Big Spring Veteran remembers service in Vietnam and Webb AFB

Lt. Col. (Ret.) Vaughn Martin looks back at his incredible life and service to our country during the Vietnam War
Published: Nov. 11, 2023 at 10:15 PM CST
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BIG SPRING, Texas (KOSA) - Vaughn and Helen Martin have been married for 69 years, together they’ve called Big Spring home for nearly as long.

The two raised a family of four children, and now in their late 80s, they look back and admire the journey that led them here.

“It’s been a good life here in Big Spring,” said Martin.

Growing up in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Martin didn’t expect to find himself in West Texas, but his call to service led him to join the Air Force.

This new adventure led him to go to flight school.

“After that, I had my first assignment and flew KC-97 tanker aircraft. We did air refueling work,” Martin explained.

After five years, he was then led to various parts of the country flying a few different aircraft.

Then in 1959, amid the Vietnam War, came a new assignment, based out of Webb Air Force Base in Big Spring.

There, he trained students to fly T-33 jet aircraft.

But it wasn’t until a couple of years in Big Spring that the supersonic age of trainer jets began.

“Webb Air Force Base was the first base to get the T-38 to train student pilots in 1962. I was an instructor pilot in the first class to fly this airplane,” Martin said.

Martin got to know the aircraft well inside and out.

“It was a hot airplane. It was a Cadillac!” Martin exclaimed.

For a few years, Martin trained countless students to fly the T-38.

But then, Martin was called to duty overseas.

“I went to Vietnam in January 1966.”

After attending training in Florida prior to going to Vietnam, Martin had a new aircraft under his belt. The A-1E Skyraider.

“It’s a big single-engine prop airplane, we gross out at 25,000lbs. We carried all kinds of armament, rockets, bombs, napalm,” Martin explains.

During his time fighting in Vietnam, Martin was part of countless missions to support those on the ground, knowing his life was on the line on each flight.

“We had a lot of dangerous missions with the search and rescue down low. Several times I would bring back the airplane with holes in it. One time I had 19 holes in my airplane,” Martin said.

Flying the Skyraider meant Martin and his team could undertake risky tasks that the newer fighter jets at the time simply could not.

“We could go low and slow, and we could stay up for about 4 hours lot longer than a jet so we could assist in the rescue missions when Pilots were down,” said Martin.

But during one fateful fall morning, Martin found himself in need of rescue.

“I got shot down on the 14th day of October 1966, never will forget the day,” Martin explained.

Martin says that during his time overseas, he flew 199 and a half missions. But as Martin explains, that missing half a mission is an interesting story!

Over Laos to the west of Hanoi just outside of Vietnam, Martin was on a mission trying to disable enemy vehicles carrying heavy weapons into Vietnam.

After some success, things took a turn.

“We had already knocked out some and I took a pass and took something in the engine. The engine started quitting on me and smoking,” Martin recalls.

Knowing his Skyraider was disabled, he went into survival mode, his thought was to eject himself to safety, but that wasn’t an option.

“At that time the A1-E did not have an ejection system!” Martin said.

Martin explained that in theory a pilot can jump out of the airplane in flight by opening the canopy, but he was simply too close to the ground already.

He knew his only option for survival was to try to put it down in the unknown territory below.

“The airplane is built like a tank so it could withstand a lot, so I just rode the thing in, and I was not injured and got out.”

Luckily, his wingman saw the whole thing unfold and radioed for help.

But on the ground, Martin had to wait four hours to be rescued.

Keeping his head on a swivel, Martin had an interesting encounter.

“There was one little village not very far from where I went down and some of the people came out and went over there. They were friendly. So, I figured they’re friendly so I’m good. It was a pretty long four hours if you think about it,” Martin remembers.

Although this all unfolded 57 years ago, this airman recalls it like it was yesterday, even the thoughts of his family as his life hung in the balance.

“You always thought about what happens if I leave them [his family]. Especially the time I got shot down, or a couple of missions. You kinda wonder about them,” said Martin.

After this incident, Martin got right back into action.

Through nearly an entire year in Vietnam, Martin never wavered and continued to answer the call day in and day out.

“You had a mission to accomplish, you went and done it. Every day was a different thing.” Said Martin.

During his time overseas, with limited communication, he always thought of his family back home.

“People say you’re a hero, well the wives are heroes too! I left my wife with three little kids when I went over there. So, she had to be the coach, taxi driver, the nurse, and everything. Two were in school, one was younger,” Martin explained.

After his service in Vietnam, he returned home and continued his service in bases across the country, but always ended up coming back to the place he knew best, Big Spring.

Martin continued to be an instructor on the T-38, helping Air Force flight students get their wings, no matter how difficult.

“Sometimes I say flying with students may be more dangerous than flying combat in Vietnam,” said Martin while chuckling.

That continued until Martin retired as a Lieutenant Colonel after 20 years in the Air Force.

By then, he had already made his life in West Texas.

“It’s a good life here, we raised four kids here. All of them went to school in Big Spring,” said Martin.

Then, Lt. Col. Martin and the entire community were shocked when the Department of Defense decided to shutter operations at Webb Air Force Base in 1977.

“Out of seven pilot training bases, we were the first one to close,” Martin explained.

Martin and many others tried to lobby politicians in Washington to keep Webb AFB alive but were unable.

At the time, it was a shock to the Air Force community and Big Spring as a whole.

Lt. Col. Martin took a job with the V.A. hospital in Big Spring and worked there for decades as an engineer.

Fast forward to the present and the former Webb Air Force Base is now the McMahon-Wrinkle Airpark and Industrial Park.

But it’s also home to Hangar 25, a museum meant to keep the memory of Webb AFB alive.

“I think it’s a real great reminder and we hope we keep it going,” said Martin.

Martin is on the board of directors for the museum and has been a part of it since its start decades ago.

A few of the aircraft that Martin flew during his service at Webb are on display.

One of them is near and dear to his heart.

The T-38 supersonic trainer jet is the aircraft that bears his name at Hangar 25.

A token of gratitude and an acknowledgment of his service to our country.

“I think it’s a great honor, I was really surprised. We’ve had that airplane for quite a while. I’m on the board of directors here, but I didn’t know other board members voted to put my name on the airplane since I had flown it,” Martin explained.

There is so much to see at Hangar 25, Lt. Col. Martin knows this place like the back of his hand. He even gives his own tours.

But his legacy continues to live on not only at the museum but from his students from long ago.

“I will run into some of these students, or they’ll come back through here and they know I’m still here so it’s a lot of memories in training a lot of them,” said Martin.

Memories that are rooted forever in Big Spring’s history.

Vaughn Martin, most recently, visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. in May 2023. He was able to visit the memorial during the 10th mission of the Permian Basin Honor Flight.

During this trip, Martin was able to find the names of a few of his old friends who lost their lives while fighting in Vietnam.

You can learn more about Hangar 25 in Big Spring by clicking the links below:

Hangar 25 Facebook Page

Hangar 25 Website