There’s a reason you only see the same few still and movie images from the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach over and over: That’s all there is.
Nineteen photographers in the first waves joined U.S. troops hitting that sector of the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944. Of the five sectors, the worst death and dismemberment happened here. It’s also the retelling of what happened at Omaha Beach that leads some to forget Canadian and U.K. forces suffered, some grievously, in the other sectors as did the U.S. and U.K. airborne units landing by parachute and glider.
During the battle at Omaha, an Army colonel collected the still- and motion-picture photographers’ film for processing and review before it could be released. While scaling the climbing net draped over the side of a transport ship, he dropped the pack containing the film. And that was that.
Photographer Robert Capa, shooting under contract for LIFE magazine, held onto four rolls of 35mm film, which eventually made their way to the magazine’s office in London. There a lab tech under pressure to get the job in a hurry ruined three rolls in the drying cabinet when he melted the emulsion. The fourth roll held 11 printable frames including Capa’s iconic image of a soldier under fire crawling through the surf. Understand what it took to get that photo. Capa stood up with his back to the hurricane of Nazi firepower and pressed the shutter.
Capa, born André Friedmann in, Budapest, Hungary, was 41 when he died in 1954 after stepping on a land mine while covering the war in Vietnam. That would be the First Indochina War, France’s eight-year losing effort to hang onto French Indochina, its pre-WWII colony. The Second Indochina War lasted 20 more years and is better known in the U.S. as the Vietnam War.
In this video from Time Inc., John G. Morris, the Life picture editor in London, recalls the day Capa’s film arrived:
By the numbers World War II was the country’s biggest war although far from its longest. Sixteen million men and women served in the U.S. armed forces 1941-45. Battle deaths killed nearly 300,000, and another 114,000 died from other causes. Close to 700,000 were wounded, and the rest returned home with their physical if not mental health intact. Most of those veterans are gone now, including my father, a Military Police tech sergeant who served in England, North Africa, Italy and France and came home unscathed. (On D-Day Mom was at Patterson Field, Ohio, where she learned and instructed aircraft radio repair.) About 1.7 million World War II veterans remain but are passing on at a rate of 900 or so a day.