War, And Peace: Robert Capa, 62 Years After D-Day

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By Donald R. Winslow

 It was 62 years ago today. It was also a Tuesday. Ever since then the date has been known as D-Day. The place was Omaha Beach, in Normandy, France, along a narrow strip of sea across from the coast of England. The sandy beach and rocky cliffs and the French farmland behind them were controlled by occupying Nazi forces. Sitting ready in an armada of nearly 900 ships stretching some 30 miles up and down the coast were American, British, Canadian, French, Polish, Norwegian, and Dutch soldiers, making up the largest invasion force in history. They were waiting for dawn and the tide so that their landing crafts could swarm upon the machine-gun infested shoreline.

In the first wave of the invasion, soldiers from the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division headed ashore in a landing craft, enemy bullets ripping into the water around them as they hit the shallows and the barge's front lowered in front of them, exposing them directly to German snipers and machine gunners who were trying to kill them before they could take cover or wade ashore.

It was June 6, 1944, and with this first wave of soldiers was a photographer from Life magazine. His name was Robert Capa.

The course through life that brought Capa ashore this day had already included war, and fleeing oppressive governments, and re-inventing himself along the way, along with some moderate fame for his previous reportage. But today if he survived the Nazi gunners he would make his most famous and enduring photographs.

Capa was already recognized for his pictures of the Spanish Civil War, including his picture of soldier Federico Borrell Carcia at the moment he was shot and fell in death. Hungarian and Jewish, Capa – born Endre Erno Friedmann – had fled his homeland and its fascist government and taken up residence in Germany where he hoped to be a writer.

But he found photography instead, and fled Germany for France to escape the growing Nazi tide. Around this time he changed his name to Robert Capa, and in 1936 he began covering the Spanish Civil War. As Europe became less and less safe for Jews in the run-up to World War II, Capa left his base in France for America, and New York City. But the war soon brought him back to Europe as a photojournalist, first shooting for Collier’s Weekly and then for Life magazine.

Now, on this most famous of days in the European war, he was in the very center of what would be the conflict’s turning point. Life magazine was part of the invasion’s photo pool, made up of about 20 photographers, but Capa was the only one who managed to go in on the invasion’s first wave.

Years later Capa would write about this day in an autobiography he titled Slightly Out Of Focus. While the world knew Capa as a great photographer, he clearly was also a remarkable writer. “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,” he wrote. “I am a gambler. I decided to go in with Company E in the first wave.”

Capa wrote:

“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 I stood 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. 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 the waterproofing off his rifle and began to shoot without much aiming at the smoke-hidden beach. The sound of his rifle gave him enough courage 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 like I was.”

There, dead center in what he called “the killing zone,” Capa shot photograph after photograph. Invading soldiers hid behind barricades, ducked under waves, took any cover available as the bullets ripped into the water all around them. Between incoming waves from the sea, and lulls in the German fire, they rushed toward the sand, becoming even more exposed and bigger targets as the water grew shallow.

Capa has said that he remembered feeling “a new kind of fear shaking my body from toe to hair, and twisting my face.” He later said it that it was with great difficulty and trembling hands that he reloaded his cameras. He wrote that during it all, he kept repeating a sentence that he had picked up during the Spanish Civil War: “Es una cosa muy seria” (“This is a very serious business”).

“After what seemed like eternity, I turned away from the beach and saw an incoming landing craft,” Capa remembered. “I did not think and I didn’t decide it. I just stood up and ran toward the boat. I knew 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.’” He was pulled aboard the landing craft and made it to a ship loaded with wounded that was returning to England. Thus began his return trip with the film. After landing the rolls of battle film went by courier and train to Time and Life’s bureau in London’s SoHo film district, where lab techs and editors were anxiously waiting.

By most accounts there were four rolls of film with 106 exposed frames. John G. Morris, Life’s picture editor who was waiting in London for Capa’s film, remembers that the photographer “had it bad.” Capa was deeply shaken from the experience. “But after handing off his film at a channel port, he immediately headed back to Normandy,” Morris says.

A motorcycle courier had given the picture editor a small package of film with a handwritten note from Capa: “John, all the action is in the four rolls of 35mm.” Morris ordered the lab to rush; Life’s deadline, and the time they would need to clear the prints through censors, was pressing.

There are several accounts of what happened to Capa’s film that day in the lab. On the invasion’s anniversary in 2004, Morris wrote for The Digital Journalist, “A few minutes later a lad from the darkroom rushed, almost hysterical, into my office screaming, ‘The films are ruined. Ruined.’ He explained that he had hung them in the locker which served as a drying cabinet, normal practice, but because of the rush had closed the doors. There was too much heat; the emulsion melted. I ran back to the darkroom with him. I held up the films. Nothing but gray soup on three of them. But on the fourth there were eleven discernible images.”

Morris – as any good picture editor under the gun would do – didn’t panic, but he worked with what was there, making prints and clearing censors. Life printed 10 of the photographs in its June 19, 1944, issue. In the captions there was no mention of what happened to the film in the London lab. Instead, the magazine said the film was “slightly out of focus” due to the photographer’s shaking hands. Capa, of course, denied this. But in a somewhat self-deprecating move he later titled the first-person book of his life and the tale of that day on Omaha Beach Slightly Out Of Focus.

Capa’s pictures of D-Day stood the test of time and became the classic, iconic images of the invasion. In 1947, Capa founded Magnum Photos along with his friends Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, George Rodger, and Bill Vandivert. Morris soon joined them. Capa photographed his friends, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso, John Steinbeck, and John Huston. He covered the war in Israel and was grazed by a bullet in Tel Aviv in 1948. Again, he was badly shaken by the experience. He did not cover the war in Korea. And despite telling many friends and colleagues that he would never again risk his life covering war, he accepted a Life assignment to cover the growing war in Indochina between the French and the Viet Minh in 1954, when he was only 40, and long before the war was on America’s front pages.

Morris heard about the assignment and called Capa in Tokyo to talk him out of doing it. In his book, Get The Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism, Morris remembers how he yelled to Capa over the static and noise of a poor telephone connection: “You don’t have to go!” Regardless, Capa went.

Alex Kershaw wrote a biography of Capa called Blood and Champagne (Macmillian, 2002). Kershaw quoted Capa on his last day: “‘This is going to be a beautiful story,’ he [Capa] said as he set out from the village of Nam Dinh, in Vietnam's Red River delta, on May 25, the last morning of his life. ‘I will be on my good behavior today. I will not insult my colleagues, and I will not once mention the excellence of my work.’”

In Thai Binh the troops on patrol with Capa came under fire. The photographer left the Jeep he was riding in with two reporters and walked up ahead to be with the advancing soldiers. Everyone heard the explosion when Capa stepped on a landmine. By the time the other journalists got to him he was still alive, but mortally wounded. Medics carried Capa to a field hospital but it was too late, the wounds too severe. Capa was dead.

His body was sent home to be buried in a Quaker cemetery in Amawalk, NY. There a teenaged photographer, just graduated from high school, heard on the radio news of Capa’s pending burial. The kid, Dirck Halstead, showed up at the cemetery with his camera.

“I wandered inside, looking for the site. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, a bunch of photographers from the New York dailies had shown up at the front gate of the cemetery, waiting for the body to arrive,” Halstead wrote many years later. “A few minutes before the burial was supposed to take place, John Morris, who was then the head of Magnum Photos, came up and asked me to leave.

“At this point, a rough, wooden casket, almost like a shipping box was ushered into the cemetery. On it were stenciled the words: ROBERT CAPA, PHOTOGRAPHE, MORT EN INDOCHINE, 24 JUIN, 1954.” (Although Capa died on May 25.)

“To this day, I don't know why, but I began to cry,” Halstead remembers. “Morris suddenly looked stricken, and he asked me to wait. A moment later, he came back to me, and said, ‘You know, you are a photographer, he would have wanted you here.’”

Only weeks after Capa's funeral, Halstead became Life magazine’s youngest war photographer by covering a 1954 coup in Guatemala. (No one at Life had any idea how young Halstead was, and he didn’t find it necessary to tell Life’s editors at the time).

And now, 62 years later, another famous Life magazine photographer stood by Capa’s grave with a camera. This time the photographer was Bill Eppridge, who took the photograph that opens this piece.

In this world where peace grows daily more elusive, and as photojournalists and reporters risk death daily in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other lesser-known killing zones, we pause on this anniversary today to think about Robert Capa and his timeless photographs of war and valor and death, and also of all the journalists who have given their lives to show us its stark reality.

May they rest in peace.