Seventy-six years ago today, the first of two million men poured onto the beaches of northern France, in what was to become the beginning of the end of the Third Reich.
War photographer Robert Capa went in with the first wave of infantry at 0630 hours. His images speak poignantly about the thoughts of a soldier at that place and time in history. He had photographed war before, but this landing would give him new appreciation for the men whose only option was to dodge bullets on a wing and a prayer in order to establish an allied foothold in Europe, and clear the way for millions more like themselves.
Keep in mind that these men were sons, fathers, uncles, nephews, husbands, friends, neighbors, and classmates.
They were mostly young.
The average soldier was in his early twenties.
Think about that word “average”. When it comes to numbers, in order to arrive at the average age of twenty-four, most of the men had to have been quite young. After all, if you want to raise the odds of accomplishing your mission, you must rely on the strength, health, and invincible nature of young men.
In terms of the human life span, these men were on the threshold of adulthood. They were ordinary in every way – until that moment in history. A moment which, for the first soldiers off the landing craft, allowed for only a fifty percent chance of making it to safety.
Extraordinary circumstances made these men extraordinary, just by their presence.
In his book, "In Search of History", Theodore H. White talked about why journalists want to risk their lives to be on the front lines. He said it was to experience that moment in time when history was being made; to observe and document the action for posterity.
I would wager that most of the men at Normandy didn’t want to be there at that moment in time; but they were, and I’m grateful to them for pulling off, although at great cost to human life, this truly incredible assault.
And I’m grateful for photojournalist Robert Capa, who insisted on going in with the first wave at the Easy Red section of Omaha Beach. His surviving photos captured not only this incredible feat, but the raw emotion on the faces of American soldiers as they put their lives on the line for freedom.
One image shows (likely) PFC Huston Riley making his way to the beach by using his lifebelt as a shield. When you really look at it, you can imagine the sensory overload that Riley is experiencing. He's taking it all in, and trying to survive one nanosecond at a time.
What you don’t see is Riley’s history. He’s already experienced two invasions in the war: One in North Africa, and one in Sicily. He’s about to be shot multiple times, but not seriously, then shot again on the beach, taken to a hospital in England, return to his unit, then shot again in the Battle of the Bulge. Riley would receive three purple hearts.
Capa has his back to the enemy, but protected by an enemy-placed obstacle in the water. He's focused on capturing the action, but his hands are shaking severely; hence, the blurry images.
Bolting through fifty yards of water to a disabled amphibious tank on the beach, Capa hunkered down. Hands shaking badly, he tried to change a film roll, but had no luck. But he did have a kind of luck that none of the men he was with had. He could make a run for the last twenty-five yards to be out of the German line of fire, or he could leave. Capa chose to leave. Even that act was fraught with near-death experiences.
Some might see Capa as a coward. I don’t see it that way. He wasn’t on the front lines to fight, but to photograph. He did his job. One for which he volunteered. And he did it while living a nightmare. The Germans didn’t distinguish between soldiers and photographers.
Capa documented the first moments of the largest amphibious assault in the history of the world with 106 photos. Due to the developer’s mistake, only eleven images survived. But they are telling. Other photographers either came up with nothing, or were unable to make the landing. Capa’s photos are the earliest of that day.
I have no doubt that the world is a better place because of the events of June 6, 1944, and I’m one proud American. I am in awe of the accomplishments of the allied forces this day. And saddened by the great loss of life.
Has America had a finer hour? I guess that's debatable, but not in my book.