Robert Capa (1913-1954) was the preeminent war photographer of his time and one of its most magnetic figures. It is entirely apt that this Hungarian emigre, Endre Friedmann, conspired in the ‘30s to create the dashing persona of Robert Capa, and then expanded on it until Robert Capa was bigger than life—at the Spanish Civil War, in China covering the fight against Japan, with U.S. troops in North Africa and Italy, and on a terrible Normandy beach on D-Day. All this from a man who hated war: “A war photographer’s most fervent wish is for unemployment.” But there is always one more war. After serving as LIFE staff photographer from 1944 to 1946, Capa went on to co-found Magnum Photos in 1947. In 1954 he was in Japan with a Magnum exhibition when LIFE needed a photographer in Indochina. Robert Capa, of course, volunteered, but he would be killed there on assignment after stepping on a landmine. Said his brother, photographer Cornell Capa: “He died on a not-important road, in a not-important action. It had to be fate for him to do that.” He died with his camera in his hands.
Capa was with the first wave of Allied soldiers to hit Omaha Beach on D-Day. He shot four rolls of film. A photo assistant, however, ruined all but 11 images. Fortunately, the handful that survived were more than enough to limn the massive assault. Capa shared the fears and fatigue of the men he accompanied. During one campaign, he just kept repeating to himself, “I want to walk in the California sunshine and wear white shoes and white trousers.”
—Adapted from The Great LIFE Photographers