His fellow soldiers would needle him that he should be in the Boy Scouts, not the United States Army. Joseph Argenzio, Jr. was just 16 when he enlisted, and he looked it. He hadn’t thought about what fighting a war would be like, he just wanted to “be a part of all the patriotism,” and he couldn’t wait to get into uniform.
It wasn’t long before this gung-ho kid, who was rejected when he tried to join the Marines and then had to lie about his age before the Army would take him, found himself on a landing craft heading to Omaha Beach — “a nice cruise on the English Channel,” as his sergeant put it — to be part of the first wave of the largest amphibious invasion in the history of the world, 68 years ago today.
The dimple-cheeked boy had been at the front of the craft close to the ramp before they landed, but his sergeant knew that wasn’t right and moved him to the back. As soon at the ramp went down, the soldiers in the front were mowed down by German machine gun fire.
Someone made Joe jump over the side of the vessel, and he landed in water over his head. Sinking fast, he had to ditch two heavy cans of ammo and his rifle. Soldiers were falling in every direction around him, and bullets were spraying nearby. Joe stayed alive by hiding among the dead to block the machine gun fire aimed his way.
He took cover on the beach behind a wall. He put on a helmet from a dead soldier and it went down to his nose, a sardonic reminder of his youth. Dodging enemy fire and mortar shells, his unit eventually made it up a hill, crawling through cut wire, burning grass, and mine-laced trails. They flanked a couple of German machine gun stations and destroyed them.
Joe survived, and he is believed to be the youngest Allied soldier who fought at D-Day. Of the 160,000 Allied troops in the invasion, there were approximately 10,000 casualities, mostly American. It was a turning point in the war, and the beginning of the end of the Third Reich.
As the war continued into August, Joe caught flak in his back and was thrown into the air and knocked unconscious. He recuperated, and didn’t know that his injuries entitled him to a noncombat position, so he returned to his unit. He later found himself at the Battle of the Bulge, and, in all, saw action in Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, France, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia. When the war — the Big One — had ended, Joe was still a teenager, but he came home with two Purple Hearts, a Combat Infantry Badge, two Bronze Stars, and he was later awarded the French Legion of Honor Medal for his role on D-Day.
Joe married, raised a family in New York, joined the local volunteer fire department, and for many years worked for the Department of Defense and then the Department of State. But D-Day haunted him until the day he died. He couldn’t speak about it for more than 55 years, and then, only with difficulty. When they say “war is hell,” they’re talking about June 6, 1944. When people would ask Joe what it was like, he’d tell them to watch “Saving Private Ryan” — the scene a lot of people can’t watch, where young man after young man after young man was methodically gunned down, butchered, by the fierce German resistance. The unspeakable carnage was matched only by the other-worldly valor of the young men called to duty.
Joe Argenzio died in 2010, leaving behind a wife, four children, seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild. He was an old man who had lived a full life. But every obituary, every article about him, made sure to talk about that nice cruise on the English Channel, when a 16-year-old boy helped save the world.