I was twelve years old when the radio announced that the Allies had launched the long awaited invasion of Europe that would ultimately lead to victory and the end of World War II. That day was June 6, 1944 and would come to be known as D-Day.
This June will be the 60th anniversary of that historic event.
I beg your indulgence as I begin the story, about one of the greatest assignments of my long career as a newspaper photographer.

By Dick Kraus
Staff Photographer (retired)

The next morning found us boarding an express train that would take us through some of the loveliest European countryside. The train was fast and comfortable and Kindall and I kind of dozed our way through the hours, watching picturesque medieval cities, towns and villages flash past our large window. The train stopped briefly at the French-German border where we were asked to show passports and travel documents to the border guards who walked through the train. The landscape flattened as we sped through the French farmland. In November, daylight wanes rapidly by three PM in those latitudes. It was dark by the time we pulled in Caen. We gathered our bags and detrained. The first thing that we needed to do was rent a car and then go find a hotel. Well, we found a car rental office right across the street from the station. We also found that it was closed; not only for the night, but also for the weekend. It was Saturday and they wouldn’t open again until Monday. We were supposed to begin photographing the invasion beaches, the next day. Plus, we were supposed to meet our German machine gunner, Franz Gockel, at the American Cemetery in Coleville.

We went back to the station and sat on a bench while we surveyed our options. We asked a cab driver how much it would cost to take us to Coleville, the next day. He quoted us a price in francs which we felt to be pretty expensive. It didn’t matter, though. We would have paid it except that neither of us had enough francs to make the trip. We were still carrying a bunch of German marks, thinking that we would get a better rate of exchange when we got to France. Dumb move. Our next option was to inquire of the man at the ticket window, if there were trains to Coleville the next day. Fortunately, there were and we could use our Eurail pass. But, we would have to take a cab from there to the American Cemetery to meet Gockel. We would have just enough francs to make it.

That having been decided, our next priority was a hotel. Preferably someplace we could stay for the week and use as a base of operations. In order to conserve our meager stash of francs, we opted to walk the couple of miles from the station, to the outskirts of the city of Caen. I hefted that heavy monster of a duffel bag onto my shoulder and we proceeded. Aided by the large maps of the city, mounted on lamp posts every few blocks, we finally crossed the bridge over the River Orne and the two of us, tired and bedraggled, entered the city. From the bridge, I had noticed what appeared to be a hotel. OK. So the building was outlined in yellow fluorescent lights and a sign in lights spelled out “Hotel Courtonne.”

I didn’t think that I could take another step with that monster bag on my shoulder. I even gave it a name. I called it “Monster Bag.”

“ Jim,” I said, “that’s gonna be our headquarters.”

© Newsday photo by Dick Kraus

The Hotel Courtonne at left.

The desk clerk didn’t speak much English and my high school French deteriorates as I tire. And, I was tiring fast. But, we managed to book a couple of rooms for the week.

The place turned out to be an old third class hotel with tiny rooms. But, our newspaper would be pleased with the economy of the place. It was clean and convenient and anyway, we wouldn’t be spending much time in the rooms, since we would be ranging out over the countryside each day, in pursuit of our stories.

We dumped our bags, washed up and headed out for some dinner. After walking several blocks, we happened upon a quaint cobblestone square that was lined with some interesting restaurants. We walked around, looking over the menus and prices. Most were pretty upscale. But, what the Hell. We deserved to have a good meal and we were on expenses. Besides, look at the money that we were saving the paper with our hotel.

It was almost 10 PM and I wondered if the restaurants stayed open that late. I was soon to discover that Europeans dine very late. Most of the restaurants, we were to find, didn’t even begin to serve dinner before seven or eight PM and stayed open until well past midnight.

There were two Moroccan restaurants on the square and Jim thought one of them would be a good place to start. He had never had Moroccan cuisine. I, on the other hand, was very familiar with Moroccan food. My wife, at the time, was from Morocco. She was an excellent cook and I knew my way around cous cous with lamb or chicken, along with any number of other Middle Eastern dishes.

We sat down to enjoy a very tasty meal and then went back to the hotel to pass out in utter exhaustion. I was awakened in the wee hours of the morning with terrible stomach cramps. My exotic Moroccan meal had turned my insides into a painful, churning liquid mess and I spent several hours on the commode trying to rid myself of whatever was causing me such discomfort. I had the runs for the next few days until one night, when I was on the phone to my wife, I told her of my malady. She told me to drink some boiled milk. Jeez. I remember my mother giving me that whenever I had stomach problems as a child. I hated the taste but it was effective. The next morning at breakfast in the hotel, I asked the waiter for boiled milk. At least that’s what I thought I was asking for when I requested “latte brouille, s’il vous plait.” As I said before, my French leaves a lot to be desired. The waiter looked at me like I had two heads. I guess that no one in France asks for their milk to be scrambled. Eggs, maybe. But not milk. I was to have these kinds of language problems all through France. But, I managed to make my request understood and I got the boiled milk. By afternoon, my problem was gone.

Anyway, the morning after the fateful Moroccan meal, with my stomach threatening to embarrass me at any moment, we hiked back to the railroad station, traveled to Coleville, took a cab to the American Cemetery and checked in with the American superintendent of the place

© Newsday Photo by Dick Kraus

Crosses and Stars of David mark the resting place of thousands of American GI's at the American Cemetery at Coleville in Normandy.

We were given a brief history of the cemetery and taken on a tour. In the weak sunlight of a winter day, we saw row upon row upon row of simple headstones, marked with crosses and an occasional Star of David that covered the gentle rolling ground that was situated on a high cliff that overlooked the beachhead that was Omaha Beach.

I took a few photographs before we were met by Franz Gockel and his wife. They had driven by car to Normandy from their home in Germany. We walked outside the gates of the American Cemetery and Gockel led us across the cliff for another hundred yards or so. There he pointed out a ditch that had once been a trench. Carved out of the side of that trench was a dugout, lined with stones and just discernible through the tangled growth that had sprung up over the intervening decades. It offered a clear view of the beach, just below, and Gockel pointed out that this was his machine gun nest from which he fired upon the thousands of American GI’s who swarmed off their landing craft. At least, those who made it past the shells and the deep water and sandbars offshore.

© Newsday Photo by Dick Kraus

Franz Gockel stands near the remains of his machine gun nest from where he fought the Allies on D-Day in 1944.

© Newsday Photo by Dick Kraus

Franz Gockel looks at a cross that he had erected near his machine gun nest, as a memorial to his fallen comerads.

As Gockel stood there, remembering the events of 1944, I made photographs of him from every conceivable angle. These would be better images and much more relevant than any of the head shots that I had made of him back at his home. It seemed to me at the time, looking at the old German veteran, that he was hearing the sounds of battle and smelling the gunpowder from his gun as he stood there and relived that cataclysmic day.

We walked back to the cemetery parking lot and Franz drove us a few miles away to a small, privately owned and operated D-Day Museum. It was run by a local farmer who had collected many artifacts of that battle and had constructed a small museum with dioramas depicting the scenes of war. Gockel had gotten to know this Frenchman and his family and they had become friends. We were introduced and Kindall interviewed the farmer and his family, getting the perspective of the French citizens who lived through those dramatic times. The farmer had included a diorama of Gockel’s machine gun nest and there was a wax mannequin of a German soldier manning a heavy caliber machine gun that was supposed to be Gockel.

From there, we drove further inland to the German military cemetery, Soldatefriedof, in La Cambe. This is the focus of Gockel’s yearly pilgrimages to Normandy. It is here that his friends and comrades in arms lay buried. It is here that he comes to pay his respects and to lay flowers on graves of those he once knew.

Here, instead of the simple head markers that we saw at the American Military Cemetery, massive Teutonic Crosses stand at the heads of groups of graves. It is a very imposing sight and it made for some very impressive photos. When we came to a group of graves that marked the final resting place of some of his comrades, Franz laid flowers at their feet and bent to one knee to offer a prayer.

© Newsday Photo by Dick Kraus

I tried to keep a respectful distance so as not to intrude. With long lenses and shallow depth of field, every angle from which I shot made very dramatic pictures. Still, I knew there was one that was missing. One that showed the solemnity of the occasion. I walked around to the back of those large crosses and I saw, instantly, what I must do. I didn’t need recognizable photos showing Franz’s face. I needed a picture that showed an old German soldier; once an enemy, now just another survivor of a long past war, remembering his dead friends, just as many American GI’s were doing at the American cemetery up the road.

I snapped on my 14mm, ultra wide-angle lens and laid the camera on the grass. I couldn’t see what I was getting through the viewfinder. Older versions of the Nikon had removable prisms which, when removed, allowed you to sight down into the ground glass viewing screen. Lacking that ability, I could only place the camera where I estimated the angle that I desired and I shot several frames, changing the angle slightly each time.

© Newsday Photo by Dick Kraus

Oh, what I would have given to have had a digital camera back then. I could have reviewed my shots on the back screen and made whatever adjustments that were necessary. It would be another week before I would be back at the paper, developing my film, before I could see the results. Fortunately, years of experience had served me well, and I did get what I wanted. And it is one of my most treasured shots.

Jim and I took the Gockels to a lovely restaurant in the countryside for a delightful dinner. Thankfully, American Express was accepted, because we hadn’t a sou in French money to our name. Then Franz drove us to the railroad station for our trip back to Caen

As soon as we got off the train in Caen, we went to the car rental agency and rented a small Renault. It had a five speed manual tranny and no power, so I was more than happy to let Kindall do the driving. And, we also managed to change our money to francs. Now we were all set. We drove back to the hotel and parked on the street, as there was no hotel parking.

We had a lot to cover the next day, so we were up early. Our first stop was at Le Memorial at Caen. This was an extensive museum devoted to the D-Day landings, located in a modern building and run as a joint venture by the French and Americans. Kindall had been in touch with them by mail and by phone and had made contact with a young American woman who was the Special Events Coordinator. She was most helpful and showed us around the various exhibits in the museum. There were so many wonderful displays, from a large scale diorama showing model landing craft coming ashore on the beaches and the opposition forces arrayed against them, to cutaways of a B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber. I had my work cut out for me, trying to decide which things to photograph and which to omit. There was just so much that it became overwhelming and I knew that I’d be lucky if one or two of these made the final cut in the paper.

After a few hours, we hit the road and Kindall maneuvered our little car through the city traffic and out into the Norman countryside, on our way to look over the landing zone at Utah Beach. The roads were narrow and the countryside was beautiful as we headed north.

© Newsday Photos by Dick Kraus
Views of Le Memorial in Caen.

As we approached the shore, there were areas that still displayed the fury of the allied landings in 1944. There were stretches of real estate just inland from the beach where the German Army had constructed fortifications and pillboxes of thick, re-enforced concrete. Many of these were still in evidence; some blasted apart by high explosive ordinance from allied ships and planes. The surrounding area was pocked with huge craters and the landscape resembled the surface of the moon.

© Newsday Photo by Dick Kraus

French Schoolchildren climb over the blasted remains of German fortifications that failed to fend off the Allied troops coming ashore at Pte. Du Hoc on the Normandy coast.

Many of the pillboxes still contained the large coastal guns that had once wreaked havoc upon the ships and landing craft. I was amazed at how well those weapons had withstood the corrosive power of the dampness and the salt laden air along the seacoast. I climbed around those bunkers and over the cannon and to my eye, it looked as though the guns were still operable. Even though there had been no maintenance performed on them for fifty years, you might possibly load them with powder and shell and fire them off, probably to the detriment of the French and English fishing fleets that still ply their trade in those waters. There were signs in several languages, warning of unexploded shells, still buried in the sand where they have lain for all these years.

© Newsday Photo by Dick Kraus

One of the German coastal guns that escaped the Allied bombardment on D-Day, still stands, guarding the Normandy coastline at Longues sur Mer.

© Newsday Photo by Dick Kraus

Inside the German gun emplacement at Longues sur Mer, The coastal gun stands as it did 50 years ago on D-Day, without a hint of deterioration.

© Newsday Photo by Dick Kraus

Newsday writer Jim Kindall looks across the water at the high, steep cliffs of Pte. Du Hoc where Len Lomell and his fellow Rangers scaled to the top on D-Day.
On a high promontory, overlooking the English Channel, was Pte. Du Hoc, This is where the American Rangers scaled the cliffs to eliminate those German 155 mm coastal guns about which we were told when we interviewed Len Lomell back in New Jersey a few weeks ago. Hearing him narrate the story of those brave GI’s hauling themselves up the ropes along the vertical face of those stone cliffs under withering small arms fire was dramatic enough. But seeing those imposing sheer walls in person brought the immensity of the task into perspective and as I photographed the area, I had a sudden sense of humility in the knowledge of the bravery of those gallant men.
There are many memorials all over Normandy, dedicated to different units who fought on D-Day and the days following. None is more imposing than the rather phallic looking concrete obelisk that rises above the spot where the battle took place at Pte. Du Hoc.

© Newsday Photo by Dick Kraus

The Memorial atop of Pte. Du Hoc, dedicated to the American Rangers who scaled the cliffs and fought and died on D-Day.

In contrast to the noise and death that occurred there in June of 1944, on this winter day in 1993, there was a stillness and serenity that seemed oddly out of place, given the nature of our assignment. In the fading light of a winter day, trainers from a nearby racetrack were working out their horses and sulkies on the hard packed sand. Long gone were the tracks of tanks and amphibious vehicles and the boot prints of soldiers. And, the bloodstains in the sand. 

© Newsday Photo by Dick Kraus

Trainers from a nearby race track, work out their trotters on the hard packed sand of what had been Utah Beach.




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