Penn State

‘We need to remember:’ Penn State hero commemorated on 75th anniversary of D-Day

1944 Newsreel film recaps D-Day invasion

Historic United Newsreel film that played in American movie theaters in 1944. The documentary used rehearsal footage to recap the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion of France during WWII.
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Historic United Newsreel film that played in American movie theaters in 1944. The documentary used rehearsal footage to recap the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion of France during WWII.

Penn State’s Wagner Building is home to the university’s Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC units, but those who have walked its hallways or passed it on Curtin Road do not always know the history of the building’s namesake.

Thomas C. Fosnacht, 70, wants to change that. On his most recent trip to Penn State, Fosnacht was tailgating in the parking lot of the Wagner Building and said he was disappointed when only a few Army ROTC graduates knew about Harry Edward Wagner, who served as a paratrooper in World War II during the June 6, 1944 invasion of Normandy — known as D-Day.

“Ed represents the top of what Penn State produces, and he paid the ultimate price for our victory in World War II,” Fosnacht, of Palmyra, said.

Wagner was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Penn State’s class of 1941.

For the Penn State Alumni Association, honoring and remembering veterans, like Wagner, is important, said Kelly Morgante, assistant director of the travel program. The alumni association has taken trips to Normandy before, but this trip was planned with the 75th anniversary in mind and took place last month. Thirty-four people attended, 21 attendees were Penn State alumni.

“We need to remember and not forget what these young men and women did for this country,” Fosnacht said. “It’s been 75 years.”

Reluctant hero

Fosnacht works with the alumni association and helped create a battleground tour guide that was used during the trip. The guide focused on Wagner’s service. He has researched Wagner for years and is looking to publish a biography about his military career. Fosnacht also served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 2004.

Before he was drafted to serve, Wagner tried to flunk his physical by running up flights of stairs in Old Main and staying up all night, Fosnacht said. He was a “self proclaimed pacifist,” according to Fosnacht. However, Wagner’s conscientious objector claim was denied, and he reported for duty in August 1941.

Once Wagner began his military career, Fosnacht said he wanted to protect and serve his country. Moving through the ranks, Wagner joined “the elite,” which in World War II meant the paratroopers.

During the D-Day invasion, Wagner’s regiment was the last of six to jump out of a transport plane, and its members had the worst dispersion, according to Fosnacht. Because the plane was flying under cloudy conditions, it flew lower in order to see where to drop the paratroopers; however, the plane veered too far right and dropped them in Graignes, France, where they were miles away from their anticipated location.

Eventually, Wagner made it to the regimental headquarters and was promoted to a higher position. Wagner died after being shot by artillery fire. Ironically, Wagner wrote a letter to a friend dated June 27, 1944, describing his skillful ear for artillery, according to a 2006 Penn Stater article.

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

On June 28, 1944, Wagner was hit by artillery fire and died as a result of his wounds, Fosnacht said.

“(Wagner is) mentioned in official reports as being an outstanding officer whose loss will have serious negative effects on the unit, so he was a real hero,” Fosnacht said.

Remembering the past

Wagner’s family requested their son be buried in France. His grave can be found in the American military cemetery near Omaha Beach. The alumni association visited the site during its May trip; however, attendees were not permitted on the cemetery grounds due to the 75th anniversary, Morgante said.

Wagner’s Normandy Gravesite.jpg
Harry Edward Wagner’s gravesite in the Normandy American Military Cemetery. Photo provided

The group conducted a wreath laying ceremony to honor Wagner at the memorial instead of Wagner’s grave. The trip’s tour host, Steve Manuel, assistant teaching professor, was responsible for reading the script during the ceremony and said he had to stop three times while reading, describing the group’s visit to the cemetery as an “emotional moment.”

Morgante said Manuel was asked to lead the trip because of his military background, having served as a Marine. Manuel was not exempt from feeling the historical significance and emotional impact of the trip to Normandy.

Manuel said he had seen “Saving Private Ryan” before leading a trip to Normandy, but after spending time walking the beaches and visiting the American cemetery and memorial, he has a new perspective — a lens that cannot be learned by watching movies.

“You look out on the horizon, and you have to wonder what did a German soldier think as he peered from that bunker at the horizon, seeing that naval armada coming at him,” Manuel said. “It’s a very moving experience, and I can’t wait to go back.”

Members of the D-Day: The Invasion of Normandy and the Liberation of France tour sponsored by the Penn State Alumni Association walk across the remains of a German bunker and gun emplacement overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy, May 18, 2019. Steve Manuel Photo provided

Before going on the trip, Manuel admitted he did not realize who the Wagner Building was named after.

“I’ve been in that Wagner Building a hundred times, and it never dawned on me,” he said. “I never put two and two together that that was him. It’s true; you can’t see the forest from the trees.”

Reflecting on the anniversary of D-Day, Manuel said it is important to remember veterans and their service.

“Nothing is free,” Manuel said, quoting advice he tells his children. “Somebody’s paying for this, and those folks (in) World War II … that’s who paid for our freedom.”

Manuel thinks everyone should experience what he did while on the trip, stressing the importance of appreciating military service no matter the time period.

American Cemetery in Normandy, May 18, 2019. Steve Manuel Photo provided

“Every American should be able to visit a forward operating base in Iraq or Afghanistan and see what it’s like and see how the troops live,” Manuel said.