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Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day (25)

A. D. Coleman, January 2015. Photo by Anna Lung.Cumulative Evidence

Two more eyewitness accounts of Capa’s presence on and departure from Omaha Beach on the morning of D-Day have come to light.

The first has as its author Charles Hangsterfer, “Colonel, U.S. Army (Ret). Battalion HQ Company Commander and Battalion Adjutant of the 1st Bn., 16th Inf. Regiment., 1st Division, … [who also] took care of administration for the battalion.” This provides some confirmation of our hypothesis that Capa came in with regimental HQ, not with an assault team. Combined with the visual evidence (from Capa’s first five photos ) that he came in with soldiers carrying HQ supplies and not small arms, mortars, machine guns, and such, this starts to look persuasive. (Click on the images below to enlarge them.)

Capa detail: CS frame 2, neg. 30 - Robert Capa at Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944.

Capa detail: CS frame 2, neg. 30 – Robert Capa at Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944.

The short version of Hangsterfer’s story, “D-Day Reflections From A Soldier,” takes the form of a previously unpublished memoir that his daughter Peggie Walsh put up at the Huffington Post “unedited” on June 6, 2014, the 70th anniversary of that battle. Given his reference therein to Capa as “Bob,” this memoir suggests that Hangsterfer knew Capa, at least in passing. That gets confirmed in a lengthy oral-history interview with Hangsterfer conducted on October 28, 2004 by Michael Straubel, a student at Gettysburg College, in whose Special Collection this interview resides. (Click on the link above for a complete pdf download of the transcript, easier to read than the online version.)

In a nutshell, Hangsterfer recalled that his contingent landed on Easy Red at H+30 (0700). He made it through the surf and onto the beach, then scrambled up the bluff to the top, where he shared an apple and a shot of scotch with one “Major Smith,” after which he headed back down to the beach to round up the rest of his company in order to get them off the beach and moving inland.

“When I got back on the beach I saw Bob Capa, a combat photographer for a magazine taking pictures of the carnage. He was behind one of the self-propelled tanks which had been knocked out,” Hangsterfer wrote. (Most likely the “Amphibious Armored Vehicle” No. 10 visible in several of Capa’s images.) In the oral-history interview, he elaborated:

Capa detail: CS frame 4, neg. 32 – Robert Capa at Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944.

Capa detail: CS frame 4, neg. 32 – Robert Capa at Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944.

HANGSTERFER: Then I had to go back on the beach to find out where the rest of my company was, we had a couple boat loads and I went back on the beach to find them. As I was walking down the beach, prodding people, some of them were dead, they weren’t my outfit, but I saw Bob Kappa [sic]. You ever hear of Bob Kappa?


HANGSTERFER: He was a photographer and I never could understand why someone would want … to take pictures and he was behind one of these DD tanks that was knocked out. There were three out of a hundred, these DD tanks I started to tell you about these tanks that were suppose to be our artillery support, and three of them got to shore out of a hundred. He was behind one of them … taking pictures and I waved to him. I had seen him in North Africa and he knew who I was. He had taken a picture of me, but the poor guy took all these pictures and none of them turned out cause somebody had goofed up in the development of them and they never turned out. So I never had a picture of me on the beach looking for me [sic] troopers, but they got off, they were trained guys.

By my estimate, all that had to have taken Hangsterfer somewhere between 35-50 minutes — which would mean that he saw Capa somewhere between 07:35 and 07:50. That matches up with the arrival of LCI(L)-94 at 07:47 and Capa’s decision to board it and get the hell out.

If Capa was that far behind Hangsterfer, it indicates that he came in well after him, with the rear echelon of Battalion HQ. If Hangsterfer could reach and cross the beach, ascend to the top of the bluff, take time there for a snack and a snort, clamber back down to the beach, make himself conspicuous to any enemy by waving to Capa from the beach, and walk around gathering his troops, it also signifies that enemy fire had eased considerably by then. Hiding in the surf behind the assault vehicle as Capa did therefore represented just one option at that juncture. The battle had already begun to move off the beach and up the ridge; Capa could have followed the action and gone along. After all, that’s why LIFE had given him this highly coveted front seat. He took a different course.

Cartoon Brew logoThe narrative of the second “new” eyewitness, the late Victor Haboush (1924-2009), comes to us at one remove, which doesn’t strike me as affecting its credibility. After serving in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II (which brought him to Omaha Beach on D-Day), Haboush began his career working on storyboards and illustrating children’s books for the Disney Studios, eventually going independent and directing over 1500 TV commercials. (Click here for a tribute from his friend and colleague Amid Amidi at Cartoon Brew, which includes biographical details, published on August 5, 2009.)

On June 6, 1944 Haboush served with the crew aboard LCI(L)-94, the landing craft that brought medics in to Easy Red and evacuated the wounded, and on which Capa made his escape from the battlefield. Haboush appears in several of Capa’s 2-1/4″ Rolleiflex images of medics tending the casualties, including the one published in LIFE. (In the comments evoked by Amidi’s commemoration of Haboush, the descendants of a number of other soldiers clustered in that image identify their parents. Another commenter reports that Haboush “had this Capa photo from Life framed on his wall.”)

Robert Capa, "Untitled (Medics at Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944)." Annotated screenshot from Victor Haboush indicated by red arrow.

Robert Capa, “Untitled (Medics at Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944).” Annotated screenshot from Victor Haboush indicated by red arrow.

Kevin O’Brien, a story artist at Pixar Animation Studios (best known for his work on The Incredibles, Ratatouille and WALL-E, but also involved in 35 episodes of The Simpsons and five of Futurama, one of which he directed), worked with Haboush on the 1999 animated film The Iron Giant. In his comment, he writes,

“I consider myself privileged to have known and to have worked with Victor on Iron Giant. I really enjoyed him and loved his work and enthusiasm. Being a history buff, I was fascinated by his first hand account of being in the second wave at Omaha beach. He said his LCI (landing craft) hit the shore while there was still a lot of shooting going on. A soldier ran towards their boat, and Victor’s skipper raised a Thompson submachine gun at the guy, which was an accepted procedure. Soldiers were only supposed to move in one direction, inland. The soldier stopped, turned and frantically pointed to his shoulder patch, identifying him as a correspondent. He was let on the boat, and almost immediately Victor’s skipper was hit by something large, a shell fragment, or something. Victor was first to give the man first aid, and Capa reloaded his camera and took pictures. The incident is told from Capa’s POV here.”

Robert Capa, "Slightly Out of Focus" (1947), cover.

Robert Capa, “Slightly Out of Focus” (1947), cover.

O’Brien’s link leads to excerpts from Capa’s 1947 memoir, Slightly Out of Focus. O’Brien goes on to repeat the received version of Capa’s story — coming in with the first wave, losing his negatives in a darkroom accident. Whether that came to him via Haboush or from his own reading is unclear. But Haboush’s narrative of Capa’s arrival at LCI(L)-94, as relayed by O’Brien, correlates exactly with Capa’s own (though Capa omitted the detail of the skipper mistaking him for a deserter), so it seems reliable. If we take it as such, then Capa did indeed climb aboard just after its incoming passengers disembarked, and just before the LCI got shelled, at roughly 07:40.

(O’Brien posted a variant of this comment at the Facebook page “Timeline Photos.” This page includes a “colourised” version of Capa’s negative 35, showing the demolition team at work.

Robert Capa, Omaha Beach exposure 7/negative 35,  June 6, 1944, "colourised" by Timeline Photos. Facebook screenshot 7-21-15.

Robert Capa, Omaha Beach exposure 7/negative 35, June 6, 1944, “colourised” by Timeline Photos. Facebook screenshot 7-21-15.

Added to the accounts of Motor Machinist’s Mates Charles Jarreau and Clifford W. Lewis, that gives us three independent yet consistent accounts by crewmembers of Capa boarding LCI(L)-94 shortly after its arrival on Easy Red at 07:47 — surely enough for us to consider this firmly established in the timeline. And if Capa did board LCI(L)-94 just after it came in, that also means he stayed there for another 50 minutes before it departed the beach at 08:37 — giving him ample time to pull himself together and return to fulfilling his assignment. He made a different choice.

So we now have four eyewitnesses to Capa’s presence on Easy Red — three of the crew on LCI(L)-94, plus Hangsterfer. If we add Huston Riley’s story of getting help from Capa and then seeing him run for the LCI, we have five. But the logistics of Riley’s arrival time and landing spot that day put his crossing paths with Capa — and thus his identification as “The Face in the Surf” — in doubt. So, however tempting, we should take his corroboration with a grain of salt. Fortunately, it’s not required at this point; other testimony from people who either recognized Capa or discovered on D-Day that he worked for LIFE suffices.

(For an index of links to all posts in this series, click here.)

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