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My Coast Guard
Commentary | June 14, 2024

D-Day hero Jack DeNunzio and LCI-94 at Normandy

By Nora L. Chidlow, archivist, U.S. Coast Guard

The Long Blue Line blog series has been publishing Coast Guard history essays for over 15 years. To access hundreds of these service stories, visit the Coast Guard Historian’s Office’s Long Blue Line online archives, located here: THE LONG BLUE LINE (  

Eighty years ago, on June 6, 1944, Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, in what was the largest amphibious invasion of World War II. Among some 800,000 troops was a small, Coast Guard-manned flotilla of 24 ships, landing on Omaha and Utah beaches — all commanded by Capt. Miles Imlay, who had been in the Coast Guard since 1923. Out of some 800 Coast Guardsmen who participated in the battle, 15 lost their lives that day. 

Among those 15 Coast Guardsmen killed in action at Normandy was 21-year-old John “Jack” Albert DeNunzio. His final breath would be forever recorded for posterity by a Coast Guard photographer and a world-renowned Life Magazine combat photographer. 

Early Years 

Jack was born on July 17, 1925, in Summit, New Jersey, and raised there. He was a second-generation Italian American, as his grandfather had arrived in the United States from Italy in 1892. His father, John, was an electrician for the Jersey Central Power & Light Company. Jack excelled at long distance swimming and attended Summit High School. Prior to enlisting, he worked as a plumber’s helper and a flower truck driver. 

War Service 

The United States declared war on Germany after Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. Sixteen-year-old Jack was eager to enlist to do his part in the war, but his parents would not allow it. A year later, on Dec. 12, 1942, Jack left high school in his junior year and enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, with his father’s consent, as an apprentice seaman for a three-year period. After a period of training in New York City, on Feb. 9, 1944, he was assigned to the LCI (L) 94. Short for Landing Craft Infantry, this LCI would be the only ship Jack would serve on during his Coast Guard career. 

DeNunzio’s LCI was assigned to Coast Guard-manned Flotilla Four. The flotilla originated in Galveston, Texas, and its 24 vessels cruised through the Gulf of Mexico, with stops at Key West, Florida; Norfolk, Virginia; Bermuda; Monaco, and Bizerte, Tunisia. On July 10, 1943, the flotilla participated in the landings at Sicily, whose capture would allow the Allies to invade mainland Italy. On Sept. 9, 1943, Flotilla Four participated in the Battle of Salerno, Italy. DeNunzio saw all of this action firsthand from the 94. 

After the Italian landings, Flotilla Four steamed for England. On arrival, the LCIs were split up with one group sent to Saltash, up the river from Plymouth, and another group went to Falmouth. A third group, manned by Navy personnel, was added shortly after the flotilla arrived. 

Jack DeNunzio’s LCI-94 underway prior to the landings at Normandy. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

 DeNunzio in the Service 

DeNunzio loved every moment of the service. In fact, he referred to his shipmates as “one big happy family.” He wrote to his father on Feb. 27, 1944: 

I don’t know how to put this, Dad, but I am really happy over here. It may seem incredible for anyone to say that while they are overseas, especially the outfit I am in. I guess it may be the fellows around me, they are tops. We almost represent each state in the union; I am the only one from Jersey. 

In letters to his mother Theresa, who he called “Beautiful,” “Darling,” “Honey,” and “Mom,” DeNunzio mentioned how much he enjoyed the service and being overseas. In a May 27, 1944, letter to his mother, DeNunzio mentioned that he “went swimming the other day for my first overseas dip, and, Mom, was it cold. I have been in plenty of cold water, but this topped it all; was I shocked to find out how cold it was.” 

DeNunzio and his shipmates knew the invasion was coming. However, no one, not even the LCI captains or the group commanders, knew the exact date. It was common practice among sailors to participate in a betting pool on the invasion date. In preparation for the invasion, DeNunzio’s LCI flotilla participated in practice landings at Slapton Sands, off the southwest coast of England. During one such practice, German torpedo boats evaded Allied vessels protecting the landing fleet, torpedoed two LSTs and killed 700 soldiers and sailors. 

Beginning in late May of 1944, the military vessels were cordoned off. Crews were confined to their ships, and no one could leave or speak even with seamen on other ships, except for official business. The flotilla was redesignated Flotilla Ten, and 15-pound canvas bags marked Top Secret were hauled aboard each of the flotilla’s 24 LCIs, with orders not to open until further notice. One bundle of orders from these bags was three inches thick, containing concise plans for D-Day with charts, maps, and photographs of the beaches. 

Living in cramped quarters and not knowing any information about the forthcoming invasion, tensions ran high among the crew. Just before the ships were sealed, the 94’s captain, 27-year-old Gene Gislason, allowed his crew to purchase liquor for a party. He was a rather unorthodox captain who preferred his own rules. According to the memoirs of another crewmember, Charles Jarreau, the party “. . . started at 0700 and, boy, at the end of the day, everybody was just crapped out, but it sure relieved the tension. After a night’s sleep, we sobered up and started taking troops on board.” It is likely that some of DeNunzio’s last hours were spent enjoying this shipboard party.