end of World War II, Vaughan was personally responsible for saving the lives of 26 airmen.
As impressive a contribution as this was, it is considered by some a mere footnote to a remarkable life. The son of a wealthy Boston family—his father, George, had patented the white polish used on every nurse’s shoes in the country—young Norman was born in 1905 when Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House, and was raised on stories of great polar explorers such as Robert Peary and Robert Scott.
Inspired, by age 12 Norman had assembled his first two-dog sled team, which consisted of a one-eyed St. Bernard and the family’s German shepherd. Typical of his class, the Vaughan family had the pull and money to get Norman into Harvard. Getting in was one thing, staying in another. Never the best student, Vaughan left Harvard for a time to work as a volunteer for Sir Wilfred Grenfell, who was using dog sleds to get badly needed medical supplies to remote areas of Labrador isolated by winter storms.
He returned to Harvard but was not back long before a copy of the Boston Transcript caught his eye. Emblazoned across the front page was a banner headline, “BYRD TO THE SOUTH POLE.” It was remarkable news. No American expedition had set out for the Pole since Charles Wilkes in 1841—and none had reached it.
Vaughan instantly knew he had to be a part of Rear Adm. Richard Byrd’s expedition. After being turned away at the admiral’s door, Vaughan reached the reporter who had written the newspaper article and passed along an appeal to join the expedition. He was given a spot, though he would not meet the admiral in person for 11 months.
While Admiral Byrd and his closest associates worked through the winter of 1927 to tackle the numerous details involved with the operation, Vaughan worked as a butler at an inn to support himself while training 97 dogs in the art of pulling sleds across the ice.
Eventually all was ready, and in August 1928 the expedition set sail. Dragging everything they would need with them— including three airplanes—the expedition reached the Ross Ice Shelf on Christmas Day. Vaughan and his dogs were then largely responsible for hauling supplies from the ships to the base camp. He later supported the admiral as the party explored inland and in a variety of capacities leading up to Byrd’s historic flight over the South Pole the following November 29.
Byrd was hailed as a hero for his accomplishment, which could not have succeeded without the work of many others, including Vaughan and his dog teams. In recognition of the dog-wrangler’s efforts, Byrd named a 10,320-foot eminence near the site of the historic flight Mount Vaughan.
Rather than resume his studies at Harvard, Vaughan went to work for an advertising agency and married a year later. But corporate life did not suit Vaughan either. When he got word that Byrd was planning a second attempt to reach the Pole in 1932, Vaughan volunteered. This time Byrd turned him down.
Not long afterward, Vaughan learned that the 1932 Winter Olympics would mark the debut of dog sledding as a demonstration event. Vaughan made the team and represented his country at Lake Placid, N.Y., in the only Olympics ever to feature dog sledding; he placed 10th. In addition to his ad agency job, Vaughan moonlighted for a while as a ski instructor and semipro football player. Four years after competing at Lake Placid, Vaughan published Ski Fever, the first book on skiing techniques published by an American.
Middle-aged and toiling away, when Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, Vaughan immediately volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Forces. Technically too old, he successfully argued that his experience as a dog handler would be an invaluable asset when it started to send aircraft from the United States to Britain. The route would take the aircraft over Greenland and, familiar with the vagaries of Arctic weather, Vaughan knew his services would be needed. He was right, and the teams he subsequently trained rescued many airmen who would have otherwise perished.
By 1944 the situation over Greenland had calmed down somewhat and Vaughan was again growing restless. When he learned of the German breakthrough in the Ardennes and the isolated pockets of Americans left in its wake, Vaughan volunteered to take dog sled teams loaded with supplies to the trapped men. Turned down, Vaughan persisted in arguing his case and eventually won over Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, who finally agreed to the unusual proposal. Vaughan was flown to Paris with orders to prepare 17 men and 209 dogs to undertake the hazardous mission. Just as the unit was ready to go, the weather over the Ardennes finally cleared, and the Allies were able to reach the trapped men with aerial resupply.
Unwilling to return to mundane activities, from 1945 to 1949 Vaughan worked for the United Nations, heading up the Search and Rescue Division of the International Civil Air Organization. When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, Vaughan was sent to the Pentagon, where he was kept busy working on various psychological warfare efforts. He retired from the Army in 1955 with the rank of colonel.
Vaughan found it difficult fitting into a normal routine and drifted in and out of various jobs that included selling chainsaws and, eventually, snowmobiles. His lack of business acumen put a strain on his second marriage—the first had ended in divorce in 1938—and by 1965 he was single again. With two children to support, Vaughan tried to get some publicity for his snowmobile business, and in 1967 he drove a snowmobile 5,000 miles from the Arctic Circle in Alaska to Boston. He was 62. The stunt won him the headlines he sought as well as several endurance records, but it did not save his business.
A year later Vaughan tossed a few items into a duffle bag and headed to Alaska alone. Penniless upon his arrival in Anchorage, he earned enough to survive by shoveling snow, washing dishes and cleaning bathrooms. He eventually landed a job managing the movie theater at the University of Alaska at Anchorage.
More important, Vaughan began patronizing various watering holes in Anchorage, where he would sip tea or coffee—keeping a vow he had made to his mother not to take a drink until he reached 100. A favorite spot was Fletcher’s, located at the Captain Cook Hotel, owned and operated by former Alaska governor Walter Hickel.
Although Vaughan was a teetotaler, he and the bar owner hit it off and soon became close friends. Apart from serving as governor, Hickel had been a prizefighter who, like Vaughan, came to Alaska penniless. He eventually started his own construction company, which led to real estate investing and politics.
In 1973, following a third failed marriage, Vaughan was drawn back to his love of dogs and began putting together a team. Joe Redington Sr. had just established the 1,100-mile Iditarod Race from Anchorage to Nome as a means of commemorating the 1925 serum run that had brought life-saving drugs to Nome and saved the isolated community from a diphtheria epidemic.
In 1976, through the financial assistance of students and faculty members who knew him from the university, Vaughan entered his first Iditarod Race at age 71 under a banner reading “Norm to Nome.” He did not make it, and instead was hospitalized for nine days. The next year, he entered again. This time he got lost for five days in blowing snow and was finally spotted by a bush pilot and rescued. He would enter 10, and finish six, of the internationally renowned races before quitting at age 85 in 1990.
Back on his financial feet, Vaughan became devoted to Alaska. When President Jimmy Carter overlooked the explorer’s adopted state while planning his 1977 inaugural festivities, an incensed Vaughan drove to Washington, D.C., and crashed the parade. Not wishing to make the same mistake as his predecessor, Ronald Reagan made sure that Alaska, and Vaughan, was represented in his 1981 and 1985 inaugural parades.
As happened to so many aging veterans, the 40th anniversary of World War II reawakened memories in Vaughan. In 1981 he returned to Greenland to begin a 12- season effort to try to recover a B-17 that had been left where it crashed. Forty years on, the bomber was buried under 256 feet of glacial ice. Vaughan’s team drilled a 42- inch shaft down to the bomber using hot-water hoses. Once they reached the World War II relic, Vaughan and the others determined the plane was unfit to fly. Undaunted, he and his team chopped through 226 feet of ice at another crash site in 1992, this time recovering a rare P-38E.
He was also drawn back to Antarctica. He had visited the “white continent” in 1978 for the 50th anniversary of the first Byrd expedition. In 1993 his attempt to drive a dog team across Antarctica ended when the plane carrying his dogs and other members of his team crashed in bad weather.
A year later and now sporting an artificial knee, Vaughan set out with his fourth wife to climb to the summit of Mount Vaughan. They made it. Ignoring the hypothermia from which he was suffering during the ascent, Vaughan stood on the summit of his namesake mountain three days shy of his 89th birthday.
To celebrate his 92nd birthday, Vaughan retraced the 1925 serum run from Nenana to Nome in a snowmobile, stopping often on his 17-day, 868-mile journey to teach children in isolated villages along the way the importance of inoculations and health care in general. Four years later, he carried the Olympic torch through the streets of Juneau in a wheelchair. He was still not satisfied.
Vaughan made plans to revisit Antarctica to celebrate his 100th birthday by climbing his namesake mountain a second time. This time, having kept his vow to his mother, Vaughan intended to celebrate with champagne on reaching the summit. A French champagne company, contacted by Vaughan’s wife, expressed an interest in financing the journey. But the company backed out when it learned that the climber would be using a walker or a wheelchair.
Four days before the centennial birthday, Vaughan was hospitalized in Anchorage with erratic breathing and a faint heartbeat. “If you don’t look for challenges, you become a follower,” he told an Associated Press reporter when asked about the status of his dreamed expedition the day he was admitted into the hospital. On December 19, 2005, Vaughan celebrated his 100th birthday, not on the summit of Mount Vaughan as he had wanted but with that first sip of champagne. Four days later, he died. He was the last surviving member of the first Byrd expedition in 1928 and throughout a long, illustrious and colorful life stayed true to his motto: “Dream big and dare to fail.”
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.