A D-Day Hero Who Put His Trust in God

The following column was written by The Christophers’ Jerry Costello:

He didn’t like the “hero” label, and he thought “the greatest generation” phrase is tossed around a little too much. But Joseph Vaghi Jr. qualified as a genuine D-Day hero when he served as the Navy’s youngest beachmaster in France, and “the greatest generation” tag fit him like a glove.

Vaghi, of Bethesda, Md., died last year at 92, and the obituary by Mark Zimmermann in the Catholic Standard of Washington paid attention to the role he played on D-Day–which took place on June 6, 1944, 69 years ago this month. As a self-described “traffic cop,” Zimmermann wrote, Vaghi, the first one off his landing craft, “held a map and guided troops ashore, through mine fields, mortar blasts and machine gun fire.”

But the obituary told much, much more. It described the family in which Vaghi was raised, one of 10 children, and the way in which his Catholic faith was central to his life. (In an earlier interview, Vaghi had recalled how all 10 youngsters would line up and then march off to attend Mass.) In a eulogy, Dr. Vincent Vaghi, one of his four sons, described the way his father’s faith played such an integral part in his D-Day heroics: “My father had everyone kneel down in their landing craft and say the Our Father just prior to disembarking.”

Vaghi himself had no qualms about his chances. In that earlier interview, chuckling over a shipmate’s description of him charging onto the beach like a football player, he said, “When I went into Normandy, I had absolutely no fear, because I knew God would look after me. If he wanted me, that would be it.”

Another son, Msgr. Peter Vaghi, pastor of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, celebrated the funeral Mass. He said his father’s Italian immigrant parents had infused the Catholic faith into their son by their example, and that he trusted in God’s will “every day of his life.”

An architect, Joseph Vaghi was a familiar presence to Catholics in the Washington area. He and his late wife, the former Agnes Crivella, were active members of the John Carroll Society, had chaired Washington’s annual Cardinal’s Appeal, and received numerous awards for their years of service to the Church.

But the rites kept harking back to his deeds of heroism all those years ago–on the D-Day that would stand as the key to the Allies’ victory over Germany in World War II–down to the playing of the Navy Hymn at the final commendation. That service was led by Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, the Archbishop for the U.S. Military Services.

Vaghi still kept and treasured the map he had held on Omaha Beach in 1944, and often thought of and prayed for the 23 men from his unit who gave their lives there. His own heroics had earned him the Bronze Star, and just last year he received France’s Legion of Honor Chevalier.

And even though he didn’t think too much of that label–“The Greatest Generation”–he thought that all men and women who had donned the uniform and fought for their country, in the past and still today, deserve our respect.

“We just went in,” he said, “and did what we had to do.”

About Tony Rossi

After graduating from St. John's University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers' TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the host and producer of the organization's radio show/podcast Christopher Closeup, writer and editor of their syndicated Light One Candle column, and producer/scriptwriter of the annual Christopher Awards ceremony.

  • Dr. John Fox

    What a wonderful and inspirational story about someone who represents the very best that we can be!
    Today has also made me think of three other heroes, two of whom I am sure you have heard about and one that I never heard of until today.
    The first two are Robert and John Kennedy.
    Forty five years ago Bobby Kennedy died. His evolution as a great political leader was incredible. There was a special tribute to him today on “Morning Joe”. Joe Scarborough talked about (and this is, perhaps, a tad ironic since Joe was elected to Congress as a conservative Republican) the fact that Bobby Kennedy was a hero of his: a primary factor being the speech that Kennedy gave in Indianapolis right after Martin Luther King was assasinated in April, 1968.
    Fifty years ago John Kennedy gave what I think is the greatest speech of any President since FDR. It was at American University in Washington and its focus was on nuclear arms. The most profound lines in the speech (in my opinion) are
    “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
    Finally, here’s somone like Joe Vaghi that I only learned about today, and somebody that most people never, ever heard of: a guy named Bob Fletcher
    His obituary appeared in today’s New York Times:
    ‘Bob Fletcher Dies at 101; Saved Farms of Interned Japanese-Americans”
    This is someone every Christopher should know about.

  • Dr. John Fox

    This is a great story, Joe Vaghi represents the essence of what trying to be Christopher means.

    This day please think about three other people, two of I whom I have revered for many years (John and Robert Kennedy) and one of whom I only learned about today when I read his obituary in The New York Times.

    Bobby Kennedy died 45 ears ago today. I truly believe that our history would be profoundly different had he been elected in 1968. His speech in Indianapolis after the assasination of Martin Luther King was remarkable.

    John Kennedy gave what I think was the greatest speech of his Presidency 50 years ago at American University in Washington. The focus of the speech was nuclear arms control, but Its most profound lines were:

    “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
    Somehow I think Father Keller would have really appreciated that sentiment.

    Finally, there is Bob Fletcher, a guy who worked for the State of California as an agricultural commissioner, but decided that what was happening to Japanese Americans during World War IIwas simply wrong.
    The obituary headline in The Times says it all:
    “Bob Fletcher Dies at 101; Saved Farms of Interned Japanese-Americans’