Chances are, if you’ve read or seen any sort of history about World War II and, more specifically, the D-Day invasion, you’ve seen the work of Robert Capa, born this day in 1913. Although you may not know his name, his blurred, grainy photos, taken on Omaha beach, are iconic, part of a dwindling collection of stories and eye-witness accounts from that horrific but most important of days.
But did you know that photos almost didn’t survive? And it wasn’t because of some rogue wave or bit of Nazi espionage. No, Capa’s film made it safely back to England, and it was there that the stories the pictures told almost became a casualty to the story of the pictures themselves…
Robert Capa was born André Friedmann in Budapest, Hungary in 1913. In 1930, fleeing political repression in his home country, he arrived in Berlin, where he enrolled in the Deutsche Hochschule für Politik as a student of journalism and political science, served as a darkroom assistant at the Deutsche Photodienst Agency, and began working as a photojournalist under the alias Robert Capa. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Capa left Germany for Paris where he continued his work, traveling to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War and rising to fame with his most famous image, Death of a Loyalist Soldier, which caused Picture Post to coin him “the greatest war photographer in the world” in 1938. When World War II began, he moved to America and worked freelance for LIFE, Time, and other publications, working as a war correspondent for LIFE and Collier’s, traveling with the US Army.
When plans for the Allied invasion of Europe began, Capa was one of the select few chosen to go along. But, of perhaps the most important assignment of his career, Capa himself was nonchalant, writing in his memoir Slightly Out Of Focus: “Out of hundreds of war correspondents, only a few dozen were chosen to accompany the first wave of the invasion forces. Among them were four photographers, and I was one.”
He crossed the English Channel aboard the U.S.S. Chase. From there, he was allowed to choose which Company to travel with on shore; he chose Company E. By 4:00 AM on June 6, 1944, Capa and the rest of Company E–as well as thousands of others–were assembled on the deck of the Chase, waiting for barges to be lowered the official start of the assault to begin. He was equipped with a gas mask, an inflatable lifebelt, a shovel, and his camera equipment. “Waiting for the first ray of light,” he writes, “the two thousand men stood in perfect silence; whatever they were thinking, it was some kind of prayer.” Soon, the men began assembling in their barges and making their way to the French coast.
The shore was still miles away when the German soldiers began firing. The seas were rough, and many of the men had gotten sick; nevertheless, when faced with a choice between bullets and barf, Capa and the others in his boat huddled in the vomit-filled water at the bottom of the barge to avoid being shot.
As his boat reached land, Capa pulled his Contax camera from its waterproof oilskin and paused on the gangplank to take his first picture, even while machine guns rattled around him and the men of Company E roared forward. “The boatswain,” Capa remembered, “mistook my picture-taking attitude for explicable hesitation, and helped me make up my mind with a well-aimed kick in the rear.”
Reaching the nearest steel structure, he huddle behind it with a few other soldiers, snapping pictures in the gray, early morning light. Between bursts of gunfire, he managed to make his way from shelter to shelter, eventually making his way to the beach, where he was soon stuck with the other members of Company E between the sea and a mound of barbed wire, waves of German bullets still flying overhead. Capa continued to shoot:
“Shooting from the sardine’s angle, the foreground of my pictures was filled with wet boots and green faces. Above the boots and the faces, my picture frames were filled with shrapnel smoke; burnt tanks and sinking barges formed my background.”
The men remained pinned to the ground until mortar shell fell close by, wounding several. The priest and doctor who had accompanied the soldiers were the first to stand–of which, Capa was able to snap a picture–giving the other men courage to do the same.
“I didn’t dare take my eyes off the finder of my Contax and frantically shot frame after frame. Half a minute later, my camera jammed–my roll was finished. I reached in my bag for a few roll, and my wet, shaking hands ruined the roll before I could insert it in my camera.”
And that was when the reality of the situation truly hit Capa, and fear took hold. Unrelenting gun fire, constant mortar explosions, blinding smoke, and mounds of dead bodies, some of with whom he had played cards just hours before. It was too much.
Capa ran. Although telling himself he was just returning to the boat to dry his hands, he admits in his memoir that “I was running away,” and claims “I tried to turn but couldn’t face the beach.” On the barge, however, he found little respite; mortal shells had killed several on board as well as causing severe damage to the structure. It was in danger of sinking. Thankfully, another barge pulled alongside and rescued the remaining men. Capa put fresh film in his camera and took a shot of the smoke-covered beach as it faded into the distance. Aside from being able to snap a few pictures of medical personnel working giving dockside transfusions, Capa took no more shots for the rest of the journey back to the Chase. He was too busy lifting stretchers of wounded and helping find places for the dead, which he did until he collapsed from exhaustion.
“Then things got confused…” Capa writes. “I woke up in a bunk. My naked body was covered with a rough blanket. On my neck, a piece of paper read: ‘Exhaustion case. No dog tags.’ My camera bag was on the table, and I remembered who I was. In the second bunk was another naked young man, his eyes staring at the ceiling. The tag around his neck said only, ‘Exhaustion case.’ He said: ‘I am a coward.’ He was the only survivor from the ten amphibious tanks that had preceded the first waves of the infantry. All these tanks had sunk in the heavy seas. He said he should have stayed back on the beach. I told him that I should have stayed on the beach myself…During the night the man from the tank and I both beat our breasts, each insisting that the other was blameless, that the only coward was himself.”
When they arrived back in England, Capa learned that the only other photographer assigned to Omaha Beach had never even left the boat. Because he was the only one who’d actually been on the beach, he was treated as a hero and begged for interviews about his experience. “But I still remembered the night enough, and refused. I put my films in the press bag, changed my clothes, and returned to the beachhead a few hours later on the first available boat.”
But while Capa was back in France, trying to salvage his dignity, an excited darkroom assistant in London was wreaking havoc with his photos. While drying the negatives, he had turned on too much heat, causing the emulsions to melt. Of the one hundred and six pictures taken on the beach in Normandy–the only pictures taken during the entire D-Day invasion–only eight were salvaged. Capa maintained that the blurry quality was due to high heat exposure during the development process; the captions released with them, however, said it was because the photographer’s hands were shaking so badly.
Capa went on to capture more images of World War II, for which he earned the Medal of Freedom, as well as pictures of post-war Soviet Union, the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, and the First Indochina War. But his most famous pictures remain those technically flawed but historically monumental photographs taken on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion. He changed the face of photojournalism by risking his life to live out his mantra:
“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
****If you’re interested in learning more about the fascinating life of Robert Capa as well as viewing many of his amazing photographs, I highly recommend his memoir, Slightly Out of Focus, published by The Modern Library and available anywhere books are sold.****