“I was one of those American soldiers who was put off the landing craft too soon when it was still over 10 feet of water. All around me men were drowning before they could get to the beach. We were carrying packs weighing 45 pounds, and a rifle weighing another 10. I sank to the bottom, but fortunately I was physically strong enough to keep bouncing up from the bottom to grab some mouthfuls of air, and then a huge wave hit me and I was pushed to the beach. I was in France. It was D-Day 6th of June, 1944.”
Tony Vaccaro, the great photographer who was featured in LIC Courier in July, is about to leave his home in Long Island City to return to Normandy, this time to be honored in some of the towns he helped liberate. In addition, there will be a major exhibition of his war photography at the International War Museum in Caen, one of the cities that was the subject of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Already honored by both the French and German governments for his work, this trip will return him to places where he witnessed absolute horror — and much valor with his comrades in the 83rd Infantry Division.
He is also being taken back on the Queen Mary by a French film company, Sundeck Films, which will make a documentary about Tony’s return to Normandy, and will use some of the crossing to interview him in detail about his war experiences. The film will be shown on French television in 2014.
During the war, Vaccaro was on a journey that would take him from the beach to 40 miles from Berlin in the ruins of the Third Reich. Getting off the beach and driving through Avranches to St. Denis and then the liberation of St. Malo was the beginning of a series of liberations of villages and towns. The Germans fought hard and it was a long and painful road with many losses.
“I know that some of my comrades felt that the French people were resentful of them, and did not like them as a result. I had the good fortune of being able to speak French, and therefore to really understand them. I like the French people very much and was glad to be there.”
As the war progressed, its grimness did not recede. Vaccaro was in his foxhole when a shell burst nearby, killing two colonels.
“I always dug my foxholes deeper than most,” he said. “I had worked on the family farm and knew how to use tools, and even when the ground was hard in winter I still dug deep. It probably saved my life.”
After the fall of Paris, the drive into Germany began. Vaccaro was involved in the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last great offensive and all the vicious smaller battles on the way. He recalled the moment when he killed his first German soldier.
“The impact on me was enormous. I cried, and just took off and ran for 100 yards or so. It was an awful moment, but after I composed myself I was reminded of why I was there, and that if he had shot first I would have been dead.”
The photographs that he took have formed the basis of a book published by Taschen, “Into Germany-1944-1946,” and the basis of an exhibition, which has been seen in Germany and many other countries. Elements of this will be included in the exhibition in Caen.
In January 1945 Vaccaro and three other soldiers were lying in the snow on the outskirts of a small village in Belgium, the scene of heavy fighting. They were tense, expecting more conflict at any time. Suddenly, through the mist a shape emerged. It was a single German soldier coming towards them. Their fingers were on the triggers ready to kill him when the soldier, not knowing they were there, threw his rifle into the snow, shouting in German, “I am sick and tired of this bloody war!” Within seconds he was captured by the group, and was much relieved to be so.
“The German spoke for all of us,” recalls Vaccaro.
This return with honor to Normandy will bring back many memories, but Vaccaro will bring to his audiences the humanity and nobility that makes his photography great.