The triumph and tragedy of D-Day, in black and white
By MICHAEL E. RUANE | The Washington Post | Published: June 6, 2020
The American soldier kneels in the grass, bent over the empty white body bag, inscribing the name of the dead GI who will shortly be placed inside.
He has a list in one hand, and a thin artist's brush in the other. An opened can of black paint sits a couple of feet away. More empty body bags are piled nearby. In the background, the deceased wait on their stretchers.
It's a sunny day in northwestern France — June 8, 1944, two days after D-Day and the Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy.
On the cloth bag, the soldier has carefully written, "P.F.C. Frederick R. Smith."
He probably doesn't know Smith, doesn't know that Smith had just turned 19, that he had been killed on Utah Beach two days before, and that his parents, Lawrence and Callie, back in Gate City, Va., were about to get terrible news.
He has a long list, and many bags to inscribe.
The small moment amid the vast World War II invasion of Nazi-occupied France was captured by an anonymous Navy photographer with Combat Photography Unit 8. It was scanned from the holdings of the National Archives by Harry B. Kidd, 74, of Kensington, Md., an Archives volunteer and himself a former Navy photographer and technician.
It is among several hundred D-Day photographs that Kidd has found in the Archives over the past five years and posted to his Flickr page — reminders today of other tests of American ideals.
On Saturday, the 76th anniversary of the landings, the Friends of the National World War II Memorial will host a virtual commemoration and a private wreath-laying at the memorial, on the Mall in Washington.
The protest graffiti "Do Black Vets Count?" — spray-painted during the unrest last weekend over the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police — has been removed.
Kidd's photograph is not an especially famous picture from D-Day. It is not a picture of soldiers rushing out of landing craft toward the beach, or of huge ships firing guns.
It is a quiet portrait of a small task, a soldier intent on his work, and the essence of the day's tragedy. The dead "are all laid out in the field," Kidd said. "They treated them the best they could."
"Fred" Smith was a member of the 87th Chemical Mortar Battalion and had just come ashore under heavy fire the morning of June 6. He had been overseas only since April. He had turned 19 on May 3.
He was digging a foxhole when an enemy shell hit, killing him instantly, according to historian Michael Connelly, who has written about the battalion.
Smith was 18 when he registered for the draft a little over a year earlier in Gate City, a small town near Clinch Mountain in southwestern Virginia. He entered the Army on July 17, 1943. His father was a World War I veteran, also an Army private first class, and served in an artillery battery.
Smith's registration card described him as 5-11 with blond hair and blue eyes. It listed a rural delivery address and noted that there was no telephone in the home. He had one sibling, an older sister named Kathleen.
He was one of the 2,500 Americans who perished on D-Day. And Lawrence, 47, and Callie Smith, 39, almost certainly got a telegram saying their son had been killed in action. His death was noted, among many others, on July 27, 1944, in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
It's not clear exactly where the cemetery was, but it was probably the temporary American St. Laurent Cemetery, established at Colleville-sur-Mer on June 8, 1944, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission.
The site is now the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, which contains, row on row, the graves of 9,385 Americans, most of whom were killed on D-Day and during the fighting that followed.
But Smith didn't stay there.
Four years later, on July 16, 1948, his body was shipped home to Gate City, via Kingsport, Tenn., just over the Virginia state line. A funeral was scheduled for two days later at the First Methodist Church. He was buried in the veterans section of Holston View Cemetery, across the mountain in nearby Weber City.
Pallbearers and color guard were provided by the local American Legion post, according to a newspaper account at the time.
The next day, his father applied to the government for a bronze grave marker. It would simply state that Smith served in World War II and lived from May 3, 1925, to June 6, 1944.
Smith had died at the opening of the "Great Crusade," as the Allied commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, called the operation in exhorting his troops.
"The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you," he said. "I have full confidence in your courage, [and] devotion to duty ... [in] this great and noble undertaking."