Copyrightã 2002 Kenneth Koyen. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted Courtesy of History of Photography, Volume 25, Number 4, Winter 2001.
Combat Photographer Robert Capa and the Battle of the Bulge
By Kenneth Koyen
Legendary combat photographer, Robert Capa.
The Battle of the Bulge, 1944.
By Kenneth Koyen
It was two days before Christmas when Robert Capa made his appearance at our command post in a schoolhouse in the Belgian village of Anon. It was the bitter winter of 1944 and we were fighting in the snows of the forests of the Ardennes in the Battle of the Bulge.
I knew that Capa was the photographer whose fame went back to the Spanish Civil War. I was surprised by his appearance. It was decidedly unmilitary. The man who had recorded combat in the Second World War from Africa to D-Day looked out of place in our sector. A GI helmet sat low over his heavy black brows and his dark eyes. A cigarette hung from his lip, and he was wearing a bulky fur coat that reached to his ankles. He had ‘liberated’ the coat from a German supply depot. The coat was of sheepskin, or possibly of goat hide. Capa wore it casually, the long hair inside and the hide side out. The coat was, perhaps, not a bad choice in the frigid weather, but it led to complications.
Capa sought me out because I was an officer (first lieutenant, later captain) on the intelligence staff (G—2) at my division headquarters. My outfit was the Fourth Armored Division of Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr’s Third Army. Because I had been a newspaperman, I had been given the extra duty of PRO (Public Relations Officer). It was thought that I would best know how to deal with those somewhat alien creatures whose reports had, more than once, immersed such military figures as General Patton in vigorously boiling water.
I took Capa to the G-2 Section to check the latest situation reports. My G-2 commander, Lieutenant Colonel Harry ‘Hot Oil’ Brown, was marking reported positions on a wall-mounted map with a grease pencil. A somewhat tense officer, Brown took one look at Capa and threw himself protectively in front of the map to conceal it. Arms outstretched, Brown shouted, ‘Arrest that man! Get him out of here!’ He ordered Capa to face the wall while Brown sunmioned the Military Police. It took some time for me to convince Brown that Capa was not an enemy agent or a captured German. Capa’s self-assurance, which bordered on disdain, was unruffled throughout the episode. His only reaction was a wry smile.
I strongly suggested to Capa that he get out of his furs as long as he was in our sector, where the fighting was intense. He shrugged off my advice as I set out with him to find a billet for the night in Arlon. Fortunately, the village was unscathed by the tides of war that had swept twice through the Ardennes in the past five years. The villagers welcomed us, and I found rooms in the house of two elderly sisters. They greeted us warmly, and I got the impression that they had heard of LIFE magazine.
We were invited into the family living room. The two ladies, abuzz with excitement and hospitality, produced two bottles of red wine that had escaped the German occupiers. To my surprise, Capa refused the offer. In French, he used a phrase I had not heard before, nor have I since. He said, ‘mon estomac est cémenté de yin rouge’. I had no such problem, which I associated with better fare available at higher headquarters. I found the wine excellent.
Capa and I discussed the situation in which the US Army, my division and we found ourselves. We were fighting in the biggest engagement ever waged by the US Army and the biggest single battle on the Western Front in the Second World War. Before the Ardennes campaign was over the Fourth Armored and all of the Third Army would have our heaviest casualties of any action of the war.
A Fourth Armored officer described the scene:
The wind swept through the broken trees along the roads and the armor in the fields; even the tanks that had been hastily smeared with white paint stood out in sharp relief, cold and naked. The troops built little fires of anything that would burn, even within sight of the enemy, to try to warni themselves. The dead lay frozen and stiff and when the men came to load them in trucks, they picked them up and put them in like big logs of wood. The frozen arms and legs got in the way when they were piling them.
We, and all of the Third Army, were attacking the left, or south, flank of the German Breakthrough that had smashed through thinly held American lines in Luxembourg and Belgium. Three German armies, two of them Panzer, had been thrown into the surprise counterattack.
Winston Churchill gave the engagement its name. He studied the outline of the German penetration marked on the maps of his London War Room. with his usual felicity of language, the Prime Minister dubbed it the Battle of the Bulge. But to all the American troops involved, and to Capa and to me, it was at the time the German Breakthrough. The end and the outcome were not yet in view, and the desperate German assault cast a chill over the battleground.
The Fourth Armored had been in heavy tank fighting in the autunm rain and mud of Lorraine when the German attack came in the north, in the Ardennes. The division, with all of the Third Army, wheeled from east to north in one of the most remarkable manoeuvres of the war. We drove on ice-glazed roads for more than a hundred miles to take positions to counterattack the counter— attackers. We were striking north against determined resistance when Capa appeared.
Our objective was the crossroads town of Bastogne, Belgium. And that was the reason that Capa and other war correspondents suddenly descended on our sector. For in Bastogne the US 101st Airborne Division, with tanks of the US 10th Ani~iored Division, were surrounded by German Panzers, paratroopers and infantry. The German commander had demanded that the defenders of Bastogne surrender. It was then that Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, temporary commander of the 10 1st, gave the reply that made Bastogne and its defenders famous.
At the time, the specific McAuliffe reply was not known to us, or to the outside world. Not until war correspondents reached Bastogne would the full story be gleefully reported. To the two German officers who had brought the written demand for surrender under a white flag. McAuliffe gave his single-word reply. McAuliffe first exclaimed ‘Nuts’ to one of his staff officers when the general read the surrender demand. When the staff officers suggested that the word would make an appropriate written reply, it was done. That it was a negative response was, at first, not clear to the German emissaries. For that matter, it may not have been understood by some Allied civilians. ‘Nuts’ did not refer to products of trees. In barracks language it was a synonym for balls, or testicles. It was an expression of disdain, or dismissal. (Explanation of the term may hardly seem necessary, but in the modern era of crude language the root meaning of the mild term may have been lost.)
Capa and I made our plans. The axis of our attack was up the main Arlon—Bastogne road to the besieged town, some 20 miles distant. The combat there would almost certainly give Capa opportunities for photographs for his LIFE magazine coverage.
The next morning Capa and I set out in a light snowfall up the Bastogne road. We rode in my ‘peep’ (the Armored Force called them peeps; the rest of the US Army called them jeeps). We skirted felled trees that had been partly removed from the roadway.
Capa and I drove on toward Bastogne. We found troops attacking across a frozen stubble field, and we pulled behind a burning farmhouse and dismounted. Capa went to work shooting pictures behind our tanks. He was at some distance when I heard him shout and I then saw him running toward me with his arms upraised. ‘Ken’, he called, ‘they’re shooting at me! Tell them to stop!’ Some of the riflemen, advancing on foot behind us,~had seen this strange figure on the snow-covered field and had fired. I stepped out beside Capa and signalled to the riflemen. Because I was unmistakably American, the desultory firing stopped. I waved the riflemen on past us. Capa and I exchanged a long glance. Without a word, he took off the fur coat and stowed it in the peep. He also stayed closer to me.
Christmas Day came, but the Fourth Armored, reinforced by two infantry battalions of the US 8th Division, still had not made it to Bastogne. The Third Army pressed us to attack night and day. By noon of the next day Capa and I stood on a hillside three miles from Bastogne. The main thrust of our attack had shifted from the main road to the left, or west, to a secondary road where the Germans held the two small towns of Clochiment and Assenois. By 1650 hours on 26 December, after a rapid advance by our column of nine Sherman tanks pushing through the German lines and an air-drop of supplies to the beleaguered American forces, the German grip on Bastogne was effectively broken and we were able to evacuate 652 of our wounded troops.
The end of the war came five months after the relief of Bastogne. Like most veterans, I returnedto a civilian life of jobs and family. We put the war far behind us. I did not see Capa again but I followed reports of his career as he continued to seek out scenes of strife throughout the world.
It was with a pang that I read a news report that Capa had been killed on 25 May 1954. He was 41. He was with French forces in Indochina, now Vietnam, south of Hanoi when he stepped on a land mine. One paragraph in particular in the New York Times caught my attention:
His hazardous brand of photographic coverage found him once in Belgium, near Bastogne, taking pictures when a GI patrol advancing cautiously toward the enemy spotted him directly ahead and began firing. He shouted to ‘take it easy!’ but this simply intensified suspicions — and the shooting. He was finally permitted as a ‘prisoner’ to approach the patrol, hands upraised, to explain that he was on the same Allied job.
I wondered, briefly, about the source of the newspaper’s information, then dismissed the question from my mind. Not until the 50th anniversaries of D-Day and the European campaigns rolled around did my thoughts return to Bastogne. I decided to seek out the photographs and the books of, or about, Capa.
I found his book Sliglztly Out of Focus, published in 1947. In it were pictures of the Second World War from North Africa to the end in Germany. They testify to his courage and to his photographic skill. The shots he made in the Battle of the Bulge took me back to that frozen stubble field in Belgium. But when I read his colourful text I was, first, surprised, then amused. Capa wrote:
Suddenly a GI from the infantry battalion, about 150 yards away, yelled something to me and raised his tommy gun at the same time. I yelled back, ‘Take it easy!’ but as he heard my accent be began to shoot. For a fraction of a moment I didn’t know what to do. If I threw myself flat on the snow he could still hit me. If I ran down the embankment, he would run after me. I threw my hands high in the air, yelled ‘Kamerad!’ and surrendered. Three of them came at me with raised rifles. When they were close enough to make out the three German cameras around my neck, they became very happy GIs. Two Contax cameras and one Rolleiflex — I was the jackpot! I still kept my hands as high as I could, but when they were a rifle’s length away from me, I asked one of them to search my breast pocket. He took out my identification and the special photographer pass signed by Eisenhower himself. ‘I should have shot the bastard before!’ he groaned. The famous Sad Sack was a gay blade compared to my three captors. I let my hands drop, took their picture and promised it would appear in Life magazine.
I was perplexed by Capa’s story. From one brief incident he had created a dramatic episode. There were, of course, no comic GIs who talked like characters in a cartoon. His Hungarian accent was not that thick and, in any case, could hardly have been detected at 150 yards. Our armoured infantrymen carried Garand rifles, not Tommy guns. No photographs were taken of his ‘three captors’ and none was published in LIFE. And there was no mention of the fur coat.
I looked further, in the files of LIFE. I found that the Bulge pictures were first published in the issue of 15 January 1945. With a photograph of helmeted Capa was an editor’s note entitled ‘Life’s Pictures’. It described Capa’s concern at being shot at by friendly forces for the first time in his career. ‘Fortunately an officer nearby identified Capa, whose thick accent made it difficult for him to explain that he was not a German’.
In pursuit of the dramatic moments of violence in warfare Capa was more than courageous. He was brash. Some historians have questioned his famous ‘Falling Soldier’ shot of the Spanish Civil War. From my own experience I know that he sought stark reality. That he coloured his prose is another matter. His drive to be at the centre of the action was, perhaps, as much a compulsion as a profession. In the end it took him to one war too many.