Today marks the 75th anniversary of what the military in 1944 called D-Day – the Allied invasion of Normandy, on the French coast.
People forget that by 1944, Hitler had conquered most of western Europe. The Brits were probably next. America had tried to stay out of the deal, offering up materials in its lend-lease program, but after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, we knew we were in the global conflict.
Which meant massing troops in Great Britain for an eventual invasion, as Hitler was enjoying smokes and walks along the Champs-Élysées. It’s nearly impossible to fathom in 2019, but in 1944 France was a conquered country, the world facing a global darkness. More than 2 million American troops, not to mention Canadian and others, massed in England for the invasion. I didn’t know they had that much room in the British Isles.
156,000 soldiers landed on June 6. More than 4000 died in the water and on the beach. 11500 aircraft. 6900 boats. A staggering feat, along a coastline set up to be a slaughterhouse.
The Allies knew what was coming. So did a photographer named Robert Capa.
Capa, born Endre Friedmann, was a Hungarian photojournalist. He lived in Berlin and France during the rise of the Third Reich, seeing it first hand. His career as a photojournalist took him all over the world covering conflicts, as photojournalists are wont to do.
He ended up as the only civilian photog covering the D-Day invasion, famously capturing the most iconic imagery of that day.
I used to tell my students a famous story about how Capa was in early that day, nearly in the first wave on Omaha Beach, snapping while men were slaughtered all around him. Retreating later to a boat and then getting his film back to London so the world could see the great moment in photos. How his film was mostly ruined in a drying cabinet by a careless intern. How the few frames left were a miracle, that we might not have had that visual record.
It turns out however, that the story, regaled by Capa, his brother, and his editor John Morris, for decades, might not have been so true.
An investagation by a group of journalists, historians and military experts is fairly convincing in laying out an alternative timeline of events. Capa was nowhere near the first wave. (side bar the first wave on Omaha Beach was basically obliterated so it was best he not be there..) He only shot a few frames. There was no drying cabinet tragedy. The men on the beach were not cowering behind obstacles, they were combat engineers there to blow UP the obstacles, etc.
In other words he cooked up the narrative to make it sound more dramatic.
To which I would say – and?
Sure, maybe the Capa story is a bit bloated. Maybe he shined his own medals.
What is beyond dispute however is this. He was THERE that day, as a civilian, not with a gun but with a few cameras. He left the landing craft and got into a rising tide to snap photos while men on two sides of a conflict tried to murder each other.
And it was his photos that gave people hope. Grainy images of men in the water, confronting the smoky beach as men with guns waited them at the crest of a hill. It was the original USA USA moment.
Well before we could share images instantly, it was a handful of pics like these that could galvanize a nation. So wild story or not. Capa did us a tremendous service by getting into that landing craft, and then getting out of it.
It takes a unique person to decide to run into a war. And it might take a crazy one, or someone so laced with curiosity that they simply feel compelled, to run into a war with a camera.
Capa did that. He won the Medal of Freedom for it. He stepped on a landmine in Indochina in 1954, covering a conflict we would call the Vietnam War 12 years later.
So today, June 6, 2019, thank you Robert Capa. You took the images we needed to see. And in 2019, it’s worth looking at them again, so some other photographer doesn’t find themselves wading onto a beach at dawn, the fate of humanity at stake.
Of course now, we would just set it up on Twitch.