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.”
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.
A traffic cop in hell
Vaghi, at only 21, was the beachmaster for Easy Red, one of the sectors on Omaha Beach. As 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. 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.
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.
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 and became an architect. He married Agnes Crivella in 1947 and settled in Washington, DC, where they raised four sons.