The Digital Journalist

How LIFE Covered D-Day
June 2004

by John G. Morris

Courtesy of The International Herald Tribune

June 6, 1944: In Remembrance

The nights had been quiet since February, but London was still living under blackout that fateful spring of 1944. Street lights emitted only moonlight. We drew thick curtains across our windows at dusk. In February, night after night, up to a hundred German planes had dropped bombs in the so-called "little blitz." Censors revealed that 50,324 Britons had been killed so far in the air war, and 163,075 wounded.

I shared a flat in the West End with Frank Scherschel, a Life magazine photographer. I was his editor, but didn't think of myself as his boss. Frank had crash-landed in Kent when returning from covering a raid on Stuttgart in a Flying Fortress. Thirty-five American planes were lost that day.

Our apartment at 24 Upper Wimpole Street belonged to a dentist, who had evacuated his practice but not his hydraulic dentist's chair. We were splendidly served by a downstairs couple, Lloyd and his wife. Lloyd had been a professional toastmaster for state occasions and during air raids he would call up to us, "Gentlemen, would you care for a cup of tea?" Meaning, get the hell downstairs, to take shelter in the basement kitchen until the all-clear sounded.

Portrait of photographer and journalist Robert Capa (1914 - 1954) in a military style jacket and helmet as he leans in an armored vehicle, Portsmouth, England, June 6, 1944. He carries a camera over his shoulder and has a canteen on his left hip.

Photo by David Scherman/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Tuesday, June 6, began like any other dull gray day, except that it was colder than London had any right to be in June. The alarm awakened me about eight. I was alone. Frank had simply disappeared a few days earlier, without saying goodbye -- as he had been ordered not to do. I knew he had reported to his Air Force battle station. I went to the window, drew the blackout curtains and looked down on the quiet street. Then I made a cup of tea and turned on the radio.

About 9:30 a bulletin came over BBC: "Under the Command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France." "This is it," I muttered to myself, using the words that Joe Liebling of The New Yorker later called "the great cliche of the Second World War."

I dressed and drove my little company Austin to the office of Time and Life on Dean Street, in the film district of Soho. At 27, I was already a Life veteran. I had started as a CBOB (college boy office boy) in the New York office on Rockefeller Plaza, had worked a bit in Washington and a year in Los Angeles. I was there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, on my 25th birthday, and I had scored a scoop when in February, 1942, a Japanese submarine fired a round of shells into an oil storage depot near Santa Barbara. My hand, holding a gorgeously jagged Japanese shell fragment, made the frontispiece of Life.

In the fall of 1943, with the war at its worst, I had volunteered to go to London, leaving behind my wife and daughter and a healthy embryo. Thus I now had a six-months-old son I had never seen. My wife and I parted, resolutely without tears, at Grand Central. With John Scott of Time I took the train to Saint John, New Brunswick, where we boarded a small Norwegian freighter. Its young captain, a veteran of over fifty wartime crossings, preferred to sail without convoy but that forced him to detour almost to the Azores before we finally made port in Liverpool.

My job in London, as I had been told in no uncertain terms over a last drink in the Men's Bar of the Waldorf, was to "get the pictures" of the eventual invasion of Western Europe. In the days before television, Life called itself "America's most powerful editorial force." We were shameless propagandists for the Allied war effort. I was given a terrific team of six photographers to cover the big day.

John Morris in the Time Life office in London during D Day

Photograph courtesy John Morris collection
It turned out that I was eight months early. That gave us plenty of time for feature stories -- essays on The Church of England and the Houses of Parliament, news stories on a by-election in Derbyshire, on the Miss London Beauty Contest, on Irving Berlin's "This is the Army" when he and it played the Palladium, and on the funeral of Sir Dudley Pound, where I saw Winston Churchill walk quietly in the cortege.

We also managed to enjoy ourselves. We ate well on expense accounts, and drew the same cigarette rations as officers -- war correspondents had the "assimilated rank" of captain in case of capture. There were lunches at The White Tower and parties at The Dorchester. The most memorable party was one given by Life photographer Robert Capa, the legendary war photographer, to honor his friend Ernest "Papa" Hemingway, a correspondent for Collier's. They had covered the Spanish Civil War together. The party lasted until four, when the punch ran out. "Papa" ended up in hospital after being driven into a water storage tank on the way home.

Capa would once more make history. Life belonged to a photo pool, with the three picture wire services, who added another twelve photographers to Life's six. Capa, however, was the only press photographer who managed to go in with the first wave of infantry on D-Day. He landed at dawn with Company E of the 2nd Battalion of the l6th Regiment of the 1st Division on the "Easy Red" section of the beach code-named "Omaha," near Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer in Normandy. His memoir Slightly Out of Focus light-heartedly described his landing: "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." Things soon went from bad to horrible. After shooting four rolls of film, Capa "had it bad," and made it back to England with a shipload of wounded, only to immediately return to Normandy after handing off his film.

Back in London we waited. No word from our photographers all day Tuesday. That night Bert Brandt of Planet/ Acme, the United Press picture wire service, returned to London with a "first picture" taken from a landing craft. It only whetted the public appetite for action pictures.

All day Wednesday we waited, until finally about six in the evening I got a call saying that Capa's film was on the way to London from "a channel port" by courier. Hours later a motorcycle messenger arrived with a small packet of films. A handwritten note from Capa said, "John, all the action is in the four rolls of 35 mm." I ordered the Life darkroom to "rush, for Godssake." I had to have contact prints for editing; four prints of each chosen negative had to be made to pass censorship, and we were nearing our deadline for shipment to Life in New York..

Top row, left to right: Bob Landry, George Rodger, Frank Scherschel, Robert Capa; bottom row, Ralph Morse, John G. Morris, David E. Scherman

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.

Those are the images that made the lead story in Life, for June 19, 1944: "BEACHHEADS OF NORMANDY: The Fateful Battle for Europe is Joined by Sea and Air." They are the images that Steven Spielberg studied for "Saving Private Ryan," the film that probably re-creates D-Day as it really was. Those are the images by which we now remember D-Day: June 6, 1944. A Tuesday.

Recently I returned to Omaha Beach. There is a golf course nearby, and the beach looks peacefully dull. Most peaceful of all is the cemetery where the American dead lie, row upon row, under neat white tombstones. For the first time I also visited the German cemetery, not so far away, where other thousands of men and women lie, in clumps of five, many with names unknown.. The French now honor them, as they do the historically unrecognized thousands and thousands of French civilians who also died in Normandy. Now, 133 years after the Franco-Prussian war ended in the Treaty of Frankfurt, 86 years after the Germans capitulated in a railroad car at Compiegne, 59 years after they surrendered in a little red schoolhouse in Reims, it is clear that there will never again be war between France and Germany.

Let it set an example to the world.

© John G. Morris

John G. Morris, who was Robert Capa's Life magazine editor on D-Day, has also edited pictures for Magnum Photos, Ladies' Home Journal, National Geographic, the Washington Post and the New York Times. He is the author of Get the Picture, A Personal History of Photojournalism, University of Chicago Press, 2002.