Robert Capa: D-Day (a memoir)

Robert Capa (October 22, 1913 - May 25, 1954)
Slightly Out of Focus is Capa's memoir of World War Two. The following excerpt describes the crossing to Normandy on D-Day with the first wave of the Allied invasion fleet on 6 June 1944.

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Once a year, usually sometime in April, every self respecting Jewish family celebrates Passover, the Jewish Thanksgiving. The Passover celebration proceeds along the well-known lines of Thanksgiving, the only difference between the two being the Passover feast has everything and turkey too, and that the children of the very old world get even more sick than those of the very new world.

When dinner is irrevocably over, father loosens his belt and lights a five-cent cigar. At the crucial moment the youngest of the sons - I have been doing it for years - steps up and addresses his father  in solemn Hebrew. He asks, "What makes this day different from from all other days?" The father, with great relish and gusto, tells the story of how, many thousands of years ago in Egypt, the angel of destruction passed over the firstborn sons of the Chosen People, and how, afterwards, General Moses led them across the Red Sea without getting their feet wet.

The Gentiles and Jews who crossed the English Channel on the sixth of June in the year 1944, landing with very wet feet on the beach in Normandy called "Easy Red," ought to have - once a year, on that day - a Crossover day. Their children, after finishing a couple of cans of C-rations, would ask their father, "What makes this day different from all other days?" The story that I would tell might sound like this:

The men who were condemned to spend that spring on the French beaches were gathered in immense concentration camps on the southeast coast of England. The camps were surrounded by barbed wire, and once you entered the gates you were halfway across the Channel.

Inside, we were being processed for our trip. We had to exchange our legitimate dollar bills and pound notes for invasion francs printed on flimsy paper. We received a list containing hundreds of items which told what the well-dressed visitor would be wearing on the French beaches during the 1944 season. In addition, we received a little book telling us how to treat and address the natives there. There were some useful approaches in French. "Bonjour, monsieur, les amis americains."  That was for addressing the men. "Bonjour, mademoisell, voulez-vous faire une promenade avec moi?"  That was for the girls. The first one meant "Mister, don't shoot me," and the other could mean anything.

There were still other suggestions dealing with the natives of a different country, whom we expected - for certain reasons - to meet in numbers on the beaches. These consisted of convenient German phrases which promised cigarettes, hot baths, and all sorts of comforts, all in exchange for the simple act of unconditional surrender. Indeed, the booklet made promising reading.

Every piece of our clothing had to be gasproofed, waterproofed, and camouflaged in the many various colours of our future landscape. Thus prepared, we were ready for the day called "D."

We were all suffering from that strange sickness known as "amphibia." Being amphibious troops had only one meaning for us; we would have to be unhappy in the water before we could be unhappy on the shore. There were no exceptions. The only character who is amphibious and happy at the same time is the alligator. There were different degrees of "amphibia" and those who were scheduled to be the first to reach the beach had it the worst.

The harbor at Weymouth was having a grand time. Battleships, troopships, freighters, and invasion barges all mingled together. Floating in the air above them was a balloon barrage made up of many hundreds of silver blimps. The prospective tourists to France were sunbathing on the decks of the boats and lazily watching the giant toys that were being hoisted aboard. For the optimists, everything looked like a new secret weapon, especially from a distance.

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.

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.

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. I was about to choose between Company B and E when Colonel Taylor, commander of the 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Division, the attacking force, tipped me off that regimental headquarters would follow close behind the first waves of infantry. If I went with him, I wouldn't miss the action, and I'll be a little safer. This sounded like the real favorite - an even-money bet - two to one to be alive in the evening.

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, at this stage of the game, having the freedom to choose his spot and being allowed to be a coward and not to be executed for it is his torture. 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 cab 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 elevator - were 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.

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 in the bottom of the barge and ceased to watch the approaching coastline. The first empty barge, which had already unloaded its troops on the beach, passed us on the way back to the Chase and the Negro boatswain gave us a happy grin and the V sign. It was now light enough to start taking pictures and I brought my first Contax camera out of its waterproof oilskin. 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. 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.

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.

Now the Germans played on all their instruments, and I could not find any hole between the shells and bullets that blocked the last twent-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.