Remembering Penn State ROTC building’s namesake, H. Edward Wagner

Sean Yoder
June 06, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Lt. Harry Edward Wagner, whose name adorns the home of the ROTC detachments at the University Park campus, died nearly 75 years ago after jumping behind enemy lines as part of the 507th parachute infantry regiment, 82nd Airborne.

The Harrisburg native was a 1941 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Penn State. He was killed by German artillery on June 28, 1944 in the fighting that followed the invasion of Normandy in Nazi-occupied France, an operation commonly known as D-Day.

The invasion phase — named Operation Neptune and part of Operation Overlord — started on June 6. The 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions approached the mainland from the west, far south of Cherbourg over the Cotentin Peninsula, so as not to fly over the invasion fleet. Famously, many paratroopers were scattered far from their intended drop zones as they jumped from their C-47 Skytrains in the early hours of June 6.

Retired U.S. Army Col. Tom Fosnacht, a 1980 Penn State graduate who is writing a biography on Wagner, recounted the man’s life and service in an editorial to PennLive.

He outlined what Wagner saw on D-Day:

“The 507th was the last of the six U.S. airborne regiments to make the jump into destiny, and consequently suffered the worst dispersion of any of the U.S. paratroop units, with only two sticks, or 32 paratroopers, from his regiment landing on their designated drop zone. Ed’s group fared the worst, landing some 18 miles away from their DZ between Utah and Omaha Beaches. To make matters worse, they were surrounded by elements of the 17th Waffen SS Panzergrenadier Division, who were rushing north to the landing beaches to blunt the Allied invasion.”

Fosnacht wrote that Wagner was part of 120 paratroopers who held out for six days before exfiltrating through swamps and marshes in order to avoid capture.

Eventually, Fosnacht writes, Wagner was promoted to a command position in charge of 3rdd Battalion’s Headquarters Company. He was killed in a command post that was under fire from German artillery.

Wagner was born in 1919 and attended Penn State from 1937 to 1941. He was president of the Interfraternity Council, served in student government and earned varsity letters in football and track as an assistant student manager, according to Fosnacht. He was begrudgingly drafted in 1941, but Fosnacht said his attitude changed after Pearl Harbor. The event prompted him to volunteer for the paratroopers.

H. Edward Wagner memorial

This memorial in the Wagner Building at the University Park campus is dedicated to H. Edward Wagner, a 1941 graduate of Penn State. He was killed in action in France on June 28, 1944.

IMAGE: Sean Yoder

In 1960, Penn State and the General State Authority finished work on a brand new ROTC building and named it for the high-achieving soldier. It now houses the Navy/Marine, Air Force and Army ROTC detachments. It also formerly housed the WPSU and the WPSU-TV (formerly WPSX).

A memorial to Wagner hangs in the entrance area from Curtin Road, flanked by memorials to other Penn Staters who gave their lives in service to their country

“H. Edward Wagner, Class of 1941, whom this building commemorates was killed in action in France on 28 June 1944 while serving as a lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne Division," the memorial reads. "His short life exemplifies the well-rounded young American citizen-soldier. During his college career he maintained a high scholastic standing while participating in extra-curricular activities and while serving his fellow students. He demonstrated the quality of leadership. His example is commended to all. His life ended while he was serving his country.”

 

Last Updated June 10, 2019