Joe Kagan, affectionately called “Little Joe” by his men, was born on July 21, 1922, in Hartford CT, to Russian-Jewish immigrants. Joe’s father, Meyer, had arrived before WWI, but unfortunately had to leave his wife, Sophie, and two children behind until the conclusion of the war. Meyer went into the dairy business, which prompted Joe to major in dairy farming at Connecticut Agricultural College in 1940. As a land grant college, male students had to serve two years in ROTC. Joe enrolled and then continued with the ROTC program as an upperclassman, which meant (unbeknownst to him) he had enlisted in the army. He was called up in 1943 and after infantry basic training, completed Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning GA, and became a brand new second lieutenant.
Joe arrived at Camp Maxey TX, in the hot, humid summer of 1944 and initially became leader of the 2nd Platoon, Fox Company (later company commander). Luckily the company had an outstanding, giant-sized first sergeant, David Spencer, whom Joe relied on for his expertise. David Spencer commented years later, “Joe Kagan was the bravest soldier I ever encountered.” At Maxey Joe learned an important lesson in managing men, namely, delegate authority and responsibility to others, a management style that he utilized later when he built up and then served as president of Dannon Milk Products from 1967 to 1980.
Officer rank, Joe said, automatically provided a measure of respect from the men. But it wasn’t usually enough. Joe was always the first or second man on patrols and forward movements; moreover, he decided never to show he might be frightened, even when he was. George Lehr, an enlisted man, commented: “Joe was my fearless leader, always up front in every operation. He was well regarded in Fox Company. I would have followed him anywhere and did.”
On March 22, 1945, 1st Lt. Kagan led a combat patrol with the goal of covering the advance of the 2nd Battalion across the Wied River. In accomplishing this objective Kagan and his men knocked out three enemy machine gun positions — Joe personally silenced one of these weapons and was instrumental in capturing some 50 prisoners. For this action, the army awarded him the Silver Star. Soon thereafter, the platoon was stopped by a small but stubborn group of Germans at the bottom of a ravine. Each time they attempted to advance over the crown of the ravine, heavy fire drove them back. Joe decided to use a tactic he learned at Fort Benning, namely, walking fire. So the men stood up, moved over the top and advanced down the hill firing as they walked shoulder to shoulder. The Germans were silenced.
Joe came home in 1946, returned to the college, met his future wife Trudy, finished his degree in dairy manufacturing, reared three successful children, and only retired from Dannon in 1980. He continued working as a consultant for dairy industries all over the world, as well as donating his time to many charitable organizations. Quiet, unassuming, and modest, all of the individuals he encountered have no inkling that Joe Kagan once commanded a company of infantrymen to victory in World War II.