Laurence Rees: Joseph Argenzio lied about his age so that he could join the US army – and so he was just 16 years old when he found himself in an army camp in Britain in June 1944, about to take part in one of the most famous military actions in history.
Words of Joseph Argenzio: A Sergeant came into my tent one day and said, ‘Argenzio,’ I said, ‘Yes, Sarge.’ He said, ‘Get your gear together, report outside, there’s another fellow out there and there’s a jeep,’ he says, ‘you’re going for a ride.’ I said, ‘Where?’ He said, ‘You’ll find out.’ So I got in the jeep and there was another fellow with me, and I’m sitting in the front and this other fellow was in the back of the jeep, and we started to travel, and I said to the driver, ‘Where are we going?’ He said, ‘Kid...’ and it’s straight from Brooklyn his accent, he said, ‘Kid, you’re going to the big show.’ And I said, ‘The big show?’ not being very smart at 16, and I said ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘You mean, Bob Hope and Glenn Miller’s band and all those beautiful Hollywood movie stars?’ He said, ‘Not exactly kid. You’re gonna get an all expenses paid cruise to sunny France.’ And I said, ‘Oh-oh!’
So the next thing I know we’re travelling down to the harbour at Weymouth. And he took me over to where the Empire Anvil, a British transport ship, was stationed, and they said this is the 3rd Battalion of the 16th Infantry, and I went, ‘Oh, my god!’ So as I started to board the vessel, all the soldiers that were hanging around looking over the side of the ship started screaming at me, and these were the veterans from North Africa and Sicily, and they kept yelling at me, ‘Hey, baby face, go home, this is for men, no boy scouts.’ I took an awful beating. And I went aboard and a Lieutenant said, ‘Who are you?’ And I told him I was a replacement, and he says, ‘Oh, I don’t think we ordered one.’ He took me down to a Colonel Horner, God bless him, and Colonel Horner threatened to throw me overboard because he didn’t order any replacements. He said, ‘But I can’t throw you overboard, not here,’ he said – ‘we already sailed.’
I had not trained with the outfit, I only had 12 weeks of actual infantry training, and they told me, ‘Okay, we’ll keep you’, ‘cause I mentioned my dad served with the First in World War One, I think that’s what saved me, and so it was, ‘Oh, okay.’ So we started having briefings, and they had a layout of Omaha Beach and they were explaining how we were gonna go in – what company would get here, what company would get there. In the wee hours of the morning we had breakfast, at midnight, and we had Mass prior to that, non-denominational Mass, and they started to load the troops in the wee hours of the morning. I forget the time. And we went around in circles in the marshalling area with other boats – we called it Piccadilly Circus. And they kept going around and around and we were getting bounced more and we were getting wetter and wetter and sicker and sicker. It was disgusting.
In came the planes, the B-17s, the B-25s, we saw them come overhead and then the Navy opened up. Royal Navy ships with their guns and with the big guns flying over our heads, it sounded like freight trains going over. The air force were dropping bombs on the beach and knocking out all the pill-boxes and gun pits and so on.
As we approached the beach we started taking heavy fire, there was machine gun and rifle fire pinging off the front of the boat and artillery fire landing all around us. And I saw one boat on our left take a direct hit and it disintegrated, and finally we were fairly near to the beach, fairly close and we hit something under water, and the coxswain dropped the ramp. The men in the front of the boat were killed instantly as they tried to run off the ramp, and someone yelled, ‘Get over the side.’ And I went right over the side and I lost everything that I had there, my rifle, my helmet, it took me right down. I was in at least ten to twelve foot of water and I was about five foot two in those days.
And if you saw the film ‘Private Ryan’, of the soldiers in the water with the machine gun bullets all around them and getting killed, that was me. How God protected me, I don’t know, but I had made it to a point where I started to swim and I got to a point where I could touch down and raise my head up a little bit in the water and start to, like, bounce a little bit, but what I saw was horrendous. Dead, wounded and so on. Finally I did something that saved my life I’m not proud of, but there were two badly shot up bodies floating right in front of me. I grabbed them, put them together and pushed them in ahead of me, and they were taking machine gun bullets and rifle bullets that were meant for me.
Laurence Rees: Soaking wet, and feeling lucky to be alive, Joseph Argenzio made it to the beach at last.
Words of Joseph Argenzio: So I figured, well, I can’t go back, there’s only one way to go, and I started running, and I kept falling down because the shale stones on the beach were all slimy. Men dying all around you and getting blown up, it was horrible. I saw a lot of chaos. It was devastating. Smoke and the smell of cordite, the burning tanks, people dying, people being blown apart... I had bullets all around me, oh, they were snapping over my head and they were snapping around my feet. I don’t know to this day why I wasn’t killed in the water, number one. Number two, why I survived when I came out of the water, and why me? They were dying by the hundreds, you know, why me? Who knows?
So I finally made it by the grace of God, and heard guys screaming and yelling and crying, and I made it up to the sea wall, and I just dropped down and all I could hear was echoing right from the water’s edge, it was staying on my mind, I heard men yelling, ‘I’m hit. Oh, god! Medic,’ and as they were dying, ‘Mamma.’ And another soldier made it up to where I was, and dropped down alongside of me, reached and took out some cigarettes, put one in my mouth, lit it and said, ‘Take a big drag,’ and I did, and I almost choked to death ‘cause I’d never had a cigarette before.
Laurence Rees: Joseph and the soldier who had just joined him saw wounded and dying soldiers all around them, and decided to try and help.
Words of Joseph Argenzio: So we crawled out, which was very, very foolish, and we started to pull in whether they were dead or not, started pulling them towards the sea wall, to a point where I couldn’t even use my arms any more. They were just laying there and this guy that was with me decides to take off. I don’t know where he went, he just disappeared.
Laurence Rees: After rescuing the wounded, Joseph Argenzio heard the words of his commanding officer.
Words of Joseph Argenzio: Then Colonel Taylor, our Regimental Commander, came in and started yelling, ‘There’s only two kinds of men on this beach, those who are dead and those who are gonna die, so let’s get the hell out of here.’ The engineers blew the barbed wire and we started up, coming up towards the top of the block hole, fighting our way up. And halfway up there was machine gun mounts and so on, and we took them out. We got to the top and we had taken an 88 artillery piece in a bunker, and its back door was open – foolish – and we killed the crew in there with hand grenades.
I wasn’t sorry for killing any of them, not after what I saw from the moment that ramp dropped until I got up to the top of there. Maybe we became heartless, I don’t know, but they didn’t deserve any mercy because they were shooting the wounded and dead. So they weren’t discriminating, they got them all. And so I lay down and tried to get my breath and this fella comes plopping up behind me, reaches in his jacket, pulls out a little American flag and starts to wave it, yelling, ‘I made it, North Africa, Sicily and Omaha Beach, I made it.’ It was exuberance. I said a prayer, I’ll be honest with you, I said a prayer, ‘Thank God for watching over me,’ and I was kind of proud I guess, I don’t know, it’s one of those things that, well, I didn’t let my dad down, that was my big thing too. I couldn’t have lived with myself if I didn’t give it my all. And I felt that way every day I was in combat, I never let him down.