‘It’s about the mission,’ says D-Day veteran

‘It’s about the mission,’ says D-Day veteran

Hy Wagner of Hackensack, a member of the 747th Tank Battalion during World War II, often thinks about D-Day.

That’s not surprising. The 92-year-old, a gunner in one of the tanks that stormed Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, lost many friends that day.

“I think about the men who were lost,” he said. “They were boys, 19, 21, 22.”

Mr. Wagner was 21 at the time, “but I would be 22 in September, so I always said I was 22.” He began his military service in January 1943.

“I’m a lucky man,” he said. “That’s all I can say.” In all, D-Day claimed the lives of more than 9,000 Allied troops.

Growing up in Paterson, Mr. Wagner – who lived in Fair Lawn for many years before he moved to Hackensack – was inducted into military service as Hymen Vagovsky. His father changed the family name while the gunner was overseas.

He recalls D-Day clearly. The 747th – an independent tank battalion that participated in combat operations throughout northern Europe – “steamed toward shore at H hour plus 10,” Mr. Wagner said, noting that the battalion comprised almost exclusively men from New Jersey and New York.

“A destroyer cut across our bow telling us to hold the tanks back,” he said. “The beachhead hadn’t yet been secured.” Indeed, the tank battalion on its flank had just been destroyed by Nazi guns firing out of concrete bunkers. “So we held off till early dawn.”

Mr. Wagner’s tank came across the English Channel from Southampton, England, on an LCT – an amphibious assault ship used to land tanks on beachheads.

“It was not a big kind of thing,” he said, pointing out that many of these vessels capsized on June 6. “There were three tanks on our craft,” he said. His tank carried a major.

“I didn’t know the game plan,” he said. “I knew that we had to land on the beach and go wherever we had to go. I was a gunner, not a tank commander. You do whatever you’re going to do.”

Hy Wagner in his World War II uniform – the jacket was too small when it first was issued, he says.

Mr. Wagner explained that from time to time, his battalion was assigned to different combat divisions. On D-Day, “One of our platoons was attached to the 1st Infantry Division. The others were attached to the 29th Infantry Division. At one time, we were attached to the English. We got all the way up to the northern part of Germany.”

While the thought of D-Day conjures up images of countless dead and wounded Allied fighters for many of us, Mr. Wagner said that as a gunner, “you don’t really see anything except for what’s in front of you.” The tank commander had a better view.

“Most of the action took place after we landed on the beach,” he said, noting that after leaving the tank, the major never got in it again. “So we were on missions with just a four-man crew, where I served as gunner and tank commander, bobbing up and down.”

“I think about it many times,” he said. “About how ill-prepared we were, and how even Dwight D. Eisenhower couldn’t control everything. On paper, it was a beautiful attack, timed well. But on June 7, it would have been a completely different attack because it was a beautiful day. June 6 was clouded over. The bombers went in first, but they bombed away from the beach. The cost in lives was multiplied because the beach area was not destroyed.”

Mr. Wagner sponsored a lunch at a Hackensack restaurant on June 6 for dozens of friends and family members – including widows of military personnel who died on that day in 1944 – Sigmund Westerman of Fair Lawn, “also a veteran of that period,” was among his guests.

This is the first time he has pulled together an event to commemorate the Normandy landing, Mr. Wagner said. “I didn’t do this before, but now it’s 70 years after the invasion – a memorable year. Also, before we were all hustling to make a living.

“We had one reunion of the tank group not long after the war, but then we went about the business of making a life for ourselves,” he added.

Eventually, Mr. Wagner owned a New York public relations company, Media Distribution Services.

What bothers him most today “is that in most schools they don’t really teach history anymore,” Mr. Wagner said. He recently met a man who was “as old as 40, who didn’t know what D-Day was, and he was born, raised, and educated in this country. He wasn’t even taught about it.

“When I went to school, we had a full class of history, like we did literature and grammar,” he said.

While D-Day claimed many more lives than was expected, “I don’t think they could have planned it very differently,” Mr. Wagner said. “You just can’t predict in that type of situation. DDE [President Eisenhower] had a limited period of clear sky. He gambled with it.

“When something goes wrong, then it depends on the people on the ground: how they respond, how they react, how they field their mission. The mission is the most important thing in their thinking. They have a job to do.”

When Mr. Wagner’s tank finally was able to storm the beach on D-Day, it took up a position overlooking a highway. “Below it were infantry troops from K company, which had been decimated,” he said.

“It stands out in my mind. I think of the guts these guys had. Four or six of them would go ahead and scout the highway until they were out of sight. Then they would come running back. Some would lose their helmet or their gun. They had to get back quickly.”

“They had a job to do,” he continued. “It was their mission. There’s something that happens to a person that is superior to reasoning, to logic, to anything else. Somebody depends on you. You don’t think about country or flag, you think about those men.

“It happened to me deep in the war, when we were overlooking the Siegfried Line. Everyone had withdrawn to the bivouacs, but they asked us to stay behind. A group of infantry men were trapped.”

The tank remained even in the face of German fire. Mr. Wagner even got out of the tank to try to fix the tank’s gun, which had jammed.

“I could have left then and there, but those men were important to me,” he said. “There’s a sense of comradeship even when you don’t know the other people.”

When the German fire got dangerously close, Mr. Wagner told the tank driver to leave, and he returned to the bivouac on foot.

Now retired, Mr. Wagner – who returned home from Europe on December 12, 1945 – is busily searching out “a complete history of what took place with the tank battalion, hour by hour, until we reached the end of the war.”

He will not soon forget the events of June 6, 1944.

“That day has always been very important to me,” he said. “I lost some very good friends.”

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