Over time, Gen. Vaught came to view the hostage-rescue effort as a “successful failure” because it exposed flaws in military planning and led to a variety of reforms. He worked as an adviser to military agencies and contractors on the development of night-vision equipment and other ways of making the special forces more effective.
He also recommended the creation of a joint special-forces unit that would cover all branches of the military. The combined U.S. Special Operations Command was launched in 1987.
James Benjamin Vaught was born Nov. 3, 1926, in Conway, where his family settled in 1683. He said he was a direct descendant of Francis Marion, a Revolutionary War general known as the “Swamp Fox” whose hit-and-run battlefield tactics made him an innovator in guerrilla warfare.
Gen. Vaught attended The Citadel, a military academy in Charleston, S.C., before entering the Army during World War II. He served in Germany as part of postwar occupation forces and commanded an infantry unit during the Korean War.
In the 1960s, he graduated from Georgia State University and received a master’s degree in business administration from George Washington University.
In 1967, he began his first tour of duty in Vietnam. In February 1968, hetook command of a cavalry battalion that had a major role in capturing key positions in Hue and Khe Sanh.
“The manner in which he took over the battalion was remarkable,” said Charles Baker, a retired Army colonel who served with Gen. Vaught in Vietnam. “He just went out and went [fox]hole to [fox]hole, meeting the soldiers. He cleaned his own rifle and dug his own hole.”
Gen. Vaught received two Silver Stars in Vietnam. He suffered serious injuries in a military vehicle accident in 1968 but, despite broken bones in his back, managed to rescue the vehicle’s driver. In 1971, he returned for a second tour in Vietnam.
His final command was in Korea, where he led combined U.S. and Korean forces before retiring as a three-star general in 1983 and moving to South Carolina. His other decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal, Soldier’s Medal, Bronze Star Medal and Air Medal.
Gen. Vaught’s first marriage, to Aimee Beers, ended in divorce. His second wife, the former Winifred Johnson, died in 1995.
Survivors include his wife of 17 years, Florence Robinson Glasgow Vaught of Myrtle Beach, S.C.; three children from his first marriage, Cathryn A. Vaught of Fayetteville, Ga., James B. Vaught Jr. of Chesapeake, Va., and Stephen P. Vaught of Columbia, S.C.; two stepdaughters, Marian Davis of Mount Pleasant, S.C., and Lee Glasgow Watson of Fort Mill, S.C.; a brother; a sister; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
At a ceremony honoring returned hostages in 1981, Gen. Vaught said the rescue mission was “a very best effort by a group of brave, courageous Americans of which we can all be proud.”
“No matter how hard one may try,” he added, “just the slightest miscalculation or unfortunate circumstance can unconnect it all, and it will all go to hell in a handbasket and no one can stop it.”