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.
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.