Tony Vaccaro, gray now at 93, recalls tucking an Argus C3 camera among his infantryman’s gear as a 21-year-old draftee and arriving on Normandy’s bloodied sand on D-Day.
For the duration of World War II, Pfc. Vaccaro, of Long Island City, photographed what veterans mostly kept bottled up inside once they returned home: The surreal chaos of combat. The profound loss and loneliness imposed by bombs and bullets. The remorseless advance of armored tanks.
The sundered corpses and moments of anguish Vaccaro documented in 8,000 pictures snapped before he left Europe in 1946 were so wrenching to him that he swore he would never take another battle picture again. He stored his negatives away for half a century without looking at them.
But now his images and recollections are the basis of a feature-length documentary, “Under Fire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro.” The HBO production will be shown online on Friday, Veterans Day, and will premiere on television on Monday.
“All the bodies that were on the beach, they were all taken and put along the road to be put on trucks, and there were thousands and thousands of bodies, head to feet, head to feet, head to feet,” he recalls in the documentary of his landing at Omaha Beach, where some 3,000 American troops were listed as killed, wounded or missing. “The smell, I’ve never smelled that smell, it was like meat rotting. There is a war smell that is ugly.”
“The combat soldier has something in his memory that will drive him insane for the rest of his life,” he continues. “I am not the same man, I’m not the boy of 17 or 18. I’m a different man now.”
Vaccaro, a career commercial photographer who grew up in New Rochelle and for a while raised his family in Little Neck, Queens, told Newsday he began showing his war photographs in the early 1990s to warn society of the psychological burden imposed by sending men and women into combat.
Vaccaro’s photographic studio in Long Island City, where the diminutive man still oversees printmaking most days a few blocks from his apartment, is a trove of images of the conflict.
Peter Fabregas, 90, of Massapequa Park, a veteran of the February 1945 invasion of Iwo Jima, said he was burdened by his own battlefield memories — including that of a redheaded comrade who paused to wave at him on Iwo Jima, only to be killed by a mortar burst in mid-gesture.
He said many of his fellow veterans buried their combat memories inside, fearful that speaking about them would yank them back to that time, irreparably destabilizing the necessary peacetime routine of building careers and raising families.
“Some guys go 50 years without saying a word about it,” said Fabregas, who served with K Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine. “If they talk about it, they are reliving it over and over again.”
Combat photography is considered particularly dangerous because, as war cameraman Robert Capa famously urged, photographers must “get closer” if they are to take compelling images. In one instance, Vaccaro was about a dozen yards away from a solder running in the open when his camera captured the instant an exploding shell killed the soldier.
“Not many of the combat photographers survived,” Fabregas said. “Because you had to stand up to take the picture, and the guys who stood up didn’t make it.”
Anne Wilkes Tucker, a curator emeritus of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, says in the documentary that because Vaccaro was not a civilian journalist, he was able to gain the trust among soldiers that allowed him to capture images that were particularly intimate and revealing: A soldier trudging grimly in the wake of a tank. A GI crouching near a statue of Jesus on the cross. A portrait of the body of Pvt. Henry Tannenbaum, a Brooklyn soldier who was shot dead in a field in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge and who, by morning, wore a shroud of snow.
“What’s so revealing about Tony Vaccaro’s photographs is … he was in the parade,” she says. “He was one of them, they trusted him, not only with the pictures that he took but as the man on one side or another of them as the fighting broke out.”
Vaccaro said his war photographs are an important record of the agonies of war.
“You’re afraid, you’re alone, your friends are dead and you are a killer,” Vaccaro, choking back emotion, told Newsday of his wartime experience. “It’s hell.”