Behind the Photo: The ‘Heroic Beauty’ on Omaha Beach

October 15, 2022Matt Fratus
Heroic Beauty Omaha Beach WWII

The world famous photograph captured by US Army Signal Corps photographer Pfc. Walter Rosenblum depicting 2nd Lt. Walter Sidlowski recovering from a harrowing rescue effort to save a group of soldiers from drowning. Photo courtesy of the US Army/The National WWII Museum

The morning after more than 130,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, US Army Signal Corps photographer Pfc. Walter Rosenblum captured one of the most iconic images of the invasion — a black-and-white photograph of 2nd Lt. Walter Sidlowski recovering from a harrowing rescue effort to save a group of soldiers from drowning. Rosenblum would later describe Sidlowski in that moment as the vision of “heroic beauty.”

It was June 7, 1944, or D-Day+1. Sidlowski, a freshly commissioned US Army officer, was standing on the contested Omaha Beach when he spotted an amphibious vehicle sinking into the ocean. The soldiers inside the watercraft could not escape. As Sidlowski stood there searching for a means to help the doomed vessel, soldiers rushed to the shoreline. Among the crowd was a small team of US Army combat cameramen and cinematographers, including Rosenblum.

Sidlowski understood that if the soldiers on board the watercraft weren’t rescued immediately, they would drown. So he sprung into action. He and several other soldiers grabbed a nearby inflatable raft and waded through the waves. They passed dead bodies, debris, and broken equipment as they swam about 200 yards to reach the sinking vessel. Then they got to work pulling out the men inside and loading them onto the raft. Sidlowski ferried the dazed and soaking-wet survivors to the beach before turning around to do it again. The physically taxing effort continued until all of the crew were on shore, dead or alive.

When it was all over, an exhausted Sidlowski collapsed to his knees over the blanket-covered body of an American soldier. With a weary expression on his face, he turned his gaze inland as if unsure what he should do next. He remained there just long enough for Rosenblum to aim his camera and capture history.

Rosenblum says he never spoke with Sidlowski until after the war. In a project by Daedalus Productions Inc. called “Walter Rosenblum: In Search of Pitt Street,” Rosenblum had the opportunity to meet with Sidlowski and reflect upon that day. “I saw this magnificent man swim out and bring some people off a sinking ship and bring them back into shore,” Rosenblum said. “To me, he was the picture of heroic beauty.”

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Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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