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On Island Profile: Robert Vaughn

Sept. 5, 2005 – Christiansted resident Robert V. Vaughn did not talk for many years about what he saw during the last months of World War II — the devastation at Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Tokyo — cities where the numbers of dead make the numbers at the Twin Towers attack look like a bad car accident, not a war.
But Vaughn says the distance of time – 20 years in the states and 40 years on St. Croix — makes it easier to talk about those times when violent death haunted whole continents.
One of the reasons the desolation and the destruction of Nagasaki, which he photographed, is seared in his brain is because he saw it as his plane was returning from dropping bombs on Tokyo.
He said in a recent interview, "Usually, you just flew in dropped your bombs and flew out. You did not see what damage was done. We saw what happened to Nagasaki, and even more people were killed in Tokyo."
A postwar U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey said, "probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a six-hour period than at any time in the history of man." The estimates are 85,000 people died in Tokyo. The estimate of dead in Nagasaki is 74,000.
Oddly, after flying four bombing missions in a B-24 and contributing to Japan's defeat, Vaughn fell in love with its people and their art.
Three walls in the bedroom in his Queen Street home have Japanese prints 100 to 200 years olds. In the living room, there is a photograph of him playing traditional Japanese music with one of its stars in the 1940s. After he became a member of the occupation forces in Japan, he says, a former general in the Japanese army and museum curator became his unofficial adopted father.
Still, it would be 1990 before Vaughn would publish a book about Japan, and even that book – "In The Shadow of the Trinity" — would not include specifics about the part he played as the 20-year-old pilot of a B-24.
The book came about at the urging of one of St. Croix's most famous residents, photographer Fritz Henle.
"After Hugo, I had one of only two working phones in Christiansted," Vaughn says. "Fritz would come up to use it. We became friends. I showed him my photographs. He said I should publish them."
Henle ended up writing the foreword for the book. A photograph of Mt. Fujiyama by Henle adorns the front cover of the book.
Writing his own book and helping local authors such as Dr. Wilbur Williams and Richard D. Schrader with their books is just one of the extra-curricular activities that Vaughn has had since he arrived on St. Croix. He estimates that he has taken about 200,000 photographs. He has them all catalogued and on CDs in his office.
He is a member of the St. Croix Landmarks Society, the V.I. District Court Historical Society and the Society of Virgin Islands Historians. His photographs also demonstrate a great interest in V.I. culture and history.
After being discharged from the Army, he bounced around the states for a while. But the time was not wasted. He earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and geography, with a minor in fine arts; a master's in library science; and then a doctorate in education.
In the states, he worked as an assistant to the vice president of Fenestra, the company that built the Pan Am building in New York City. He also worked as a senior statistician/analyst for General Motors. He says, "I determined how many Cadillacs each dealership should sell."
General Motors wanted to transfer him to Minnesota, he says, "The coldest place in the country." He did not like the idea. He quit.
Instead, he came to the Caribbean, where he had spent previous vacations. He had bought some land in St. Lucia, but there was trouble between him and the government about the land, so that was a no go.
Asked why he ended up on St. Croix, he says with a smile, "You have to live somewhere."
When he first came to St. Croix to settle, he did not do much but play golf. He says he was one of the founding members of Fountain Valley Golf Course, now Carambola Golf Course. He is proud to mention a hole-in-one he shot there.
But it was as a teacher that he probably made his biggest mark on St. Croix. He taught four years at St. Dunstan's School and then moved over to Good Hope School, where he spent 18 years as head librarian. He also worked as a part-time instructor and librarian at the University of the Virgin Islands.
He says he starting drawing and taking photographs when he was 9 years old, and 71 years later, he is still active in the art world. This spring he, along with Dr. A.L. Anduze, had a two-man exhibit – "Hither & Yon in the Caribbean" — at the Museum Center for the Arts, Frederiksted.
He also continues to write and edit. His major project now is getting a collection of letters he wrote while in Japan published.
He has also designed cachet envelopes. These envelopes with artwork on them are used in mailings on the first day a stamp is issued. His cachet, approved by the U.S. Postal Service for its millennium stamp, had a photograph of Point Udall. Recently he was working on printed commemorative envelopes for a group of stamps called "Advances in American Aviation" issued in July. However, the post office would not accept the design because it contained photos of living people – veteran pilots now living in the Virgin Islands.
Still, he printed the cachets at his own expense. He dropped some of them in the box at the Richmond Post Office with the new stamps attached on the day of issue and addressed to his home. An alert postal clerk saw that the envelopes contained nothing, so she took them to Seaborne Airlines (which was shown as a sponsor of the cachet) and there the envelopes were for some reason run through the postal metering machine. The cachets finally returned to Vaughn four days later without the postmark of the day of issue. Vaughn smiles about the incident, "The person was just trying to do a good job and be helpful."
His home is the home of a man who collects odd items. He has old spy cameras and cameras using strange format film. Among his antiques is a 1902 Thomas Edison Phonograph that works.
Most Cruzans probably have seen Vaughn and don't know it. He is the short, wiry guy that doesn't look a day over 60, taking photographs at every major cultural event that takes place on the island.

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