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Elsie ItemFeaturedJune 2018 (No. 101)LCI 88LCI(L)

Navy Beachmasters on “Red & Green” Omaha

By Jeff Veesenmeyer

Ensign Joseph Vahgi couldn’t sleep. He was playing cards below deck on Coast Guard LCI(L) 88 (Landing Craft Infantry Large). The flat bottomed, 300-ton amphibious ship rolled in four-foot waves on the English Channel. Playing cards helped Vahgi avoid sea sickness or thoughts of what lay ahead.

Vahgi commanded Platoon C-8 of the 6th Naval Beach Battalion. When he joined the Navy, his goal was to be captain on an amphib for invasion day. His chronic sea sickness derailed that, and he ended up training to be a beachmaster. It is said, a beachmaster on an invasion beach has rank that is slightly above God. This duty was certainly an advancement from skipper.

On board the LCI(L) 88 that morning was the Coast Guard crew of 33 plus about 140 passengers and their cargo. This included Vahgi’s 45-man platoon and a platoon of amphibious engineers. A writer from the “New Yorker” magazine was along for the cruise. He described Vahgi’s men as sailors dressed like soldiers. They wore full combat gear. Only the red insignia on their helmets identified them from Army infantry. Their training surpassed anything most army units had experienced. These men were specialists in beach reconnaissance, demolition, communication, boat repair, combat medical and evacuation. They could fight too. His men called themselves “The Fighting Sons of Beaches.”

LCI(L) 88 transported beachmaster Joseph Vahgi’s platoon to Normandy Beach on 6 June 1944

Vahgi’s job on the beach was traffic cop. The beachmaster used a power megaphone, flags, blinkers and Walky-Talkies to direct landing craft, men and supplies. They helped the amphibious-engineers clear paths to keep the flow of everyone and everything moving off the beach. LCI(L)88 would be in the 3rd wave on Easy Red of Omaha Beach. Smaller landing craft delivered the first waves of infantry. They were supported by amphibious tanks. The plan was to have the beach mostly secured for the third and successive waves.

Joseph Peter Vahgi Jr. was born June 27, 1920 in the small town of Bethel, Connecticut. He was the son of Italian immigrants who had nine children. All six of their boys served in the armed services during or after the war.

Joseph Vahgi, Ensign: When I enlisted my mother, who spoke pretty good English, said to me in Italian, “My dear son, God be with you. Never forget your parents.”

Vahgi would turn 24 on Omaha Beach. He was the youngest of nine commanding beachmasters in his Battalion. Vahgi had played football for Providence College, attended midshipman school and received his Navy commission in 1943. His platoon included men from all walks of life. The only thing they had in common is they were all older than their leader. The oldest was 36-year old Amin Isbir, S1/c. And then, of course, his mom had enlisted God. Most young men would be nervous facing combat for the first time. Vahgi was playing poker.

H-Hour for the first wave was 0630. When the battleships and cruisers opened-up the whole channel shook. Wave after wave of bombers and fighters flew overhead. They attacked German defenses before troop landings. The bombers were to drop their payloads on the beach to create craters, explode mines and open paths in the barbed wire. Only 600 raw enemy troops were expected to be defending Omaha Beach. This was the information shared with unit commanders and passed down through the ranks. None of it became true.

Everything went wrong on Omaha Beach. The ship bombardment overshot most enemy positions on the high ground and started grass fires to the rear. Smoke provided concealment for enemy positions. The bombers flying at 8,000 feet feared dropping on their own troops, so they waited 3 more seconds for “bombs away.” All their bombs landed seven miles inland which mostly killed cows. Of the 32 amphibious tanks, 27 sank in the high waves. The five that made the beach were immediately taken out by anti-tank guns. Most German gun beachmasters in his Battalion. Vahgi had played football for Providence College, attended midshipman school and received his Navy commission in 1943. His platoon included men from all walks of life. The only thing they had in common is they were all older than their leader. The oldest was 36-year old Amin Isbir, S1/c. And then, of course, his mom had enlisted God. Most young men would be nervous facing combat for the first time. Vahgi was playing poker.

H-Hour for the first wave was 0630. When the battleships and cruisers opened-up the whole channel shook. Wave after wave of bombers and fighters flew overhead. They attacked German defenses before troop landings. The bombers were to drop their payloads on the beach to create craters, explode mines and open paths in the barbed wire. Only 600 raw enemy troops were expected to be defending Omaha Beach. This was the information shared with unit commanders and passed down through the ranks. None of it became true.

Everything went wrong on Omaha Beach. The ship bombardment overshot most enemy positions on the high ground and started grass fires to the rear. Smoke provided concealment for enemy positions. The bombers flying at 8,000 feet feared dropping on their own troops, so they waited 3 more seconds for “bombs away.” All their bombs landed seven miles inland which mostly killed cows. Of the 32 amphibious tanks, 27 sank in the high waves. The five that made the beach were immediately taken out by anti-tank guns. Most German gun emplacements had survived the massive ship bombardment. The 600 poorly trained defenders had been reinforced by crack German troops from the Russian front.

When the bombardment began, German defenders were in awe. One survivor recalled, “There was a strip of fire when the guns opened up, the whole sea looked like it was on fire. I’ll never survive this. But they missed our gun emplacements. Our weapons were still ok.” When the bombardment ended, the Germans came out of their bunkers to man the guns. They watched hundreds of small craft approaching. Artillery and mortars zeroed in on them. Machine gunners held their fire.

Oral history interviews from German survivors: I had a Polish machine gun that could fire 3,000 rounds per hour. We fired straight into the boats when they opened-up. I thought good god, those poor men. You shoot to survive. During the first onslaught, hardly any of them got through. There were so many bodies on the beach and men kept coming. We couldn’t understand it. The beach was full of bodies, yet new ones kept coming, but they didn’t make any headway. It’s hell – it looks like hell.

At 0730 LCI(L) 88 was approaching Easy Red sector of Omaha Beach. Something looked terribly wrong. The coxswain couldn’t see his landmark. The high ground was shrouded in smoke. The beach was flat – no holes – and covered with dark specs. He soon determined the specs were dead and wounded men. Tracers were hitting the water, shells sent plumes of water in the air, the boat hit ground about 200 yards from the beach. The tide was at its lowest. Lt. H.G. Rigg, the skipper of LCI(L) 88 ordered the ramps lowered. A sailor in swim trunks ran into the surf pulling a guideline toward the beach. A shell landed and blew him apart. Vaghi was next down the ramp. The magazine writer for “New Yorker” wrote, “Our ship kissed the shores of Normandy when the tide was at its lowest. Shells were coming in, splashes coming over, smell of gunpowder, LCIs in flames, men standing in water up to their necks not knowing what to do next with tracer bullets skipping. Vahgi ran for the beach like linebacker with a football.”

Joseph Vahgi, Ensign: I was the first of my platoon to leave the LCI after beaching. The craft had ramps on each side of the bow for purposes of discharging the passengers. Shortly after leaving the craft, the right ramp was blown away by an enemy shell, causing several casualties both on the craft and in the water. We saw tracers coming toward us. We saw people fall. We saw people yelling for help. If not for the good training – train, train, train, – we couldn’t have made it.

Vahgi was the first Navy beachmaster to arrive on Omaha Beach. His entire platoon made it to the beach with him. Not every beachmaster was that lucky. LTJG Hagerty was beachmaster on LCI(L) 85. His platoon doctor was LTJG John Kinkaid Jr. They were both on deck preparing to go ashore. As the ship touched bottom they began taking shell and tracer hits. Wounded men began falling. Hagerty assisted Doctor Kinkaid with treating several. When the ramps were lowered Hagerty went forward to lead his men to the beach. He turned to Kinkaid with a big smile and yelled, “See you on the beach.” At that moment a big shell landed aboard and exploded. It killed Hagerty instantly. “He left me with a big smile and an encouraging word,” recalled Dr. Kinkaid. The Captain of the LCI(L)-85 was LTJG Coit Hendley Jr. He described the scene in his reports.

LCI(L) 85 listing badly from mine and shell hits while approaching Omaha Beach in D-Day.

Coit Hendley Jr., LTJG: Going to the beach, this craft hit a mine, careened through the jumble of beach defenses, and finally got her ramps down for the troops to disembark. Before the unloading was completed, crossfire of German 88s (artillery pieces) machine guns and sniper fire blew one ramp off, killed 15 men, wounded another 40, and set her blazing in three compartments.

Concentrated gunfire on the bow left a pile of dead and wounded on the remaining ramp. It became impassable. Smaller craft pulled alongside to finish unloading the men who had been unable to make it to shore. The ship had been hit about 25 times and was listing from shell holes at the water line. LCI(L) 85 was abandoned.

Seaman First Class Robert Watson was on a landing craft that was transporting his beachmaster platoon to Fox Green Beach. The church steeple in Coleville was visible. They were on target. The waves were huge. Watson and many others were seasick. Other landing craft started getting hit by artillery. Some were on fire, some were sinking. The terrified coxswain slowed his ship to a crawl. An Army officer ordered him to get this thing going. He powered up and hit a floating mine that blew the bow clear out of the water. Watson was hurled over the side into water 300 yards from shore. His 60-pound pack took him down, but he quickly inflated his life vest and popped to the surface. Salt water stung his leg wounds. Other dead and wounded men bobbed all around him. He spotted a LCVP coming right at him. He knew it wouldn’t stop, but he yelled “Hey stop,” anyhow. The coxswain slowed a little, a rope hung over the side – Watson grabbed it then held on for dear life. It tore the skin off his hands, but he hung on until he was 40 yards to the beach. From there he crawled up into a nightmare. German shells were exploding on the beach. Machine gun bullets sprayed the sand. Landing craft and tanks were on fire. The dead and their body parts were everywhere. “It was horrible, everyone’s screaming for help, everyone’s wounded,” Watson remembered.

Watson crawled through the gore to a medic who had lost all his supplies. He gave the medic his kit and gathered a few more off dead soldiers. He got a shot of morphine for his wounds and proceeded up the beach. A surviving officer spotted Watson. He was trying to assemble a firing line of able bodied men. Nobody was shooting back at the German defenses. Watson pointed to the red beachmaster insignia on his helmet but was ordered to join the firing line. He unwrapped his Springfield 30-06 and inserted a wet clip. Bam! It still worked. He emptied about 10 clips on the Germans who had been running around up on ridge. Now they had their heads down.

Robert Watson, S1/c: I was scared the ammunition wouldn’t work. I squeezed the first shot without any problem. I don’t know if I killed anyone or not. I really didn’t care.

After doing his part in the battle, he returned to the beach and his job. He found Dick Watson from his platoon and a medical officer. The men put up big green banners and flags signaling to incoming ships that they were approaching Fox Green Beach.

Each quarter mile along Omaha the beachmasters set up sandbagged communications stations. The Germans had filled hundreds of sandbags and beachmasters made good use of them.

On Easy Red Joe Vahgi had taken control. He was confronted with chaos and horror. He began by trying to restore order. His men first attended to the wounded, moving them to aid stations and clearing them from vehicle lanes. They put up their Easy Red flags and directed ships to paths that had been cleared of obstructions. They established medical and communication stations.

Officers told Vahgi what they needed. He would order the equipment or supplies on a walkie-talkie. Despite continuous shells raining down on the beach, Vahgi calmly walked his sector shouting orders on his megaphone. The advance from the beach on German defenses had stalled at a barbed wire-strewn minefield. An officer asked Vahgi to order the troops to move forward. Vahgi gave the order with his megaphone. A bangalore team moved up, blew a hole in the wire and soldiers charged 50 yards to the steep bluffs.

Bulldozers created one of the most horrendous sights witnessed that day. Paths across the beach had to be cleared. Bulldozers were used to move bodies for making roads off the beach. Easy Red had been cleared of many water obstacles by demolition teams. It became the primary beach for bringing in trucks, tanks, jeeps and supplies. The beach was becoming clogged with machines, equipment and wounded men.

Joeseph Vahgi, Ensign: You know what to do because instinct and training tell you …like helping a dying boy. We had trained so much that everything came quite natural except one thing. In training we didn’t allow people to die.

About mid-morning Vahgi was helping a medic move a dead soldier out of the path of incoming troops. A shell hit, lifting a jeep and setting it on fire. Vahgi was knocked unconscious. When he woke up his clothes were on fire. He rolled the fire out and found many of his men were wounded near the jeep. It was on fire and loaded with gas cans and ammunition. Vahgi unloaded the jeep before it could explode. He was awarded the Bronze Star citation for his action. Two days later, he learned that one of his men was crushed under the jeep. It was 36-year old Amin Isbir. His death date was incorrectly recorded and not included with those who died on D-Day. A nephew corrected the error many years later. Isbir is now among the 4100 who died on 6 June 1944 on the Normandy beaches.

Of the nine beachmasters with the 6th Naval Beach Battalion, four were killed by day two. The Battalion had a 27% casualty rate. Vahgi would survive. Vahgi spent 23 days in Normandy before being sent back to the states. He was assigned to training other officers for amphibious landings. He eventually volunteered to go back into combat and was sent across the Pacific for the invasion of Okinawa. To his astonishment, Okinawa was nothing like Omaha Beach. This time he walked ashore with virtually no opposition from the Japanese. Vahgi decided he was going to survive the war.

By the time the LSTs arrived at Omaha, the Beachmasters had established order. Despite the injury to his leg, Vahgi directed traffic on Easy Red for three days. Tanks, trucks, jeeps, supplies and men flowed in daily.
USS LCI(L) 85 is listing after hitting a mine and taking 25 German artillery shell hits. The USS Samuel Chase (APA-26) would come alongside to evacuate the crew. A short time later 85 capsized and sank. Four Coast Guard LCIs were sunk on D-Day. Wartime censors painted out the landing craft’s number on this photo.
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