Back to Normandy: Photographing WWII heroes

(AFP Photo/Joël Saget/Dargols family)

PARIS, July 8, 2014 - As the 70th anniversary to the D-Day landings drew near, I decided to try to do something a little different. Of course we had to cover all the official ceremonies, with their heads of state and royal figures, but the real story isn’t about these leaders -- it’s about the allied troops who stormed Normandy’s beaches on June 6, 1944. 

My idea was to create a triptych of various veterans. I wanted to juxtapose wartime photos of these men alongside a picture of them from today, taken against a black backdrop, and a contemporary photo of them on a beach. This last part wasn’t always possible, as some of the veterans are in wheelchairs so couldn’t get to the beaches.

American veteran Donald Burgett, 89, poses near Utah Beach on June 4, 2014. (AFP Photo / Joël Saget)

These men really are living monuments. But I remember being struck by how small they are physically. Of course that’s the case -- some of them are 100 or more -- but before I met these heroes I tended to think of the beefy, archetypal soldiers such as those portrayed in movies like “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Longest Day.” 

The veterans I met would start to talk about the war and suddenly you’re hearing about the scope of what they did. They lived through hell. In their wartime pictures, you see them equipped with a gun, a uniform, a helmet -- and not too much else. When you think of all the super high-tech gear that Western troops carry today, it’s crazy to think of these guys throwing themselves at the German lines with such scant protection.

Hubert Faure, former French commando, during WWII and in April 2014 in Paris. (AFP Photo / Joël Saget)

Revisiting past horrors

There are Americans, Brits, Canadians, even some former Free French commandos. All of these men have terrible stories -- they saw their comrades getting killed by German bullets and shells before they’d even had a chance to jump from their landing craft. 

One of these men, the Canadian Bud Hannam, still remembers well the moment when, in a Normandy village not far from Omaha Beach, a young girl died in his arms. Nowadays, anyone experiencing such a traumatic event would of course be offered psychological help. But at the end of the war, the heroes of D-Day were simply returned to their normal lives. It feels like many are still battling terrible memories.

Bernard Dargols on Omaha Beach, June 5, 2014, as a Hercules plane flies by. (AFP Photo / Joël Saget)

Bernard Dargols was 18 when war broke out. French, he was at that time in the United States on a work placement. He joined the American army and landed on the Normandy beaches with a GI unit. We met up to take a photo in front of Omaha Beach. He came while holding an umbrella that a local mayor had given him. I asked him to open it up and just then, a Hercules military plane appeared in the sky, flying over the beach at low altitude. What an incredible stroke of luck to get a plane -- an American one too -- flying past at that precise moment. I could never have hoped to stage such a shot!

With lots of other journalists, I also covered the parachute jump of Jim "Pee Wee" Martin, 93, in the village of Carentan, 70 years after his first parachuted into Normandy. 

One of the first things this extraordinary veteran did was to find a phone and call his wife in the US to reassure her he was OK.

The American Jim 'Pee Wee' Martin, who on June 5, 2014 re-did his wartime parachute jump in Carentan, Normandy. 

(AFP Photo/Joël Saget)

These veterans still maintain an important place in the hearts of many in Normandy and France. Younger people dress up and reenact their heroics and painstakingly restore military vehicles and equipment from the time. You can feel a real veneration for these former fighters.

When I was taking photos of the veterans against a black background, I’d often ask passers-by to hold up the cloth and before long there’d be an appreciative conversation taking place. 

In Arromanches, one of the the former soldiers who I’d just photographed went for a walk along the beach with his wife. He started to shake people’s hands as he went. Walkers flocked to see him -- then someone started to applaud, and suddenly this former combat zone was transformed by the sounds of clapping and cheering.

Canadian Bud Hannam, in June 2014 in Courseulles-sur-Mer, and in 1944 in the UK. (AFP Photo / Joël Saget)
Canadian veteran Ernest Côté, in Courseulles-sur-Mer in June 2014 and in 1944 (AFP Photo/ Joël Saget)
Canadian veteran Muir Frazer, in 1944 and in June 2014 on the beach at Courseulles-sur-Mer, in Normandy (AFP Photo / Joël Saget)
Joël Saget