Naval Academy barber has stirring tale to tell Wartime: Long before the plebes he clips with reassuring humor were born, Howard Dignen participated in the D-Day landing in World War II.

July 02, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

For openers on this day, Howard Dignen asks most of his wide-eyed "customers" the same thing: Just a light trim, right? A little off the top?

But the incoming freshmen at the Naval Academy have no choice. When Dignen and his fellow academy barbers are through, the customers are bald or nearly so.

Dignen's tease is his way of adding a small dose of levity to an emotional day. "Most of them are scared," he said. "I try to put them at ease, loosen them up a little bit."

For 20 years, thousands of newcomers to the Naval Academy have sat for two or three reflective minutes in Dignen's chair -- a kind of portal between their old and new lives. After Dignen, newly sheared plebes in a snake-like line pick up their uniforms and emerge at the checkout desk as members of the Navy.

Yesterday, of the 1,046 men and 199 women entering the academy on Induction Day, 70 sat while Dignen ran his Oster electric clippers across their scalps, swished their necks clean with a boar-bristle brush and said a few kind words.

"You'll do fine, son," he tells a plebe from Lancaster, Va. "What seems to be toil today is a pleasure tomorrow."

The toil is the physically and mentally rigorous two months of training known as "plebe summer" that began yesterday. Dignen knows a little about toil.

Though midshipmen will sit in Dignen's chair in the barbershop in their dormitory basement many times during their four years at the academy, only a few will hear about Dignen's military career, which ended long before his five decades of haircutting.

Like many men of his generation, Dignen and his four brothers joined the Army for World War II. He and one of his brothers -- in the same platoon of the 29th Division -- stormed the beach at Normandy on D-day, which Dignen speaks about in terms plebes can't possibly fathom.

"The first wave we lost over 80 percent of the people, so we had to bring in the second wave pretty quick. Our wave lost about 50 percent of our people," he said. "We climbed the cliff and [pushed] pole charges -- 20-foot poles with three sticks of dynamite on the end -- into the turrets and set them off to blow from within."

His first night's sleep, many hours and many dead comrades later, was in a muddy hole. "I was scared. You know the old saying, 'There's no atheist in a foxhole'? That was true."

45 of 60 dead

Dignen helped load his injured brother into an ambulance. He was shot later by a sniper, but the wound wasn't life-threatening, and he was treated in the field -- by a doctor who later practiced in Annapolis -- and returned to action.

Forty-five in his platoon of 60 died in the first two weeks. Dignen carries a photo of the dozen who reached St. Lo, where they posed beneath a double-trunk tree. Eleven have since died.

"I'm the only one still living," said Dignen, 74.

He went back to his native Annapolis after the war and opened a $1.25-per-cut barber shop at the waterside marketplace. He cut the hair of fishermen and sailors until 1970, when the rent got too high. His lease was taken over by the Dockside Restaurant, owned by a friend who hired Dignen as a manager. Dignen left in 1978 when he developed a seafood allergy.

'Cream of the crop'

That's when he saw an ad in the newspaper: barber wanted, U.S. Naval Academy.

He's averaged 40 to 50 heads a day ever since.

"I really enjoy these kids down here. I like to talk to them. This is supposed to be the cream of the crop. I discuss everything with them -- sports, politics, world situations," he said. But his favorite day of the year is Induction Day, when it's one-cut-for-all.

"Really, there's a psychological reasoning behind all this," he said, shearing another teen's mop top down to a stubble. "We make them all the same. Take them from being an individual to teach them to be part of a unit.

"A lot of them say, 'Just a trim.' And I say, 'Fine.' And I go right up over the top."

Next! "C'mon pal, have a seat. Where you from? A little off the top?"

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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