Capa’s first hand account on D-Day landing

impressions of a photography legend from D-Day hell

Hungarion version
Capa a partraszállás előtt - Photo by David E. Scherman

Capa before the landing in Normandy
Photo by David E. Scherman

The images of the first photographer landing in Normandy are still a legend despite (or rather because) most of them got destroyed and even the few rescued are ruined. Read how the most famous war photographer remembers the D-Day landing.

Robert Capa was not only a photographer, he knew how to write as well, and I think he did it very well. It may not be a coincidence John Steinbeck not only included him and his habits in his book, but he let Capa “inscribe” his additional thoughts to the A Russian Journal
– to the final version as well not only the manuscripts. Capa had screenwriting ambitions as well and I still hope for a movie based on his life that is being rumoured for years now.

His autobiographical book on his second world war adventures starts with these words:

„Writing the truth being obviously so difficult, I have in the interests of it allowed myself to go sometimes slightly beyond and slightly this side of it. All events and persons in this book are accidental and have something to do with the truth.”

Now let’s see a (quite long, but meaningful) excerpt from Capa’s book! If you didn’t yet do it, buy it in a bookshop (or online at Amazon – and support my blog with it) or maybe rent it from a library, it’s worth it. Hungarian Radio made a radio play of it, but they nor do air it neither publish it as an audiobook. Unfortunately I didn’t find an audiobook in English either. However good and enjoyable the text is in vocal format too – it is much more powerful of course if you see Capa’s great pictures along the text es well along the story from the preparations of D-Day until the end of World War II. (Source: Slightly Out of Focus, Published by Random House Inc in 2001):

Robert Capa

Robert Capa

On my boat, the U.S.S. Chase, the population fell into three categories: the planners, the gamblers, and the writers of last letters. The gamblers were to be found on the upper deck, clustering around a pair of tiny dice and putting thousands of dollars on the blanket. The last-letter writers hid in corners and were putting down beautiful sentences on paper leaving their favorite shotguns to kid brothers and their dough to the family. As for the planners, they were down in the gymnasium in the bottom of the ship, lying on their stomachs around a rubber carpet on which was placed a miniature of every house and tree on the French coast. The platoon leaders picked their way between the rubber villages and looked for protection behind the rubber trees and in the rubber ditches on the mattress.
We also had a tiny model of every ship, and low on the walls were signs giving the names of the beaches and the specific sectors: “Fox Green,” “Easy Red,” and others, all parts of the “Omaha” beach. The naval commander and his staff had joined the gymnasium and they were pushing the little ships in order to reach the beaches that were painted on the walls. They pushed them around very expertly. In fact, the more I looked at these bemedaled gents playing on the floor, the more I was filled with terrific confidence.

Photo by Robert Capa

Photo by Robert Capa

I followed the proceedings on the gymnasium floor with more than polite interest. The U.S.S. Chase was a mother ship which carried many assault barges which it would release ten miles off the French coast.
I would have to make up my mind and choose a barge to ride in and a rubber tree to hide behind on the shore. It was like watching a lot of race horses ten minutes before starting time. In five minutes the bests would have to be placed.

I would have to make up my mind and choose a barge to ride in… On the one hand, the objectives of Company B looked interesting, and to go along with them seemed a pretty safe bet. Then again, I used to know Company E very well and the story I had got with them in Sicily was one of my best in the war…
If at this point my son should interrupt me, and ask, ‘What is the difference between the war correspondent and any other man in uniform?’ I would say that the war correspondent gets more drinks, more girls, better pay and greater freedom than the soldier… 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 am a gambler. I decided to go with Company E in the first wave.

Once I decided to go in with the first assault troops I began to convince myself that the invasion would be a pushover and that all this talk about an ‘impregnable west wall’ was just German propaganda. I went up on deck and took a good look at the disappearing English coast. The pale green glow of the vanishing island hit my soft spot and I joined the legion of the last-letter-writers. My brother could have my ski boots and my mother could invite someone from England to stay with her. The idea was disgusting, and I never mailed the letter. I folded it up, and stuck it in my breast pocket.

Now I joined the third category. At 2:00 A.M. the ship’s loudspeaker broke up our poker game. We placced our money in waterproof money belts and were brutally reminded that the Thing was imminent.
They fixed a gas mask, and inflatable lifebelt, a shovel, and some other gadgets around me, and I placed my very expensive Burberry raincoat over my arm. I was the most elegant invader of them all…

Our preinvasion breakfast was served at 3:00 a.m. The mess boys of the U.S.S. Chase wore immaculate white jackets and served hot cakes, sausages, eggs, and coffee with unusual zest and politeness. But the preinvasion stomachs were preoccupied, and most of the noble effort was left on the plates.

At 4:00 a.m. we were assembled on the open deck. The invasion barges were swinging on the cranes, ready to be lowered. Waiting for the first ray of light, the two thousand men stood in perfect silence; whatever they were thinking, it was some kind of prayer.

I too stood very quietly. I was thinking a little bit of everything: of green fields, pink clouds, grazing sheep, all the good times, and very much of getting the best pictures of the day. None of us was at all impatient, and we wouldn’t have minded standing in the darkness for a very long time. But the sun had no way of knowing that this day was different from all others, and rose on its usual schedule.
The first-wavers stumbled into their barges, and–as if on slow-moving elevators–we descended onto the sea. The sea was rough and we were wet before our barge pushed away from the mother ship. It was already clear that General Eisenhower would not lead his people across the Channel with dry feet or dry else.

Fotó: Robert Capa

Photo by Robert Capa

In no time, the men started to puke. But this was a polite as well as a carefully prepared invasion, and little paper bags had been provided for the purpose. Soon the puking hit a new low. I had an idea this would develop into the father and mother of all D-Days.
The coast of Normandy was still miles away when the first unmistakable popping reached our listening ears. We ducked down in the puky water at the bottom of the barge and ceased to watch the approaching coastline… It was now light enough to start taking pictures and I brought my first Contax camera out of its waterproof oilskin.

Photo by Robert Capa

Photo by Robert Capa

The flat bottom of our barge hit the earth of France. The boatswain lowered the steel-covered barge front, and there, between the grotesque designs of steel obstacles sticking out of the water, was a thin line of land covered with smoke — our Europe, the “Easy Red” beach.
My beautiful France looked sordid and uninviting, and a German machine gun, spitting bullets around the barge, fully spoiled my return. The men from my barge waded in the water. Waist deep, with rifles ready to shoot, with the invasion obstacles and the smoking beach in the background — this was good enough for the photographer. I paused for a moment on the gangplank to take my first real picture of the invasion. The boatswain, who was in an understandable hurry to get the hell out of there, mistook my picture-taking attitude for explicable hesitation, and helped me make up my mind with a well-aimed kick in the rear.

Photo by Robert Capa

Photo by Robert Capa

The water was cold, and the beach still more than a hundred yards away. The bullets tore holes in the water around me, and I made for the nearest steel obstacle.
A soldier got there at the same time, and for a few minutes we shared its cover. He took off the waterproofing of his rifle and began to shoot without much aiming at the smoke-hidden beach. The sound of his rifle gave him enough courage to to move forward and he left the obstacle to me. It was a foot larger now and I felt safe enough to take pictures of the other guys hiding just as I was. It was still very early and very gray for good pictures, but the gray water and the gray sky made the little men, dodging under the surrealistic designs of Hitler’s anti-invasion brain trust, very effective.

Photo by Robert Capa

Photo by Robert Capa

I finished my pictures, and the sea was cold in my trousers. Reluctantly, I tried to move away from my steel pole, but the bullets chased me back every time. Fifty yards ahead of me, one of our half-burnt amphibious tanks stuck out of the water and offered me my next cover. I sized up the moment. There was little future for the elegant raincoat heavy on my arm. I dropped it and made for the tank. Between floating bodies I reached it, paused for a few more pictures, and gathered my guts for the last jump to the beach.

Photo by Robert Capa

Photo by Robert Capa

Now the Germans played on all their instruments, and I could not find any hole between the shells and bullets that blocked the last twenty-five yards to the beach, I just stayed behind my tank, repeating a little sentence from my Spanish Civil War days, ‘Es una cosa muy seria. Es una cosa muy seria.’ This is a very serious business.

The tide was coming in and now the water reached the farewell letter to my family in my breast pocket. Behind the human cover of the last two guys, I reached the beach. I threw myself flat and my lips touched the earth of France. I had no desire to kiss it.
Jerry still had plenty of ammunition left, and I fervently wished I could be beneath the earth now and above later. The chances to the contrary were becoming increasingly strong. I turned my head sideways and found myself nose to nose with a lieutenant from our last night’s poker game. He asked me if I knew what he saw. I told him no and that I didn’t think he could see much beyond my head. “I’ll tell you what I see,” he whispered. “I see my ma on the front porch, waving my insurance policy.”

St. Laurent-sur-Mer must have been at one time a drab, cheap resort for vacationing French schoolteachers. Now, on June 6, 1944, it was the ugliest beach in the whole world. Exhausted from the water and the fear, we lay flat on a small strip of wet sand between the sea and the barbed wire. The slant of the beach gave us some protection, so long as we lay flat, from the machine-gun and rifle bullets, but the tide pushed us against the barbed wire, where the guns were enjoying open season. I crawled on my stomach over to my friend Larry, the Irish padre of the regiment, who could swear better than any amateur. He growled at me, “You damn half-Frenchy! If you didn’t like it here, why the hell did you come back?” Thus comforted by religion, I took out my second Contax camera and began to shoot without raising my head.
From the air, “Easy Red” must have looked like an open tin of sardines. Shooting from the sardine’s angle, the foreground of my pictures was filled with wet boots and green faces. Above the boots and faces, my picture frames were filled with shrapnel smoke; burnt tanks and sinking barges formed my background. Larry had a dry cigarette. I reached in my hip pocket for my silver flask and offered it to Larry. He tilted his head sideways and took a swig from the corner of his mouth. Before returning the bottle, he gave it to my other chum, the Jewish medic, who very successfully imitated Larry’s technique. The corner of my mouth was good enough for me too.
The next mortar shell fell between the barbed wire and the sea, and every piece of shrapnel found a man’s body. The Irish priest and the Jewish doctor were the first to stand up on the “Easy Red” beach. I shot the picture. The next shell fell even closer. I didn’t dare to 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 new roll, and my wet, shaking hands ruined the roll before I could insert it in my camera.

Photo by Robert Capa

Photo by Robert Capa

I paused for a moment…and then I had it bad.
The empty camera trembled in my hands. It was a new kind of fear shaking my body from toe to hair, and twisting my face. I unhooked my shovel and tried to dig a hole. The shovel hit stone under the sand and I hurled it away. The men around me lay motionless. Only the dead on the waterline rolled with the waves. An LCI braved the fire and medics with red crosses painted on their helmets poured from it. I did not think and I didn’t decide it. I just stood up and ran toward the boat. I stepped into the sea between two bodies and the water reached to my neck. The rip tide hit my body and every wave slapped my face under my helmet. I held my cameras high above my head, and suddenly I knew that I was running away. I tried to turn but couldn’t face the beach, and told myself, “I am just going to dry my hands on that boat.”

I reached the boat, The last medics were just getting out. I climbed aboard. I felt a slight shock and I was all covered with feathers. ‘What is this? Is somebody killing chickens?’ Then I saw that the superstructure had been shot away and the feathers were the stuffing from the kapok jackets of the men who were blown up. The skipper was crying because his assistant had been blown all over him and he was a mess.

Our boat was listing and we slowly pulled away from the beach to try and reach the mother ship before we sank. I went down to the engine room, dried my hands, and put fresh films in both cameras. I got up on deck again in time to take one last picture of the smoke covered beach. Then I took some shots of the crew giving transfusions on the open deck.
An invasion barge came alongside and took us off the sinking boat. The transfer of the badly wounded on the heavy seas was a difficult business. I took no more pictures. I was busy lifting stretchers. The barge brought us to the U.S.S. Chase, the very boat I had left only six hours before. On the Chase, the last wave of the 16th Infantry was just being lowered, but the decks were already full with the returning wounded and dead.

Photo by Robert Capa

Photo by Robert Capa

This was my last chance to return to the beach. I did not go. The mess boys who had served our coffee in white jackets and with white gloves at three in the morning were covered with blood and were sewing the dead in white sacks. The sailors were hoisting stretchers from sinking barges alongside. I started taking pictures. Then things got confused…

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’m a coward.” He was the only survivor from the ten amphibious tanks that had preceded the first waves of 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.
The engines were humming; our boat was on its way back to England. 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.

[…]

I learned that the only other war correspondent photographer assigned to the “Omaha” beach had returned two hours earlier and had never left his boat, never touched the beach. He was now on his way back to London with his terrific scoop.
I was treated as a hero. I was offered a plane to take me to London to give a broadcast of my 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.

Robert Capa's images in Picture Post

Robert Capa’s images in Picture Post

Seven days later, I learned that the pictures I had taken on “Easy Red” were the best of the invasion. But the excited darkroom assistant, while drying the negatives, had turned on too much heat and the emulsions had melted and run down before the eyes of the London office. Out of one hundred and six pictures in all, only eight were salvaged. The captions under the heat-blurred pictures read that Capa’s hands were badly shaking.”

In his memoir Capa only notes so shortly the destruction of his pictures. His long time friend and then Time photo editor John Morris has some additional thoughts on the story.

Source: Capa’s photos are managed by Magnum Photos Agency and the International Centre of Photography. Most of the text in this post was written by Robert Capa himself, published in his book Slightly Out of Focus. I had great help in collecting the (almost) complete chapter cited from the Hungarian edition of the book I own and the English excerpts published by Katia Lee Photography on her Tumblr blog and other sites that published more or less of the chapter I managed to puzzle into completeness (I counted two sentences missing from the marked place). Citing the chapter is meant to honour the D-Day landing and to pursue you to buy and read the entire book, not to replace it. You won’t regret buying it!

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