Joe Vaghi dies; Navy beachmaster who helped lead the invasion of Omaha Beach on D-Day was 92

Family Photo - Joe Vaghi, who was believed to be the youngest Navy beachmaster on Omaha Beach on D-Day, died Aug. 25. He was 92. He is shown here with French villagers in the days after the invasion.

In the Navy, a beachmaster has been said to hold a rank “just above God.” Joe Vaghi got the job because he had a weak stomach.

A “big, ham-handed college football player” — that was how New Yorker correspondent A.J. Liebling described him in a wartime dispatch — Mr. Vaghi received his Navy commission in 1943. He had hoped to captain a landing craft in one of the amphibious assaults that would help determine the course of World War II.

(Family Photo) - Joe Vaghi is shown here aboard a ship during World War II. (Family Photo)

The trouble was, Mr. Vaghi had a tendency to get seasick. So he trained to be one of the first men off the landing craft — the “beachmaster” who heads ashore to direct the arrival of new troops and the evacuation of the wounded and the dead. During the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, beachmasters became known as “traffic cops in hell.”

At 7:35 a.m. that day, Mr. Vaghi’s craft landed at Omaha Beach. A Coast Guardsman jumped into the water and began laying rope for the men to grip as they forged toward land. German artillery fire killed him on the spot, according to a National Geographic article about the invasion.

Mr. Vaghi, the commander of his platoon, followed the Guardsman off the ramp, heading into the water, a second Coast Guardsman told Liebling, “as if he was running out on a field with a football under his arm.”

He was the first and, at 23, the youngest beachmaster to reach the sands of Omaha, said Ken Davey, the historian of Mr. Vaghi’s 6th Naval Beach Battalion. Mr. Vaghi turned 24 the day before he left Normandy. He later served in the Pacific in battles including the one for Okinawa.

Mr. Vaghi died Aug. 25 of end-stage renal disease at Maplewood Park Place, an assisted living facility in Bethesda. His death, at 92, was confirmed by his son Joseph P. Vaghi III. Mr. Vaghi became an architect after the war and had lived for more than five decades in a house he designed in Kensington.

He did not speak in detail about his wartime experience until 1994, when national commemorations marked the 50th anniversary of D-Day. The next year, the White House invited Mr. Vaghi to accompany Vice President Al Gore on a trip to Europe to mark the 50th anniversary of the war’s end.

Only then, and after filmmaker Ken Burns featured Mr. Vaghi in the documentary “The War” (2007), did his family begin to learn the full extent of his service.

Because of advance work by an underwater Navy demolition team, Mr. Vaghi wrote in a personal account of the invasion, most men and equipment headed for Omaha Beach arrived through “Easy Red,” the sector under his command. At one point, an Army officer asked him to announce the order to “move forward.”

Mr. Vaghi gave the order and watched men charge 50 yards across the heavily mined sands to a steep bluff beyond the beach. The members of his battalion called themselves, National Geographic noted, the “fighting sons of beaches.”

“A most horrendous sight was that of bulldozers moving bodies to make roads off the beach,” said Army D-Day veteran Stuart Hill, according to a Web site documenting the history of the 6th Naval Beach Battalion. “A most heroic sight was that of the Beachmaster calmly walking along the beach issuing orders through a bullhorn.”

At various points Mr. Vaghi established radio connections with ships still at sea, drove a stranded bulldozer to a safe location and comforted a dying soldier whose name he never learned.

“We had trained so much that everything came quite natural,” he told the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project years later, “except one thing we didn’t do in training is to allow people to die.”

Midway through the morning, as he helped an Army medic move a dead soldier out of the path of incoming troops, an explosion knocked Mr. Vaghi unconscious and killed several others. He awoke to find his knee injured, his coveralls on fire and a nearby jeep ablaze.

After putting out the fire on his clothes, he and another man approached the burning jeep and removed from it two five-gallon cans of gasoline.

“This act involving utter disregard of personal safety,” reads the Bronze Star citation Mr. Vaghi received for the act, “unquestionably resulted in saving the lives of a number of wounded men who were immediately adjacent to the jeep.”

Three of the nine beachmasters in the 6th Naval Beach Battalion died on June 6, Davey said. They were among 4,413 Allied fatalities that day, according to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va. A fourth beachmaster died the day after, Davey said.

After 23 days in Normandy, Mr. Vaghi returned to the United States to train Navy officers in amphibious warfare and then shipped out for the Pacific. He was at sea when he received word that the United States had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that the defeat of Japan was at hand. In an interview with a reporter years later, he recalled thinking to himself, “I’m going to live awhile longer.”

Joseph Peter Vaghi Jr. was born June 27, 1920, in Bethel, Conn., the son of Italian immigrants and the third of nine children. All six boys in the family served in the U.S. military during or immediately after World War II. All made it home safely.

Mr. Vaghi was discharged from the Navy in 1947 with the rank of lieutenant commander and remained in the Navy Reserve until 1959.

Before the war, he had attended Rhode Island’s Providence College on a football scholarship and received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1942. His wartime knee injury ruined his hopes for a career in athletics.

Having worked in his father’s cabinetry shop growing up, he decided to pursue a career in draftsmanship and design, and he received a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Catholic University in 1952.

After graduation, he settled in Montgomery County and founded a Bethesda architecture firm, Joseph P. Vaghi and Associates, which he operated for more than four decades. His specialties included restoration. In addition to his work in the Washington area, he was a consultant for the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

His wife of 57 years, Agnes E. Crivella Vaghi, died in 2004.

Survivors include four sons, Monsignor Peter J. Vaghi, the pastor of Little Flower Catholic Parish in Bethesda, Dr. Vincent J. Vaghi and Joseph P. Vaghi III, both of Potomac, and Nino R. Vaghi of Kensington; two sisters; and six grandchildren.

During the landing on Omaha, an explosion threw a young Navy radio operator, Torre Tobiassen, to the ground. He found himself next to a box of explosives and unable to move. Only four decades later, after a reunion of D-Day veterans, did he learn that Mr. Vaghi had moved the box before it could ignite amid the fire on the beach.

“To me, that was what saved my life,” said Tobiassen, now 87, reached by telephone at his home in River Vale, N.J. “Had they gone up, I would have gone up too.”