John G. Morris
Something woke me early on the morning of Tuesday, June 6, 1944. I drew the blackout curtain and saw that it was just another dull, gray day, colder than an English spring had any right to be. The streets were empty, and I was alone in the flat I shared with Frank Scherschel on Upper Wimpole Street in London’s West End. He had departed –vanished, actually, without saying a word—several days earlier for his battle station, a camouflaged airfield from which he would fly reconnaissance over the English Channel to photograph the largest armada ever assembled. My job was to stay behind, to edit those and other photos for Life as picture editor of the London bureau.
I dressed as usual in olive drab, turned on the radio, made tea and read the papers, which of course had nothing to report. Then, at 8:32 London time, the bulletin came over the BBC: “Under command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong Allied air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.” “This is it,” I whispered to myself, uttering the very words that Joe Liebling of the New Yorker later called “the great cliché of the Second World War.” I hurried to the Time/Life office in Soho, even though there wouldn’t be much for me to do –for many hours, as it turned out.
I had been waiting eight months for this day. There had been a false alarm on Saturday when a young telegrapher in the Associated Press London bureau, practicing to get up her speed, had put out an erroneous bulletin: URGENT PRESS ASSOCIATED NYK FLASH EISENHOWER’S HQ ANNOUNCED ALLIED LANDINGS IN FRANCE. It had been corrected within a minute –“Bust that flash”—but it had sent a wave of panic through both Allied and German headquarters. Now it was for real. Tuesday was a good D-Day for Life. Our job was to furnish action pictures for the next issue, dated June 19, which would close on Saturday in New York, and appear the following week. Wirephotos, of poor quality and limited selection, would not do; they would be available to newspapers through the pool. Our only hope to meet the deadline was to send original prints and negatives, as many as possible, in a pouch that would leave Grosvenor Square by motorcycle courier at precisely 9:00 am London time on Thursday. The courier would take it to a twin-engine plane standing by at an airdrome near London. At Prestwick, Scotland, the base for transatlantic flights, the pouch would be transferred to a larger plane. After one or two fuel stops, it would arrive in Washington, D.C., and our pictures would be hand-carried to New York on Saturday.
I had rehearsed my part in every detail, from the moment the raw film arrived in London to the transfer of prints and negatives to the courier who would take them to the States –with a stop at the censor’s office in between. Clearing the censors at the Ministry of Information was by now a familiar routine. Their office was on the ground floor of the University of London’s tall central building, which backed onto Bedford Square. Available twenty-four hours a day, the censors were cooperative, as censors go, permitting us to sit alongside them as they worked. Our photographers knew to avoid the faces of the Allied dead, shoulder patches that revealed unit designations, and “secret” weapons (although by now most were known to the enemy) –so the work was for the most part pro forma. But it was tedious in the extreme, since every single print had to be stamped, after which the censor bundled all the acceptable material into an envelope and sealed it, using a special tape imprinted with the words PASSED FOR PUBLICATION. Without the tape, it could not leave the country.
Getting the packet by car to the courier at Grosvenor Square, about a mile from the ministry, looked simple on the map, but the most direct way, down Oxford Street, was often jammed with double-decker buses, so I devised a parallel route on a series of side streets: Hollen to Noel to Great Marlborough to Hanover to Brook (I can remember every turn almost seven decades later). This put me onto the wrong side of Grosvenor Square, but the final fifty yards could be covered on foot –while running at top speed. I left the little two-door Austin sedan Time Inc. had given me to its own fate. It was not uncommon for joyriders to take it out for a spin when I worked late, but that was no problem. A call to Scotland Yard was all that was necessary. The car would invariably be found as soon as the thief ran out of what little petrol was in the tank.
For the Normandy invasion, there were twelve photographers accredited for the wire services and six for Life. Only four press photographers were supposed to land with the first wave of American infantry on D-Day itself, and we managed to get two of the spots, for Bob Landry and Robert Capa. Both were veterans –Capa would be on the fifth front of his third major war. Although often unlucky at cards and horses, Capa nevertheless used a gambling metaphor to describe his situation on D-Day in his 1947 memoir-novel, Slightly Out of Focus: “The war correspondent has his stake –his life—in his own hands, and he can put it on this horse or that horse, or he can put it back in his pocket at the very last minute. . . . I am a gambler. I decided to go in with Company E in the first wave.”
Bob Landry also felt obliged to accept this dubious privilege. The other Life assignments sorted themselves out. Frank Scherschel stuck with his buddies in the Air Corps. David Scherman chose the Navy. George Rodger accompanied the British forces, under Field Marshall Montgomery. Ralph Morse’s assignment was General George Patton’s Third Army, but since it would not hit the beachhead until later, he boarded a landing ship whose job it was to pick up casualties –of which there would be plenty.
Who would get the first picture? Bad weather prevented good general views from either air (Scherschel) or sea (Scherman). Rodger, landing with the British on an undefended beach, “walked ashore in a blaze of anti-climax,” as he put it in typically modest understatement. All day Tuesday we waited, and no pictures. It was rumoured that one Signal Corps photographer had been killed in the first hours, but it turned out that he had “only” lost a leg. Late on Tuesday night Bert Brandt of Acme Newspictures, having scarcely gotten his feet wet, returned to London with a first picture!, but not a terribly exciting one, of a momentarily unopposed landing on the French coast, shot from the bow of his landing craft. Landry’s film –and his shoes—somehow got lost. A disaster. I had been told that AP would have the fourth first-wave spot, but not one of their six photographers landed that day. So it was entirely up to Capa to capture the action, and where was he? Hour after hour went by. We were now waiting in the gloom of Wednesday, June 7, keeping busy by packaging the “background pictures,” all of relatively little interest, that now flooded in from official sources. The darkroom staff –all five of them—had been standing by idly since Tuesday morning, their anxiety about the pressure they would be under growing steadily by the hour. This nervousness would soon result in an epic blunder.
At about 6:30 Wednesday evening, the call came in from a Channel port: Capa’s film was on the way. “You should get it in an hour or two,” a voice crackled over the line before fading into static. I shared this information with pool editor E.K. Butler of AP, a feisty little martinet whose nickname was “Colonel.” He snapped back, “All I want is pictures, not promises!” Around nine, a panting messenger arrived with Capa’s little package: four rolls of 35-millimeter film plus half a dozen rolls of 120 film (2¼ by 2¼ inches) that he had taken in England and on the Channel crossing. A scrawled note said that the action was all in the 35-millimeter, that things had been very rough, that he had come back to England unintentionally with wounded being evacuated, and that he was on his way back to Normandy.
Braddy, our lab chief, gave the film to young Dennis Banks to develop. Photographer Hans Wild looked at it wet and called up to me to say that the 35-millimeter, though grainy, looked “fabulous!” I replied, “We need contacts –rush, rush, rush!” Again I phoned Butler through the AP switchboard, but he could only bellow, “When do I get pictures?” Brandt’s wirephoto of troops landing apparently unopposed had scarcely satisfied the West’s deperate need to believe in the actuality of invasion.
A few minutes later Dennis came bounding up the stairs and into my office, sobbing. “They’re ruined! Ruined! Capa’s films are all ruined!” Incredulous, I rushed down to the darkroom with him, where he explained that he had hung the films, as usual, in the wooden locker that served as a drying cabinet, heated by a coil on the floor. Because of my order to rush, he had closed the doors. Without ventilation the emulsion had melted.
I held up the four rolls, one at a time.
Three were hopeless; nothing to see. But on the fourth roll there were eleven frames with distinct images. They were probably representative of the entire 35-millimeter take, but their grainy imperfection –perhaps enhanced by the lab accident—contributed to making them among the most dramatic battlefield photos ever taken. The sequence began as Capa waded through the surf with the infantry, past antitank obstacles that soon became tombstones as men fell left and right. This was it, all right. D-Day would forever be known by these pictures.
One more ordeal lay ahead. We now had only a few hours to get our picture packet through the censors, and in addition to Capa’s we had hundreds of other photos, the best from Dave Scherman of matters just before the landing. The British and Canadians had covered invasion preparations for days, as had the U.S. Army Signal Corps and the Navy and Air Force photographers. Nobody really cared now about such pictures, but we dutifully sent them on.
At 3:30 on Thursday morning, pictures in hand –including Capa’s precious eleven—I drove my Austin through deserted streets to the Ministry of Information, where I had to wait my turn. Ours was the largest picture shipment of the week, and I almost wished I could throw all but the Capa shots overboard in the interest of time. Finally, about 8:30, the censor finished putting his stamp on all the pictures. I stuffed the big envelope, and then it happened. The censor’s specially imprinted tape stuck fast to its roll. It simply would not peel off. We tried another roll. Same result. This went on for minutes that seemed hours, and I had to deliver the packet to the courier, a mile away, by nine o’clock –our only chance to make the deadline after eight months!
I left the ministry at about 8:45 and drove like a maniac through the scattered morning traffic, down the little side streets, reaching the edge of Grosvenor Square at 8:59. I ran the last fifty yards and found the courier, in the basement of the Service of Supply headquarters, about to padlock his sack. “Hold it!” I shouted, and he did.
Just after Life’s Saturday-night close, the editors cabled, TODAY WAS ONE OF THE GREAT PICTURE DAYS IN LIFE’S OFFICE, WHEN BOB CAPA’S BEACHLANDING AND OTHER SHOTS ARRIVED. I could only think of the pictures lost.
JOHN G. MORRIS is the much honored former picture editor of Life, Ladies' Home Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. He was also Executive Editor of Magnum Photos, and European correspondent for National Geographic. He has lived and worked in Paris for the past 29 years, and is the subject of an upcoming film documentary. (See: www.france24.com/en/20110604-interview-john-g-morris-d-day-robert-capa-normandy-landing and www.indiegogo.com/Get-the-Picture.)
Post a Comment | Tuesday, June 5, 2012
tagged Bert Brandt, Bob Landry, D-Day, David Sherman, Dennis Banks, E.K. Butler, Frank Scherschel, George Rodger, Joe Liebling, John G. Morris, Ralph Morse, Robert Capa | in History, International Affairs, Memoir, Photography, Politics, Science/Technology, War