One of the enduring images from World War II is the face of a U.S. Army soldier in the surf at Omaha Beach, frozen for all time in the picture taken by Life magazine photographer Robert Capa. The GI, whose fuzzy image captures the determination of all the troops struggling to secure the Normandy beachhead on June 6, 1944, was not identified.
Capa came ashore in the first wave at 0630 hours with E Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. Easy Company originally was scheduled to land on the western part of Easy Red Beach. However, after-action reports show that five of the company’s six sections, including the one Capa accompanied, drifted left of their intended landing zone and actually came ashore on the eastern part of Fox Green Beach.
Capa left his landing craft more than 100 yards offshore and made for the nearest iron hedgehog obstacle. From there he started taking pictures of the GIs floundering in the deep water and hiding behind similar obstacles. When German artillery and small-arms fire became too intense, Capa made his way to a more secure position behind a half-burned amtrac (amphibious tractor) stranded 50 yards ahead of him. He took more pictures of GIs struggling in the surf. Twenty minutes later, Capa dashed the last 25 yards onto the beach.
Capa remained on the beach, crawling along the sand, talking to men from Easy Company and continuing to take pictures. The photographer later wrote that the beach must have looked like an open tin of sardines from the air: Shooting from the sardine’s angle, the foreground of my picture was filled with wet boots and green faces. Above the boots and faces, my picture frames were filled with shrapnel smoke; burnt tanks and sinking barges formed my background. For an hour and a half he kept snapping, then, approximately two hours after leaving his landing craft, Capa held his cameras above his head and waded through the bloody water toward a nearby LCI (landing craft, infantry).
LCI-85 had come ashore at H-Hour plus 125 minutes, 0835. Aboard were 89 men of Able Company of the 1st Medical Battalion, along with 100 other support and command personnel. This landing craft had also been swept east from its designated landing site, Easy Red Beach, and onto Fox Green. When Capa had seen LCI-85 come ashore and medics running off the ramps, he made a mad dash toward it. Someone pulled him aboard. Just then a shell hit the LCI, blowing away the ramps. Twenty men, including medics, were already in the water. Several troops in the landing craft were killed or wounded; others were thrown into the surf. LCI-85 backed off. The casualties and Capa were transferred to the troopship USS Samuel Chase for the trip back to England. It was the same vessel Capa had crossed the Channel on the night before.
In London, Capa quickly turned in his film for developing. Unfortunately, one of the darkroom assistants set the drying oven temperature too high. Almost all the negatives were ruined when the emulsion became too hot and ran. Only eight blurry pictures, including the close-up of the unidentified GI in the surf, were usable.
In June 1984, during the 40th anniversary recognition of the D-Day invasion, Life published an interview with Edward J. Regan, who said he was the GI in Capa’s picture, basing his claim on facial similarities. I do not believe, however, that Regan could have been the GI in that famous photograph. Regan was in King Company, 3rd Battalion, 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, which came ashore in the second wave at 0725. That company landed on the east-central part of Easy Green Beach, approximately 2,900 yards west of where Capa landed on Fox Green Beach. Furthermore, Capa would have finished taking pictures of men in the water before King Company came ashore.
While researching a book, I got to know Huston Hu S. Riley, who was in the first wave on Fox Green Beach and often told me, I think I’m the guy in the picture. In my initial face-to-face meeting with him, I was struck by his resemblance to the GI in Capa’s photograph, and when I delved further into the details of Riley’s D-Day experience, I became more convinced. Private First Class Hu Riley came ashore with Section 2, Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, which landed at 0640, 10 minutes behind schedule. That company had been scheduled to land in the eastern section of Easy Red Beach, but the LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle and personnel) carrying Sections 2, 4 and 5 were swept eastward during their approach. Consequently, they landed on the eastern part of Fox Green Beach and intermingled with landing craft of Easy Company, 16th Regiment. The remaining three sections, including that of the company commander, Captain John G.W. Finke, landed several hundred yards to the right on the very western edge of Fox Green.
U.S. Army Signal Corps photographers, who also were on Omaha Beach, captured soldiers throwing lines to guide troops through the heavy surf and others in shocked silence after storming ashore. Altogether 57,500 U.S. Army troops, in addition to Canadian and British soldiers, landed on D-Day. American forces suffered 6,000 casualties. (NATIONAL ARCHIVES)
Riley’s LCVP hit a sandbar while it was more than 100 yards from shore, and the boatswain lowered the ramp. When Riley stepped out, he dropped into a deep runnel just beyond the sandbar and went in over his head. He first tried walking along the bottom toward the beach until his head could reach the surface. When he no longer could hold his breath, however, the private activated the two Navy M-26 belt life preservers around his waist, after which he bobbed to the surface, with his chest and head above the water. He then became an easy target for the Germans firing from the shore, so he stripped off his life preservers and held them in front of his chest. Mostly submerged in the water, he was now a smaller target as he pushed his way toward the beach. The weight of his pack, rifle, ammunition and other equipment made it slow going. Although difficult to judge, given all the noise and confusion, Riley estimated it took him at least half an hour to get to shore.
While attempting to reach the safety of a bluff, Riley was hit by two bullets, which entered the front side of his neck and lodged in his back. He struggled forward, assisted by a sergeant and a photographer with a camera around his neck. When Riley asked the sergeant what company he was from, Easy Company was the answer.
Is Hu Riley the GI in the picture? A positive identification obviously cannot be established so many years after the event. However, the resemblance between Riley in pictures taken a few months after D-Day and the GI in Capa’s photograph — allowing for the fuzziness of the image — is striking. The narrowing and protrusion of Riley’s chin matches that of the GI. There are also close similarities in the general configuration of the mouth, nose and eyes. And he was in the right place at the right time.
Normandy was actually Hu Riley’s third first wave. From Mercer Island, Wash., he had enlisted in the 82nd Airborne Division in January 1942. While in advanced training at Fort Bragg, N.C., he was injured in a practice jump and had to transfer to the 1st Infantry Division, then training at Fort Devens, Mass. The 1st Division shipped out of New York for Scotland on July 1, 1942, where it underwent additional training until embarking for North Africa on October 16 to take part in Operation Torch.
Riley, in Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Combat Team (later designated the 16th Regiment), landed at 0057 in the first wave at Arzew on November 8. The 16th Combat Team advanced rapidly and captured Oran, then went into training until November 19, when it was put back in the line. On February 20, 1943, the German 21st Panzer Division broke through Kasserine Pass, overrunning forward positions of the 26th Combat Team of the 1st Division. The 16th, combined with Command B of the 1st Armored Division, mounted a counterattack that drove the Germans back through the pass. Riley was slightly wounded in one hand during the counterattack. The 2nd Battalion was engaged in heavy fighting throughout the rest of the North African campaign until the Axis forces capitulated on May 13.
On July 4, the 16th was back aboard ships, this time to take part in Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. Riley went ashore with Fox Company in the first wave at Gela at 0245 on July 10. During the next several weeks, Fox Company engaged in a series of ferocious battles, some of the most desperate fighting it would encounter. This culminated in the capture of Troina on August 6. Riley came through the entire campaign unscathed. On October 16, the 1st Division packed up and sailed once more, this time to England to prepare for Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944, and Riley’s third first wave.
Riley and other survivors of Sections 2, 4 and 5 joined up with troops of the 3rd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, who had followed them onto Fox Green at 0700. Troops of the three sections of Fox Company remained with the 3rd Battalion as the Americans fought their way off the beach and inland to a position northeast of Cabourg. The next afternoon, the three sections rejoined the rest of Fox Company, then located to the southwest of Colleville-sur-Mer. Sergeant Ted Lombarski had taken over company command after Captain Finke was wounded and evacuated on June 6. When Sergeant Lombarski saw that Riley had been wounded, he had him evacuated back to England for treatment.
Two weeks later, though not completely recovered from his wounds, Riley was back in France, this time assigned to Easy Company of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry. The battalion was involved in heavy hedgerow fighting in Normandy, eventually breaking out to participate in closing the Caen-Falaise gap. This was followed by a race after fleeing Germans across France, through Belgium to Aachen at the German border. There the Germans stopped and dug in to defend the city. On October 17, the 16th Infantry moved up to ridges on the eastern outskirts of Aachen and engaged in heavy house-to-house fighting. During this action Riley was severely wounded by small-arms fire. The fighting was so close that he actually saw the German who shot him. He was evacuated to the rear, then to England, and five weeks later he was sent back to the States to recuperate. He was discharged from the Army in September 1945.
Following the war, Riley graduated from Seattle University and started his own business representing several sporting goods manufacturers. Now retired, he lives with his wife, Charlotte, in the beachfront house his father built on Mercer Island in 1909.
Of the approximately 385 men who came ashore in the first wave at Fox Green Beach, the number of others who also might have resembled the GI in the photograph can only be conjectured. There were 128 men from Easy Company, 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division (also swept well east of their assigned beach); 161 men from Easy Company, 16th Regiment, 1st Infantry Division; and 96 men in Sections 2, 4 and 5, Fox Company, 16th Regiment, 1st Division. Many of those men, however, were killed or wounded as soon as they left their landing craft.
Given Hu Riley’s resemblance to the GI in the surf, his location and movements during the time that Robert Capa would have been snapping his legendary photograph, Riley is most likely the best candidate we will ever have. That blurry image, however, is more than simply a photo of an individual soldier. It represents all those men who participated in what is remembered as one of the pivotal moments of the 20th century.
This article was written by Lowell L. Getz and originally appeared in the June 2004 issue of World War II. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of World War II.