Throughout the chaos and carnage of D-Day, Joe Vaghi kept his cool. The U.S. naval officer’s landing craft hit Omaha Beach at 7:35 a.m. on June 6, 1944, and as Vaghi moved down the vessel’s ramp, the man in front of him was blown apart by a shell. Undeterred, the 23-year-old strode on “as if he was running out on a field with a football under his arm,” said the New Yorker war correspondent A.J. Liebling. Vaghi knew he had work to do. He was a Navy “beachmaster,” tasked with directing men onto the Normandy beaches and evacuating the wounded—a job likened to being a traffic cop in hell.
Born in Bethel, Conn., the child of Italian immigrants, Vaghi only became a beachmaster “because he had a weak stomach,” said The Washington Post. He’d hoped to captain a landing craft, but switched to beachmaster training after discovering he was prone to seasickness. He proved well suited for the job. Survivors described him calmly walking along Omaha Beach, shouting orders through a bullhorn as German bullets and bombs pounded the sand, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). After being knocked unconscious by an explosion, he doused his flaming clothes and began unloading fuel canisters from a burning jeep, saving the lives of other wounded men who lay around him. “We had trained so much that everything came quite natural,” he said.
Vaghi went on to serve in the Pacific, and was at sea when he learned of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Years later, Vaghi—who became an architect after World War II—recalled thinking to himself, “I’m going to live a while longer.”