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​Joseph P. Vaghi, Jr. ’42D, right, is surrounded at the Legion of
Honor ceremony by proud family members. From left are son
Nino Vaghi, holding medal; granddaughter Theresa Vaghi;
granddaughter Lizz Vaghi ’10; son Joseph P. Vaghi III ’78; and
Joseph III’s wife, Mary.

Vaghi ’42D Awarded Legion of Honor by France

Nearly 70 years after risking his life in one of America’s most costly military encounters ever, Joseph P. Vaghi Jr. ’42D was accorded the honor of a lifetime by a grateful ally.

In a ceremony at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., Vaghi was presented the Legion of Honor Chevalier (Knight) award by the French government for his personal, heroic contributions to the liberation of France during World War II.

The Legion of Honor, established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, is France’s highest civilian award and is equivalent to the U.S. Medal of Honor.

Vaghi and approximately 20 other veterans received the award in a ceremony filled with military tradition and emotion.

“We will never forget you,” Olivier Serot Alméras, consul general of France, told them.

After a French military officer pinned the medal on him and kissed him on both cheeks, Vaghi, seated in a wheelchair, saluted the officer.  

“All of us were very proud, and he was very proud. It was a very moving event,” said Vaghi’s son, Joseph P. Vaghi III  ’78, who attended the ceremony with several family members.

The younger Vaghi explained that France instituted the honor as a gesture of gratitude and to educate its own citizens, particularly students, about the country’s military history. In fact, several French students attended the ceremony.

Joseph P. Vaghi Jr., who lives in Bethesda, Md., attended PC on a football scholarship. Upon graduating from the College in December 1942, he headed to the University of Notre Dame with seven other PC graduates and completed an intensive 90-day military training.

“A traffic cop in hell”

U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Vaghi was a platoon commander and a beach master with the 6th Naval Beach Battalion at the D-Day Invasion of Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 6, 1944. The role was described as being similar to “a traffic cop in hell.” His unit was responsible for all activities in an approximately 250-yard area between the low- and high-tide marks.

Unit members cleared paths for tens of thousands of Army troops to come ashore. They guided landing crafts through obstacles the Germans had put in their path. Vaghi, other unit members, and the various crafts had to maneuver around land mines, bombs, machine gun fire, and the bodies of fallen comrades. Vaghi, as beachmaster, also arranged the casualty evacuation.

At one point, Vaghi removed two gasoline cans and several boxes of hand grenades from a burning Jeep, saving the lives of many in the immediate vicinity.

He later received the Bronze Star Medal for heroism, and the 6th Naval Beach Battalion was awarded the Cross of War from the provisional French government. In 2000, the battalion also was honored with the Presidential Unit Citation.

Vaghi, who later served with a battalion that invaded Okinawa, was featured in the Ken Burns’ documentary, The War. He was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1947 but served in the Naval Reserve until 1959.

He returned to Normandy in 1994 for a 50th anniversary commemoration and again in 2001 as the leader of a group of veterans that placed a plaque there in honor of the 6th Battalion. 

After returning from Normandy in 2001, he reflected on his PC education and experience, saying the College taught him many values that remained with him throughout his lifetime.

“What I learned in terms of fidelity, honesty, integrity … those were all qualities I had learned growing up and were reinforced at Providence College,” said Vaghi, who attained a master’s degree in architecture from The Catholic University after the war and ran his own firm. “When I left PC, I felt qualified to do anything.”

— Charles C. Joyce


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