'The Whine of Artillery': Remembering a Penn Stater who fought on D-Day

June 06, 2019

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s Wagner Building, home to ROTC programs at University Park, bears the name of Harry Edward Wagner — a 1941 Penn State graduate who served as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division and fought to liberate France from Nazi occupation during the D-Day operations that shaped history. On June 6, the United States celebrates the 75th-year anniversary of the D-Day landings, honoring those who risked and gave their lives during the invasion.

But Wagner (“Eddie,” as he was known to his friends) never planned on being a soldier. A student leader and liberal arts major, Wagner spent his college years as a member of multiple academic honor societies and president of Phi Delta Theta and Penn State’s Interfraternity Council. A military career was not in his plans.

In fact, he shared the isolationist sentiments that were common among Americans at the time, and sought to be classified as a conscientious objector when contacted by the draft board in January 1941 shortly after his graduation. The draft board rejected this classification, ruling that it only applied to Quakers, not Protestants. Wagner, with his record of student leadership and outstanding academics, was subsequently selected for Officer Candidate School, where he volunteered for the paratroops — “out of sheer boredom,” he wrote in a letter to a friend.

The unlikely soldier had already earned his second lieutenant’s bars at candidate school when he, like so many other Americans, had a change of heart about American intervention in World War II.

That change of heart occurred on Dec. 7, 1941 — the attack on Pearl Harbor. As a classmate and close friend of Wagner’s later wrote, “December 7 changed the thinking of all of us.”

ROTC students leave Wagner Building

The Wagner Building on the University Park campus is home to Penn State's Army, Navy, and Air Force ROTC programs, and is named for Lt. Harry Edward Wagner, a Penn State graduate and member of the 82nd Airborne Division who lost his life in World War II.

IMAGE: Brittani Kline

“It hardly seems possible”

Wagner, now fully committed to his service and convinced of the moral necessity of America’s role in World War II, by all accounts adapted well to his new life in the U.S. Army. In a letter written to a friend in 1942, Wagner recounts the difficulty and challenge of paratrooper training, but concluded with an affirmation of camaraderie: “Hell… it’s a great outfit.”

His letters from this time focus on his experiences abroad in England and Ireland, though he periodically reminisced about his days at Penn State, writing that he wouldn’t mind the opportunity to attend the social gatherings and parties he once enjoyed as a student.

As he wrote in 1944: “Trite but true it is to say that it hardly seems possible that I graduated three years ago this month.”

“Last man in my plane”

Early on the morning of June 6, 1944, Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy in Nazi-occupied France, staging the largest seaborne invasion in history: Operation Neptune, commonly known as D-Day.

As a paratrooper and member of the 82nd Airborne Division, Wagner did not storm the beaches like so many of his fellow servicemen. Instead, he and his comrades were to parachute into a designated drop zone nearby to support the operation, but plans soon went awry.

Low clouds and thick fog, combined with heavy anti-aircraft fire, forced pilots to take evasive actions and obscured their attempts to locate the drop zone. At roughly 2:30 a.m. on D-Day, Wagner and his team leapt from their plane into the pre-dawn darkness, roughly 20 miles from their planned positions.

“I jumped last man in my plane,” Wagner later wrote in what would be his final letter home. “I wouldn’t be far wrong, I know, if I said that I dropped farther from the planned Drop Zone, and farther inside enemy positions, than any parachutist in either of the Airborne Divisions the U.S. Army announced using on D-Day.”

The area where Wagner landed had been flooded by German forces, a defensive tactic of which the Allied forces were unaware. Wagner and fellow paratroopers moved by night, wading through flooded swamp waters, sneaking through enemy territory and gradually meeting other soldiers lost behind enemy lines. By the time they reached the French village of Graignes, 18 miles inside German-occupied territory, they numbered more than 150 soldiers.

H. Edward Wagner

Harry Edward Wagner did not plan on a career in the military, but devoted himself to serving his nation in World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Three years later, Wagner would be one of the thousands of soldiers to participate in the history-changing D-Day operations in Nazi-occupied France.

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

“The whine of artillery”

The people of Graignes greeted the U.S. soldiers as liberators, and the ranking officer concluded that their best strategic option was to organize defensive positions in the village, hold off enemy forces and hope that American troops moving inland would soon reach them to provide support. What followed was five days of intensive combat — what military historians now call the Battle of Graignes.

“I have developed an ear for the whine of artillery,” Wagner wrote, reflecting on his experience. “When to dive for this foxhole of mine, and when to take it easy since I know it’s someone else who is catching the hell.”

For five days, the American forces held off a German Panzer Grenadier division, enduring long bouts of shelling, preventing the Nazi forces from reaching the front lines. At great risk, they succeeded in blowing up a bridge north of the village, cutting off an important route for German tanks. But an all-day assault on June 11 broke through their lines, forcing Wagner and his fellow Americans to retreat into a swampy area, led by French guides from the village, which now burned behind them.

Wagner was able to locate and rejoin his regiment, which was quickly deployed back into the fray, joining the forces fighting to push German forces out of Normandy and secure the peninsula. There, on June 27, 1944, three weeks after his landing behind enemy lines, he wrote his final letter home, the same letter in which he recounts his experience on D-Day.

In that letter, Wagner admitted that he was “dammed [sic] scared,” but was resolute in his commitment to the cause for which he fought. “It is a novel sensation to land on enemy territory via parachute,” he wrote, “but going out the door held none of its usual terrors.”

H Edward Wagner plaque inscirption

The plaque that bears Harry Edward Wagner's name in the lobby of the Wagner Building honors his outstanding academic achievements while still a Penn State student, as well as his bravery in his service to his nation in World War II.

IMAGE: Michael Garrett

The next day, his post was battered by German artillery. Wagner was among the casualties. His family decided to have Wagner’s body buried in France, where he now rests in the American military cemetery near Omaha Beach.

Sixteen years later, Penn State dedicated the Wagner Building to his memory, in honor of his bravery and service. Gen. Hap Frank, a 1921 Penn State graduate, provided the dedication address, in which he mourned Wagner’s passing.

“We ask ourselves,” Frank said, “why one, with all this promise, could not be spared.”

Today, Penn Staters seeking to someday join the Army, Navy or Air Force train and practice in the Wagner Building.

“His short life exemplifies the well-rounded young American citizen solider,” reads the plaque in the lobby that bears Wagner’s name. “His life ended while he was serving his country.”

Last Updated June 06, 2019