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Jacksonville veteran recounts D-Day, 70 years later

On the night of June 5, 1944, Jim Pagnini's boat was anchored off Dartmouth in southwest England. A priest came aboard to provide absolution to crew members on the eve of one of the bloodiest days of fighting in the European Theater of World War II.(Correction: A typographical error has been corrected in this quote.)

By the next evening, the 19-year-old Pagnini's landing craft lay destroyed on the sands of Omaha Beach, and all but a handful of the nearly 400 troops he took ashore were dead or wounded.

Today marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day and Operation Overlord. Pagnini, a 44-year resident of the Rogue Valley, now lives in Jacksonville with his wife of 65 years, Camille.

"I wouldn't say it was a pleasant memory, but it's vivid in my mind," Pagnini said. "I was part of a tremendous event in history. This was the largest invasion of ships and manpower ever."

Spurred by his Antioch (Calif.) High School buddies joining the war effort, he followed suit.

"The Coast Guard sounded good to me," he said.

He was 17, so he needed parental consent.

"I told my dad, 'Look, all of my buddies are coming home on weekends,' so he signed me in."

The weekend trips home from the Alameda shipyards ended two months later when he was sent to New London, Conn., for diesel engine training. From there he went to New York and shipped off for England.

He was assigned to Landing Craft Infantry 93, a 155-foot, 300-ton craft designed to put troops on the beach during combat.

"We'd go in full speed, drop our ramps and then winch back to sea because we dropped our anchor way back," he recalled.

Detailed preparation was rehearsed at length for two months.

His landing craft cruised across the English Channel for two or three hours before reaching the gathering point just before dawn.

"I don't remember too much, whether we slept, or not," he said. "But we were all pretty well wired."

Pagnini knew he was part of a massive operation, but his view was obscured. As part of the engine crew operating the landing craft's eight GM diesel engines, he was beneath the deck. The craft's speed while carrying a capacity of 188 troops and 75 tons of cargo was 12 to 13 mph.

At 5 in the morning, while the Navy's big guns were pounding Nazi shore installations, LCI-93 and other ships rendezvoused with a troop transport loaded with 2,000 soldiers.

"It probably took an hour to get all loaded and the troops down below the deck so we could have room to maneuver and do our job," Pagnini said.

Ninety minutes later, LCI-93 rammed into the most-western beach of the invasion at flank speed.

"We heard all of the guns going off and shells hitting ships," he said. "We had seasoned troops on the first run and they knew what to do."

The second surge ran into delays, which proved fatal to most of the troops.

"They were green troops and had a hard time getting off the (transport) ship," said Pagnini.

The delay put the LCI on Omaha at 10:30 as the tide was receding.

"It took a long time to unload," he said. "Shells were hitting all the time while we were in the process of getting all the troops off. Some of them panicked and didn't want to get off; I couldn't blame them because they had never saw combat before. It was pandemonium."

By the time the troops were off the boat, the LCI-93, its crew of 20 and three officers were high and dry.

"We all jumped over the side and started swimming out into the channel," Pagnini said.

They had no lifejackets or gear of any kind, he said, just the clothes on their back as they scattered into the tumultuous sea.

"We had to swim 45 minutes or so," he said.

His experience swimming in the San Joaquin River, with its tides and fast flow, came in handy.

"It helped a lot to know I could swim, so I didn't fear it very much. When you are panicked, you can swim hard and you can swim fast for a long time."

Pagnini was among the half-dozen or so crew members scooped up by volunteers from the USS Emmons, a destroyer whose primary function had been pummeling Nazi gun installations.

He and his fellow crew members weren't the only unscheduled visitors aboard the Emmons.

A German aviator had been fished out of the channel and lay injured in a gurney in a passageway.

"We would see him on our way to chow," Pagnini said. "We would walk by and wouldn't say anything. I had mixed feelings. Here's a guy we were fighting, we picked him out of the water, treated him and brought him back to life."

Pagnini remained aboard the Emmons for four days before being taken to Plymouth. A month later, he found himself back on the coast of France. This time there were no exploding shells nor blood-spattered sand and rocks.

"I hitched a ride on an amphibious truck into St. Lo" (a battle site in Normandy commemorated at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.). That's where I found out that only 10 percent of troops we brought in survived the landing."

He found LCI-93, still on the beach, but barely the boat he knew.

"I went aboard my ship and there were big holes everywhere," he recalled. "I looked in my locker to see if there was anything left — everything was gone. There was sand to the head of the engines and they were totally destroyed; it was just a skeleton."

He was transferred to the LCI-83, and after a few more trips to the continent, returned to South Carolina, where his craft was outfitted with refrigeration. From there, it passed through the Panama Canal to San Diego and then to Okinawa, one of the bloodiest domains in the Pacific Theater.

His boat delivered mail to the various ships in the fleet, but one morning the engines wouldn't turn. A sister ship took on the task that day and was destroyed with its crew by a Kamikaze pilot.

After Japan's surrender, Pagnini spent two months in Sasebo before being sent home.

The LCI-83, however, broke down in Hawaii. The original engine and drive shaft were still in place and began failing.

"They were designed for one invasion, but this one first saw combat in Italy, then went to England (preparing) for Normandy and had put a lot of ocean miles behind it," he said. "We got towed back to San Diego by a (tank landing ship) that could only go 8 mph. It took us 30 days. It was like we were on liberty, that was our cruise."

After repairs, the LCI-83 went back through Panama and was decommissioned at Galveston, Texas. Pagnini was discharged in San Francisco with Glenn Miller's "Sentimental Journey" playing the background. When Pagnini returned to the San Joaquin Delta, he had changed — so much so his father didn't recognize him.

"I had done a lot of swimming in the ocean so I was dark from being in the sun so much," he said. "My dad had a bar and restaurant — Jim's Cafe in Antioch. I sat down, he looked right at me and said, 'What'll you have?' When he found out who I was, he shut down the bar and took a day or two vacation."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, friend him on Facebook and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.

Jacksonville resident Jim Pagnini recalls serving in the U.S. Coast Guard during the landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day 70 years ago. - Bob Pennell