Since the first documented photograph by Joseph Nicephore Niepce, people have been taking countless pictures using various media. From the most iconic panoramic shots to the current trend of “selfies” on our cell phones, the amount of photographs available for viewing is infinite. This vast amount of pictures is why it can be so difficult to narrow down to one single image for further exploration.
In the process of scouring the internet for an image for discuss I came across multiple images, both heartbreaking and anger inducing. The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” has been widely attributed to Frederick Barnard and it is absolutely correct. The ability to capture a single moment in time, out of context, is an incredible feat of technology. That technology, coupled with the watchful eye of a skilled photographer, has resulted in numerous images that evoke strong emotions and discussions.
I would like to discuss a specific image from history that “spoke” to me. The above picture was taken on June 6, 1944 during the Normandy Invasion, more specifically the offloading of the 16th Infantry’s Company “E” on Omaha Beach. Although there were several insertion points, it is generally accepted that Omaha Beach was the most difficult and dangerous entry point due to its hilly terrain and lack of sufficient cover. Casualties from both the water’s depth and the German fire from high vantage points along all six miles were constant. Estimates put the total casualties during the morning’s raid at over several thousand.
Two and a half years into the Second World War, the storming of the beaches at Normandy was strategic for the Allied forces. Using the codename “Neptune”, it was the largest amphibious assault in history and included troops from multiple Allied countries. Attempted as a surprise assault on the Germans who had fortified the high ground on the coast of Normandy, it was deemed a success by Admiral Bertram Ramsay, a British Naval admiral during the time period, who stated “As our forces approached the French coast without a murmur from the enemy or from their own radio, the realization that once again almost complete tactical surprise had been achieved slowly dawned.”
Taken by US Coast Guard’s Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent and commonly known as “Into The Jaws of Death”, there is no possible way to imagine the living hell that broke loose within seconds of this photo’s capture (hence the quite fitting title bestowed upon it). According to some research, over two thirds of the men pictured in this photo were killed during this battle. It appears that most of the men here have survived the initial offloading (with the exception of the man towards the rear of the group, who appears to be in the process of landing facedown in the water or is the first casualty of this load), but as these men waded closer to the beach they undoubtedly took heavier and heavier fire.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment this photo was taken due to multiple conflicting reports, but according to one of the interviews done with Mr. Sargent, it was after 0730, almost one hour after the first wave of soldiers was sent ashore and roughly one hour before there was a break in arrivals. I make mention of this because, as we can see in the background, there is a mixture of haze and what could possibly be gun smoke. By this point in the morning, there had been quite a few casualties and although the picture is of a considerable quality, the distance from Mr. Sargent to the actual shore is enough to muddle what exactly is on the beach. Unfortunately, knowing as we do the amount of deaths on that morning, it is more than likely that some of the objects on the beach are fallen soldiers.
Looking away from the men, there are other things in the photograph that draw my attention. I’m curious what exactly the pile is toward the front of this carrier. Maybe some unrolled gauze from the corpsman? Notice it is still relatively clean. Who is filling out the rest of the helmet in the bottom right corner of this photograph? Is that the photographer’s assistant? Could it be the photographer himself? Perhaps he propped the camera up to the left of himself?
The far right edge of this photo appears to have captured an additional personnel carrier, still in the process of offloading. It would appear that getting down from these personnel carriers is not all that easy, either. You can see the men looking down as they exit the ramp into the water. Why the delay? There are several reports of the back gates jamming and refusing to open, resulting in the forced opening by soldiers laying their full body weight against the door.
Although countless interviews with survivors have captured the terror in these young men’s hearts, this picture, when taken in context with what we know of the battle at Omaha Beach, takes us to that same place. Although there is no way to fully understand the terror in these young men’s minds, it is our responsibility to never forget the ugliness of war. Thanks to Mr, Robert F. Sargent, we have an ever so brief glimpse of this time period.
Initially conceived as my 600-800 word essay on one particular image for my Advanced Composition class through Duke University on Coursera, I had planned on delaying the posting until June 6th since that was the anniversary of this battle. Seeing as this last weekend was Memorial Day and I have an almost uncontrollable “tic” of going too long without writing something, I am choosing to publish this now.
My post on Memorial Day took quite a few hits and allowed me to “meet” some cool folks out there. If you get a chance, swing over to “PacificParatrooper” for some even more in-depth discussion on veterans.