Remembering D-Day

by Meredith Mullins on June 2, 2014

Robert Capa's photograph of a single soldier coming ashore during the Omaha Beach D-Day invasion on the longest day where life's choices made a difference. (Photo © Robert Capa/International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos)

D-Day Invasion at Omaha Beach in Normandy
© Robert Capa/International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos

Life’s Choices on “The Longest Day”

The grainy black-and-white image of a soldier fighting a surging sea to get ashore, amidst the obstacles and debris of battle, is one of the iconic images of the D-Day invasion.

It is made with the camera so close we can touch the moment. Its sheer power is a dramatic reminder of the essence of war . . . and life’s choices that bring us to the midst of such a battle.

It was June 6, 1944—a day of triumph, courage, and unimaginable loss.

The Normandy invasion by the Allied forces was a turning point of World War II. For the world and for the photographers and correspondents bringing the news to the world, it was the most important day of the war.

As General Eisenhower told his troops, “The eyes of the world are upon you.”

The journalists, in turn, felt intense pressure to document this significant event in the most raw, real, and memorable way possible.

Omaha Beach in Normandy in peaceful times, the site of the D-Day invasion on the longest day, where life's choices made a difference (Photo © Meredith Mullins)

Omaha Beach in Normandy today . . . hauntingly peaceful
© Meredith Mullins

Getting the Picture

Even though 70 years have passed since the day, John Morris remembers every moment vividly.

At the time, he was the picture editor at the London office of Life Magazine, responsible for several war correspondents, including the famous and infamous Robert Capa (the kind of infamy that made Capa write on his helmet: “Property of Robert Capa, great war correspondent and lover”).

Of the four spots allotted to press photographers to land with the first wave of the American infantry, Life managed to get two spots—assigned to veterans Bob Landry and Capa.

War correspondent working in France, after the D-Day invasion, where life's choices made a difference (Photo © John Morris/Contact Images Press)

War correspondents worked wherever and however they could.
Photo taken by Life Picture Editor John Morris in the month following the D-Day invasion.
© John G. Morris/Contact Press Images

Legendary Photographs

Capa often said, “If your photo isn’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” These weren’t just words. He lived this creed, often putting his life on the line.

In his memoir, he explained, “The war correspondent has his stake—his life—in his own hands, and he can put it on this horse or that horse, or he can put it back in his pocket at the very last minute. I’m a gambler.”

Whether he should be called brave, fearless, adrenaline-addicted, or just plain insane, Capa decided to go ashore with the first wave of infantry. No other photographer took this risk.

With the Germans well-positioned and waiting on the beach cliffs, the odds for survival were not in Capa’s favor. But he knew he would get the best photos.

Barbed wire at Omaha Beach in Normandy, site of the D-Day invasion and the longest day, where Life's choices made a difference (Photo by David hughes/iStock)

D-Day at Omaha Beach, a turning point in WW II
© David Hughes/iStock

D-Day at Omaha Beach

After a long night of waiting (a poker game taking their mind off what was to come at dawn), the men of the U.S.S. Samuel Chase, including Capa, were called on deck and the landing barges were deployed.

The barges couldn’t get all the way to the beach, so Capa started his photo sequence as the men jumped into the cold sea. The coastline in the background was filled with smoke from rockets and machine gun fire. The water was littered with steel barricades, and, soon enough, bodies.

Capa was capturing this action when the barge boatswain kicked him in the rear, thinking Capa was hesitating about leaving the barge. Into the cold water he went . . . and into the line of fire.

Serious Business

“I felt a new kind of fear,” Capa admitted in his memoir. He kept repeating his mantra from his time photographing the Spanish Civil War. “Es una cosa muy seria.” This is serious business.

He continued to photograph, even turning his back to the Germans to capture the historic image of the incoming soldier.

Finally, after an eternity (90 minutes in real time), he spotted a landing barge and waded toward it, holding his cameras high to protect them against the sea water. He was dragged aboard, safe.

Speeding toward England: No Time to Lose

He accompanied his film across the channel to assure its protection, then delivered it into the hands of a courier in Weymouth, England.

He knew what extraordinary images he had. He scrawled a note to editor Morris that “all the action was on the four rolls of 35 mm.” Then, he jumped the next ship back to Normandy for more images.

Life at Life

At the London headquarters, all were anxiously awaiting the film. The film (and shoes) of Life photographer Bob Landry had been lost, so Capa’s images were all they had as a record of the invasion.

35 mm film rolls, part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the longest day, where life's choices made a difference (Photo © snvv/iStock)

Only 11 images were saved.
© snvv/iStock

They were counting the hours until the deadline for the courier pouch to the U.S.

When Capa’s package arrived, the whole staff went into RUSH mode. The film was developed and the lab director called it “fabulous.”

Then, in the scramble to dry the film quickly for contact sheets and prints, the heat of the drying cabinet was turned up too high. The emulsion of the film melted.

Three rolls were completely ruined; but, miraculously, 11 frames on the fourth roll were salvageable—some of the most dramatic battle photos ever made. These were printed and packaged hastily for the U.S.

Morris drove like a madman to the censor and then to the courier. The traffic gods were kind. He made it, with seconds to spare.

The rest is history. The images appeared in the June 19 issue of Life for all to feel the impact and magnitude of the invasion. Morris remembers that day as one of the most important of his life.

Transport of German prisoners by American soldiers, near Saint-Lo France, after the D-Day invasion on the longest day, where life's choices made a difference (Photo © John Morris/Contact Press Images).

German prisoners transported by American soldiers near Saint-Lô in Normandy, July 1944
© John G. Morris/Contact Press Images

Liberty Does Not Come without Cost

Morris, Capa, and other war correspondents continued to document the days after the invasion, as all sides suffered heavy casualties.

These days were not, however, without reward. The French welcomed their liberators and celebrated their freedom with heartfelt gestures of thanks.

The American cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy, with graves of the fallen during the D-Day invasion, the longest day where life's choices made a difference. (Photo © Meredith Mullins).

The American Cemetery at Omaha Beach, a reminder of the sacrifices made for freedom
© Meredith Mullins

Oh I See

The story of D-Day and the courage and resolve of the Allied forces and war correspondents provide, for me, not so much an “Oh, I see” moment as an “I don’t want to forget” moment.

Capa’s photos serve as an important reminder that thousands of lives were lost that day and in the days to follow.

The photo of the single soldier “stands out because it humanizes the invasion,” Morris says of the iconic image.

It is one way to remember the sacrifices and life choices that were made in the name of freedom.

Robert Capa died in 1954 at age 40 when he stepped on a land mine in Indochina. His memoir, Slightly Out of Focus, was first published in 1947.

Somewhere in France, a book by John G. Morris about life after the D-Day Invasion in Normandy, the longest day where life's choices made a difference.

Somewhere in France, by John G. Morris
(Photo courtesy of Contact Press Images)

John Morris, age 97, lives in Paris and has just had his most recent book of photographs and stories published by Marabout, Quelque Part en France. His memoir Get the Picture was published by Random House in 1998.

 

 

 

 

OIC appreciates permission to use the Robert Capa photo from the International Center of Photography and Magnum Photos and permission to use the John G. Morris photos from Contact Press Images.

More information about the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.  

 
Comments:

2 thoughts on “Remembering D-Day

  1. Thank you, Pamela, for your kind words. And, you’re so right about John Morris. His life has been incredibly full—action, influence, adventure, good friends, and the best kind of love. We should all be so enriched . . . and as humble.

  2. Thanks for telling John’s story (never tire of hearing such moving facts), and as eloquently as usual…not to mention your own sensitive photos, Meredith.
    Best.

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