This Young G.I. Broke the Rules to Capture Raw Images of the European Theater
As U.S. Army private Tony Vaccaro’s boat sailed for Normandy on D-Day+12 in June 1944, he kept his M-1 rifle at the ready but had a very different tool hidden beneath his coat—his Argus C3 35mm camera. Defying army regulations that forbid combat photography except by Signal Corps personnel, Vaccaro used his camera to take surreptitious pictures of Allied forces in the English Channel. Those were the first of more than 8,000 images he snapped during his 272 days with the 83rd Infantry Division as it battled through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. Vaccaro and his camera became unique witnesses to World War II, capturing intimate moments—sometimes celebratory, other times brutal and raw—that bypassed the military censors and recorded the U.S. Army’s fight east across Europe.
Vaccaro, an Italian American who was raised in Italy but relocated to the U.S. at the outbreak of World War II, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 at age 21. He tried convincing the army to let him join the Signal Corps so he could pursue his passion for photography, but Uncle Sam rejected his request on account of his youth and lack of photography experience. He ended up in the infantry instead. Camera always at the ready, he took it upon himself to chronicle the daily struggles of the soldiers in his unit with an honesty and immediacy that often eluded those in the Signal Corps, whose heavy cameras limited their mobility. Eventually, the army loosened its regulations and allowed Vaccaro to take photographs openly, but made it clear he was a soldier first and a photographer second.
Vaccaro’s images range from happy scenes in liberated French villages to the harsher truths of war. Once, when shying away from an ugly scene, he reminded himself, “Tony, what kind of witness to this war are you? You go back there and take this picture.” Two of his most famous images chronicle the deaths of two men in his unit, both taken in Belgium on January 11, 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge.
After the war, Vaccaro became a renowned fashion and celebrity photographer, but his experiences in Europe remained with him. He remembered, years later, “You are in the grip of these nightmares. The faces of the people you’ve killed. They just don’t leave you alone. I’m not the same man.”
Tony Vaccaro died at his New York home at age 100 in December 2022.
In one of Vaccaro’s photographs, American soldiers at the end of the war in Europe contemplate the view through an empty window at Kehlsteinhaus, Hitler’s Bavarian “Eagle’s Nest” near Berchtesgaden. Glass from the broken window litters the floor. U.S. soldiers follow a tank during fighting near Hemmerden, Germany, on February 28, 1945. Fred Praily and Robert Svenson of K company, 331st Regiment, 2nd Battalion of the 83rd Infantry Division pass by graves outside Grevenbroich, Germany, on February 28, 1945. American G.I.s remove mines from a Luxembourg field in November 1944. Recovered mines are visible on the left. Vaccaro took this photo at the moment that Private Jack W. Rose of the 83rd Division was killed on January 11, 1945, in Ottré, Belgium. Rose was killed by the exploding shell visible in the center of the image. “I was photographing him when this shell comes and explodes,” Vaccaro said. Photographer Vaccaro came ashore in Normandy on D-Day+12 and captured this image of the beach. The body of American G.I. Henry I. Tannenbaum lies in the snow near Ottré, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945. Tannenbaum and Vaccaro had been friends. Stretcher bearers perpare to evacuate an American G.I. wounded by sniper fire in Vahlbruch, Germany, in April 1945. Vaccaro captured the young face of war in this portrait of a Wehrmacht soldier who had been captured by the Allies in Rochefort, Belgium, on December 29, 1944. In March 1945 this German soldier returned to his home in Frankfurt, only to find that it had been bombed out. Vaccaro was there to capture his grief. Citizens of Saint-Briac- sur-Mer, France, celebrate the town’s liberation by American troops on August 15, 1944.