Vietnam, Charles McGaugh

May 25, 2011

Charles McGaugh spent 15 years, two months, two days and eight hours in the Navy.

He enlisted in the Navy in 1959 when he was 21, because he didn’t want to get drafted into the Army. Though he didn’t see much combat, McGaugh, now a resident at the Missouri Veterans Home in Warrensburg, did have a lot of adventures.


One of his jobs was to be a tour guide on the USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides, in Charleston, Mass. He did this for one year.

“It was an honor to be on board that ship. It was the first ship to be built from the Navy and there will never be another ship named Constitution, as long as she’s got her keel,” he said. “If she loses that keel and sinks, then they can name another ship after her.”

Active-duty Navy sailors still give tours of the ship today.

He ran into several famous people, including actor Jerry Lewis. McGaugh remembers they clashed at first. He asked Lewis if he’d be interested in a tour of the ship. Lewis gave him a snide remark back.

McGaugh got mad and said, “Pardon me for breathing in your face, sir.”

Lewis thought about it for a moment and tapped McGaugh on the shoulder. He apologized for being so rude. He thought McGaugh was an autograph seeker.

McGaugh responded, “Mr. Lewis, I have been a big fan of yours and Dean (Martin)’s for many years, but mister, you turned me off.”

Lewis told him, “I had that coming. You’re the first person who has ever gotten into my face. My hat’s off to you.”

He then said he’d be honored if McGaugh showed him around the ship.


McGaugh later served in Vietnam and the Philippines. While the crew was docked in Oakland, Calif,, to pick up another shipment for food distribution, his buddies decided to play a trick on him.

They told him they had a lady who was dying to meet him and gave him her address. He initially wasn’t going to go, but then thought “what the heck” He went to the house and rang the doorbell. Who should answer the door? Phyllis Diller. He was shocked.

I told her, “Miss Diller, I think I had a dirty trick played on me.”

She smiled and told him she was getting ready to eat dinner with her daughter and son-in-law. She invited him to join them. He didn’t want to impose, but she insisted.

“All the time that Bob Hope’s shows came around, she was there, but I didn’t get to see them. I could not get a stand by. It was always on my duty days,” he said.

They shared a meal together and she brought out a Polaroid camera. McGaugh had his picture taken with Diller and her daughter. They gave him copies of the pictures.

“I thanked her very much for everything and said that it was an honor to be there,” he said.

The next morning the men asked McGaugh how his date went and were laughing something awful. When he pulled out the pictures, they couldn’t believe their eyes. They didn’t know when they picked that address that Diller lived there.

Unfortunately, due to all the traveling he did, McGaugh lost those pictures.


His time in the Navy wasn’t all filled with joy. While he was in boot camp, he met a man named Jim, who was also from Missouri. They both went over to Vietnam. McGaugh knew Jim’s ship — a Mike 8 utility boat —  because it was the only boat that flew the Missouri flag. Jim was the skipper of the boat and had to drop off a detachment of Army soldiers along the Mekong River.

One day McGaugh and his crew were having a beer party on a pontoon boat. He noticed a boat coming up the river and didn’t like the looks of it. When the boat came alongside, he knew it was Jim’s.

He jumped onboard to help tie it up. The only survivor on the ship was the engineer. He happened to be down in the engine room when they got into a fire fight. When he finally went up top, he discovered the entire crew was dead. The engineer put all of the men in body bags and drove the boat back to safety.

McGaugh asked him where the Missouri flag was and he said he put it in Jim’s bag. The engineer thought he had gotten everything picked up. McGaugh walked to the ramp of the boat and noticed a helmet. As he picked it up, he noticed his friend’s head was inside.

“Needless to say, I lost my beer,” he said. Jim took a B-40 rocket to the throat. The engineer thought his head went over the side of the ship.

McGaugh still carries the picture of Jim with him today. Years ago, when the Vietnam traveling wall was in Sedalia, he met Jim’s mother.