Joseph Vaghi was born in Bethel, Connecticut on June 27, 1920, one of nine children born to Italian immigrants. His father owned and operated a successful cabinetry business and during the war received a contract to make rings for the Norden bombsite. All six boys in the family would eventually serve in the armed forces. Vaghi attended Providence College on a football scholarship, graduating in December of 1942. He immediately went to midshipman school and was commissioned as a naval officer in April of 1943. He asked to train for amphibious operations, hoping to be the skipper of a landing craft. Seasickness made that impossible, and he was then selected to be a beach master. He trained extensively for the invasion of France, in the United States and England, and was put in charge of a platoon in Company C, 6th Naval Beach Battalion.
The war in England had strange beginnings, he recalled. And when Pearl Harbor occurred, everyone agreed we had to do something. It’s a miracle how people responded. Everyone was involved, from kindergarten kids picking up metal and bottles along the road to old ladies crocheting. Famous actors, musicians, comedians like Bob Hope all went to war. The response was tremendous! It was probably a phenomenon that had never occurred before but is repeating itself following the 9/11/01 attack on America.
Towards 6 June 1944
For his part, Joseph Vaghi graduated from Providence College in December of 1942 and immediately headed for the University of Notre Dame for special naval training, along with seven other PC graduates. They all completed the intensive 90-day training, leaving as commissioned midshipmen. “PC had an effect on all of us,” he recalled. “We knew what we were doing, and we gave it our all. A lot of the guys from other colleges dropped out. What I learned in terms of fidelity, honesty, integrity—those were all qualities I had learned growing up and were reinforced at Providence College. When I left PC, I felt qualified to do. Though they had hoped to be assigned to aircraft carriers or battleships, they found themselves assigned to an amphibious unit instead. Vaghi went from Notre Dame to Little Creek, Va. (today’s eastern base for the Navy SEALS), to Fort Pierce, Fla, to New York, to Liverpool, England, and then to the southern coast of England to practice landings.
“We knew what was coming,” he said, “but not when. Everyone was prepared for it.” Then, “it” came the invasion of Normandy.
The Beachmaster for each sector of the various beaches, of which Easy Red was one sector, was responsible for all activities between the low tide mark and the high tide mark. The rise and fall of the tide amounted to some 18-20 feet twice a day in the English Channel. Our 6th Beach Battalion was responsible for most of Omaha Beach. I was the Beachmaster of Easy Red Sector on Omaha Beach, Normandy. I was a Platoon Commander of Platoon C-8 which was one of nine Platoons in the 6th Naval Beach Battalion. The Battalion was composed of three Companies: A, B & C, with each Company having three platoons -my Platoon- was one of the three in C Company. The landing craft that my Platoon was assigned to for the crossing of the English Channel was a Landing Craft Infantry (large) or LCI 88.
A traffic cop in hell
Vaghi (only 23) was a platoon commander of Platoon C-8, one of the nine platoons in the 6th Naval Beach Battalion, his unit was responsible for all activities between the lowtide mark and the hightide mark some 250 yards of ground when the invasion actually landed. Vaghi and his platoon landed alongside the 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division His duties were described as similar to a “traffic cop in hell.” The unit’s tasks included clearing paths and guiding landing crafts through the series of obstacles the Germans had constructed to stop the invasion. They had to maneuver around mines, bombs, bullets from enemy machine guns, and the bodies of fallen comrades.
I was the first person to leave the LCI after beaching. The craft had ramps on each side of the bow for purposes of discharging the passengers. Shortly after leaving the craft, the right ramp was blown away by an enemy shell, causing several casualties both on the craft and in the water. The beach was cluttered with thousands of beach obstacles placed there by the Germans to thwart an invasion attempt by the Allies. A Navy Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) had landed prior to our arrival and was successful in clearing away some of the obstructions, so as to permit movement into the beach by various landing crafts assigned to this and other beaches.
My first awareness that what we were doing was for real was when an 88mm shell hit our LCI(L) and machine gun fire surrounded us. The Germans were in their pillboxes and bunkers high above the beach on the bluff and had an unobstructed view of what we were doing. The atmosphere was depressing. The top of the bluff behind the beach was barely visible; the sound of screeching 12 and 14-inch shells from the warships, the USS Texas and the USS Arkansas, offshore were new sounds never heard by us before; the stench of expended gunpowder filled the air and rocket launchers mounted on landing craft moved in close to the shore and were spewing forth hundreds of rounds at a time onto the German defenses. The sea was rough. Purple smoke emanated from the base of the beach obstacles as the UDT prepared to detonate another explosive in the effort to clear a path through the obstacles to the dune line – this was the state of affairs as the Platoon made its way to the dune line oh, so many yards away.
Using the obstacles as shelter, we moved forward over the tidal flat under full exposure to machine-gun fire as we finally reached the dune line. All C-8s made the long trek including Commander Carusi. God was with us!
Having reached the high water mark, we set about organizing ourselves and planning the next move as we had done so many times during our training period. The principal difference was that we were pinned down with real machine gun fire with very little movement to the right or the left of our position and absolutely NO movement forward. Because the UDT had opened gaps through the underwater obstacles into Easy Red, most of the personnel and vehicles came ashore on my beach with the result that we were very crowded and became "sitting ducks" for the enemy fire.
I believe the most dramatic event I experienced that morning on Easy Red was when an Army officer came to me and asked that I, as the Beachmaster, pass the word over my powered microphone that the soldiers were to "move forward." As a consequence of this request by the Officer, I gave the order after which an Army Sergeant pushed a "bangalore" torpedo through the barbed wire at the top of the dune, exploded it, which then opened a gap in the mass of barbed wire. He then turned to his men and said "follow me." The men rushed through the gap onto the flat plateau behind the dune line to the base of the bluff, a distance of some 50 yards or so through heavily mined areas where many lost their lives or were seriously wounded. The Sergeant said, "Follow me." He did not order his men forward, but actually went in front himself, which is the sign of a leader.
Once this heroic act of the sergeant was accomplished, the Army began its offense against the Germans as the GI's began to attack the Germans' strong points and began to fan out for their movement into the countryside of Normandy – the Battle of Normandy was underway. Beachmaster Vaghi would then arrange the casualty evacuation through his medical officer, Dr. James Russell Davey, and Platoon C-8 corpsmen. “The carnage was terrible, just terrible,” recalled Vaghi. It is a memory that was relived, he said, by viewing the movie Saving Private Ryan, particularly the first 20 minutes which depict the invasion, leaving little to the imagination. “The first 20 minutes was pretty much an accurate reproduction of what happened there,” continued Vaghi. “It actually happened. I was on Red Beach, and the water really was red. Private Ryan gave a lesson up front.
It would be his job to use flags, blinkers, and a megaphone to get men, vehicles and supplies safely ashore on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, D Day. At 7:35 A.M., Vaghi and his platoon landed alongside the 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, on the Easy Red section of the beach. The tide was low, and they came ashore under heavy enemy fire. Vaghi and his men ran several hundred yards past scores of wounded men huddling on the sand and shingle. He went to work, directing his men, struggling to clear a path off the beach, helping the wounded and the dying.
The explosion of a German artillery shell knocked Vaghi unconscious. When he came to, his clothes were on fire and he was wounded in the knee. But he kept at it, struggling to remove cans of gasoline from a burning jeep before they could explode and kill the wounded men lying all around him. Eventually, an Army officer told Vaghi to tell the frightened GIs in his sector to “get the hell off the beach.” He used his megaphone to do just that, and several succeeded in using a bangalore torpedo to blast an opening in the barbed wire that blocked their exit from the beach. In spite of his injury, Vaghi remained on the beach for several days and although the ground fighting had moved inland, German planes still strafed the landing zones at night. After 23 days in Normandy, Vaghi returned to the United States and was given an assignment training other officers in amphibious warfare. But before long before he decided he wanted to go back into action, and volunteered for combat duty.
Perhaps the most touching moment that day was when a young soldier lay dying on the beach. I bent over him and told him to hang in there and that I would send help. Dr. Jim Davey, Lt.(jg) M.C. of my platoon administered morphine which relieved him of the pain, and shortly after, he was dead. I shall always regret that I did not get his name. He was so young and so dependent on us to help him.
In the spring of 1945, he was sent across the Pacific for the invasion of Okinawa. Vaghi came ashore on April 1st and was astonished to discover that, unlike Omaha Beach, there was virtually no opposition from the Japanese that day. After the war Vaghi attended Catholic University of America and became an architect. He married Agnes Crivella in 1947 and settled in Washington, DC, where they raised four sons.