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The images of the Normandy landings taken by photographers such as Life Magazine photographer Robert Capa and Coast Guard Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent are ingrained in the collective memory of World War II. These visual testimonies provide an insight into one of history's pivotal moments, laden with raw emotion, perilous endeavors, and unyielding courage.

Sargent and Capa: Different Lenses on D-Day

Robert F. Sargent captured "Into the Jaws of Death," an image enveloped with the same raw authenticity as Capa’s, portraying the immediate moments of troops braving the surf under fire. While Sargent remained on his landing craft, Capa dared further, stepping onto the deadly beach and documenting the soldiers' arduous progress amidst chaos and bombardment.

Robert F. Sargent

U.S. Coast Guard Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent (August 26, 1923 – May 8, 2012) served valiantly as a United States Coast Guard chief petty officer. With the critical function of a photographer's mate, Sargent is chiefly recognized for his seminal work, Into the Jaws of Death. This forceful photograph captures the profound gravity of D-Day, depicting members of Company E, 16th Infantry, of the renowned 1st Infantry Division. A fine exemplar of courageous photojournalism, the photograph was taken as the troops disembarked from a U.S. Coast Guard landing craft. These valiant men owed their safe passage to the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase, a vessel integral to the maneuvers of Operation Neptune—the naval component of Operation Overlord. Through Sargent's lens, we observe a visceral freeze-frame of history.

Within the archives of the U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office lies a significant piece of World War II history – a replication of the widely disseminated photograph “Into the Jaws of Death,” snapped by the adept Coast Guard Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent during the D-Day landings. Sargent, a seasoned combat photographer by the time of the fateful landings at Sicily and Salerno, recorded the striking image from his landing craft at the "Easy Red" sector of Omaha Beach around 7:40 a.m., capturing a critical moment in the vast and complex Operation Neptune. This operation was a pivotal facet of Operation Overlord and marked the most extensive engagement in which the Coast Guard has participated. The service, during the liberation of Western Europe, not only showcased its traditional duties and maritime prowess through such activities as handling and directing ships, managing cargo, and executing rescue missions amidst enemy attack. It also undertook the significant task of chronicling the events through combat photographers and correspondents dispatched amongst the troops. Sargent's presence at Normandy enabled him to immortalize the most momentous invasion of modern history.

Further illuminating this historic episode, the Historian's Office has procured a press release accompanying the flood of Sargent's image to the public eye. The delicate, aging mimeograph paper, now tanned by the passage of years, shelters the narrative penned by Coast Guard Combat Correspondent Thomas Winship. In this document, Sargent's narrative is prolifically quoted, offering an unequivocal rendition of the day's events as observed through his experienced lens. It transports the reader to that critical juncture, enabling them to witness, through his detailed account, the unnerving experience of delivering troops onto a beachhead engulfed by enemy onslaught, and commendably records the names of those who manned the landing craft that ferried brave soldiers to the shores of Omaha Beach.

Standing firmly at the helm of the landing craft was Coxswain William E. Harville of Petersburg, Va., orchestrating the vessel’s critical movements throughout the heated exchange on D-Day. Reliable and composed, the boat’s engineer was Seaman 1st Class Anthony J. Helwich of Pittsburgh, Pa., whose expertise ensured the craft's engine ran seamlessly under intense conditions. The bowman, Seaman 1st Class Patsy J. Papandrea, occupied a paramount position at the front, responsible for operating the bow ramp that is a focal point in Sargent’s famous photograph, his helmeted silhouette a testament to the multi-faceted roles of these men amidst chaos.

 


Top photo: Normandy, France. Early morning on 6 June 1944. Photograph taken by Chief Photographer's Mate (CPHoM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard. An LCVP from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of Company A, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) wading onto the Fox Green section of Omaha Beach (Calvados, Basse-Normandie, France). Sources: U.S. Library of Congress, National Archives. In the Public Domain. Click to enlarge.

Middle photos: U.S. Army soldiers struggling to wade ashore amidst German machine gun fire. Source: Magnum Photos and Robert Capa. In the Public Domain. Click to enlarge.

Bottom photos: Left: Normandy, France. June 1944. A Catholic priest conducts mass on Omaha Beach. Right: St. Laurent-sur-Mer, Calvados, Normandy, France. June, 1944. Omaha Beach days after the D-Day landing.  Magnum Photos and Robert Capa. In the Public Domain. Click to enlarge.

Photo Album: Robert Capa on D-Day

Robert Capa: Slightly Out of Focus


 

The historic vessel, part of Task Group 124.3, found its anchor at the transport area, a staggering 10 miles from the Normandy shore, at 03:15 on June 6, with troops embarking promptly at 05:30 a.m. Consequently, the first waves deployed at 05:36, with the final group setting forth just after 06:00 a.m. Through the challenging journey described by Sargent, the soldiers maintained a stoic silence, enduring the cold and the merciless soaking by the relentless waves that barraged the craft’s square bow. As the shoreline of Omaha Beach loomed into view, the ocean's tide, emboldening the beach’s defenses, slowly swelled amid visible and menacing German obstacles strategically arrayed to thwart the Allied advance.

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The scene Sargent painted is one of acute tension; a crippled amphibious tank in view, another landing craft foundering against the beachhead, as their own craft prepared to discharge its cargo of soldiers. Amidst concentrated German artillery fire, Coxswain Harville and his crew managed to accomplish their mission, disembarking the troops into waist-deep waters, remarkably evading any personnel losses and nimbly navigating their craft back to the relative safety of the open sea.

Adjacent to their success, however, Sargent captured a glimpse of the peril that surrounded them, detailing an account from the landing craft parallel to theirs, captained by Coxswain Delba L. Nivens. A sailor from Amarillo, Texas, with an unassuming air, Nivens’ command, along with the efforts of boat engineer John Schell and bowman Leo Klebba, faced a dire incident—a German shell igniting a grenade on board, igniting a violent blaze and causing a severe list due to evasive action by the crew. Despite the pandemonium, Nivens’ crew successfully disembarked their troops and, after mending a shattered bow ramp while under relentless enemy fire, distinguished the flames and ultimately reconvened with the safety of the USS Samuel Chase.

An original copy of Sargent’s photo (measured at 5.5” x 9.5") is currently listed as “Make Offer to Owner” on the Heritage Auctions website at $139,500 U.S. dollars (or more). The webpage notes “[owner] isn't actively participating and doesn't respond to most offers.”

Robert Capa

The assumption that Robert Capa landed with the first wave, Easy Company, of the 16th Infantry Regiment, finds its origin from Capa’s own memoir, "Slightly Out of Focus." Yet, recent research suggests he may have arrived later and with another unit. Capa's memoir—anecdotal in its essence—was never meant to serve as an empirical historical record, as he himself elucidates: “all events and persons in this book are accidental and have something to do with the truth.”

Onboard the USS Samuel Chase, sailing alongside the troops of the 1st Battalion, Capa embarked on his ominous voyage to the shores of Omaha Beach. Contrarily, Easy Company was with the 2nd Battalion, deployed from the USS Henrico. The timeline of the landings thus presents an inconsistency with Capa's narrative; as the 1st Battalion began their descent at H+70 minutes, while the 2nd Battalion had initiated the assault at 06:30, known as 'H-Hour'.

In Capa's iconic photographs, signs that the tide had risen, obscuring many of the German-placed obstacles and lapping near the shingle bank, suggest a later landing time than 'H-Hour'. The D-Day planners, meticulous in their designs, assigned 06:30 'H-Hour' to coincide with low tide for visibility and accessibility concerning the ominous obstructions. Therefore, deducing the specifics of Capa's actual arrival implicates alignment with the tide’s conditions visible in his pictures.

Evidence points towards Capa potentially disembarking in the initial group leaving the USS Samuel Chase, beginning at around 07:40. With Capa's evacuation from the battleground at approximately 08:30 aboard the LCI(L)-94, we can conclude his presence on Omaha Beach spanned a brief but intense window, certainly not aligning with the initiation of the invasion.

12389029284?profile=RESIZE_710xThe ten photographs taken by Capa on the Easy Red sector of Omaha Beach serve as a stark visual chronicle of D-Day's early moments. The initial five images seemingly originate from the descending ramp of an LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel), capturing the heavily equipped American soldiers advancing through surf and steel obstacles towards the shore. Amidst them, duplex-drive and ‘wade-up’ Sherman tanks offer temporary shelter before the soldiers press towards the temporary refuge of the shingle bank and seawall, obscured by the pall of smoke along the ridge.

Capa, in his critical role as a war photojournalist, was equipped with two Contax II cameras, affixed with 50mm lenses, and stocked with copious rolls of film. This equipment was selected for its reliability under duress and the high optical quality of the lenses, which allowed for sharp images even in the variable and challenging conditions of battle.

The subsequent series presents a shift in perspective, likely the result of Capa finding nominal protection behind previously photographed tanks. Images facing eastward depict soldiers contending with the surf as they negotiate the hostile terrain, replete with wooden obstacles poised to ensnare landing crafts—some visible in the mid-distance as they approach the beachhead. Two contrasting photographs look out towards the Channel, detailing combat engineers identifiable by their helmets as they prepare the ominous steel ‘hedgehogs’ for demolition.

Concluding this sequence, Capa captures the solitary image of an infantryman engrossed in his struggle through the waves, clutching at his life belt—a poignant testament to the individual experiences within this momentous historical event.

Capa's narrative, while insightful, is not without its ambiguities in the precise documentation of historical events. His memoir, 'Slightly Out of Focus', stands as a textured account that, although imbued with personal anecdotes and observations, must be sifted for historical veracity. His own admissions, paired with an analysis of photographic content and military records, reveal a discrepancy with the commonly held belief about his landing timing. Through examination of the USS Samuel Chase's logistics and the tide levels captured in his images, it is surmised that Capa's landing, while early, was not contemporaneous with the first wave but likely during a subsequent landing effort. This aligns with the ship's landing schedule and the observable tide level in the photographs, suggesting Capa disembarked no earlier than 07:40 and departed the beach by approximately 08:30, thereby framing his presence in a narrow window of historical time.

 

Bibliography

"D-Day and the Omaha Beach Landings • Robert Capa • Magnum Photos." Magnum Photos. Last modified February 24, 2017. https://www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/conflict/robert-capa-d-day-omaha-beach/.

"The Jaws of Death." United States Coast Guard (USCG) Historian's Office. Accessed February 20, 2024. https://www.history.uscg.mil/Our-Collections/Photos/igphoto/2002116659/.

Langley, Edwina. "Extraordinary D-Day Photographs on Display at IWM." Evening Standard. Last modified June 6, 2019. https://www.standard.co.uk/futurelondon/culturecity/dday-robert-capas-extraordinary-omaha-photographs-on-display-at-imperial-war-museum-london-a4160851.html.

"Lovers and Fighters: Robert Capa's Best Second World War Photography." The Guardian. Last modified October 19, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2014/apr/03/robert-capa-second-world-war-photography.

"The Photography of Robert Capa." LIFE. Last modified October 22, 2019. https://www.life.com/photographer/robert-capa/.

"Robert Capa." International Photography Hall of Fame. Last modified August 19, 2016. https://iphf.org/inductees/robert-capa/.

"Robert Capa and Omaha Beach." Imperial War Museums. Accessed February 23, 2024. https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/robert-capa-and-omaha-beach.

"Taxis to Hell - and Back." The Library of Congress. Accessed February 22, 2024. https://www.loc.gov/resource/cph.3g04731/.

 

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