Greatest Generation D-day Landing
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade. … The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and progress of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.
–Eisenhower’s message on the eve of D-day
On June 6, 1944 the largest amphibious invasion in history occurred when the Allies stormed ashore the beaches of Normandy. Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM), Robert F. Sargent, on one of the LCVPs snapped this photo while the American soldiers of Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One) waded onto the Fox Green section of Omaha Beach. Also known as “Into the jaws of death ” the picture is one of the most famous images of D-day, although it is often confused as one of the 11 famous Capa D-day pictures.
D-day or the Normandy Landings were the landing operations of the Allied invasion of occupied France. The operation started on June 6, 1944 and was the biggest amphibious invasion of all time, with over 175,000 troops landing on 6 June 1944. The landings took place along a 50-mile (80 km) stretch of the Normandy coast divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The Americans were responsible for two of the landing beaches, Utah and Omaha.
The LCVP in the image was part of landing group that was supported by the attack transport, USS Samuel Chase (APA-26). The Chase launched 15 waves of troops of the American 1st Division (The Big Red One) from its supported landing crafts. By 11 a.m. it unloaded the entire Division’s troops that it had aboard onto what was supposed to be the Fox Green section of Omaha Beach. While the landing craft brought troops to the beach it also returned the wounded who were cared for on the Chase by its U.S. Navy and Public Health Service doctors and corpsmen. Chase returned to Weymouth, England, on 7 June.
The American’s of 1st Division were faced off against the newly formed German 352nd division. Nothing went to plan as the landing crafts were swept off course by the rough seas. A high causality rate of officers left a lot of low ranked soldiers leaderless on the beaches. Eventually small penetrations were achieved by groups of survivors making improvised assaults, scaling the bluffs between the most heavily defended points.
The men photographed by Robert F. Sargent were from Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division. During the initial landing two-thirds of the Company were immediate casualties. Yet the survivors were instrumental through their, skill and sheer luck, in finding and exploiting the weaknesses of Omaha Beach. These breaches were expanded until a number footholds were secured that allowed easier access to German positions. Over the next few days their D-day objectives would be taken.
The photo is actually a cropped version of larger photo that has been cut for artistic reasons. Probably because as a product of the US government and as such is in the public domain this image gets a lot of use. TIME magazine has used it for their D-day anniversary issues. In the USCG and American archive it is titled, The Jaws of Death or Taxi to Hell – and Back with the caption, “Landing on the coast of France under heavy Nazi machine gun fire are these American soldiers, shown just as they left the ramp of a Coast Guard landing boat.” Many posters have been made including a popular one sold by Amazon that is entitled, “The Greatest Generation”.
Coast Guard Records
The photographer, Coast Guard Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent, was a veteran of the Allied invasions of Sicily and Salerno. The Coast Guard records department were able to track down a copy of the press release issued with the publication of Sargent’s photograph. The decades old mimeograph paper was brittle but still readable. In addition to the original caption (below) there is a write up by Coast Guard Combat Correspondent Thomas Winship who quotes Sargent extensively.
Original caption: Into the Jaws of Death: Down the ramp of a Coast Guard landing barge Yankee soldiers storm toward the beach-sweeping fire of Nazi defenders in the D-Day invasion of the French coast. Troops ahead may be seen lying flat under the deadly machinegun resistance of the Germans. Soon the Nazis were driven back under the overwhelming invasion forces thrown in from Coast Guard and Navy amphibious craft.
The Coast Guard records also list the crew of the landing craft.
The coxswain of the boat was William E. Harville of Petersburg, Va. — it was his landing craft and he was at the helm. The boat engineer, the crewman who kept the boat’s engine running smoothly, was Seaman 1st Class Anthony J. Helwich of Pittsburgh, Pa. Seaman 1st Class Patsy J. Papandrea was the bowman — the crewman who operated the front bow ramp and is visible as the helmeted head in the right foreground of the photo. Sargent also mentions among their passengers was the “First Wave Commander Lieut. (j.g.) James V. Forrestal, USCGR,” of Beacon, N.Y.
Sargent mentions that the first waves got underway at 5:36 AM. and that the picture was taken around 7:40 AM.
Each LCVP that landed that day carried around 30 men. Five LCVPs landed 183 men of E Company at 6:30AM, of those that landed 100 were killed. In this picture the men are all facing forward toward the beaches so we can’t identify them or their unit, except for one man with his face turned so the camera captured his left profile. Major William H. Caruthers Jr. claims to be that man.
Major William H. Caruthers Jr. was in the 56th Signal Battalion and records show that elements of the 56th Signal Battalion were sent in with the first wave to hit the beaches so that they could report back what was going on at the front line. Caruthers didn’t actually land with the Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division but waded ashore from another ship. Volume 23 the 1968 issue of Signal Magazine does show that two DUKW’s with 15 members of the 56th Signal Battalion were on the beach around that time and that their vehicles became stuck on a sand bar causing them to wade ashore. Major William H. Caruthers Jr. himself recounts that:
Our job was to get ashore and see what was going on, particularly to report back whether we could get a foothold there. Things were very touch and go for a while and it was far from certain we could get onto the beach. [when he saw a wounded man floating in the water] The sergeant had some highly classified papers on him and some of them were spilling into the water. I got hold of him and pulled him behind me, hoping to get him to shore.
The picture does to appear to show another landing craft to the right of this one and it is conceivable that the two units mixed while wading ashore and Caruthers does appear to be dragging a man through the water. All evidence points to the man in the picture being Major William H. Caruthers Jr. except for the time difference. As told in the gripping accounts of E company storming the beaches and clearing Exit 1 out of Omaha beach, they came ashore at 6:30. By Caruthers’ own statement he claims to have come ashore at “around 8:30.” So maybe Caruthers is confused about the time or the Coast Guard photographer was confused about what unit he dropped off but it is highly likely that the man with his face captured in one of the most famous pictures of World War II is Major William H. Caruthers Jr.