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How could you ever lose the mental image of a Nazi tumbling from his tank, burning to death next to you? Or an American soldier kissing a little French girl’s cheek as joyous young women dance, celebrating victory in Europe?
Tony Vaccaro will never forget. And because of his remarkable photos as an American infantryman and photographer in Europe, neither will the rest of the world. Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro opens a shutter into horrific, mundane, and jubilant moments of World War II as seen through his lens in Normandy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany.
Orphaned at age 5 and raised by an abusive uncle, Vaccaro developed a love for photography in high school. A draftee in 1943, he hoped to be an Army photographer but was too young. Old enough to shoot guns but not photos, Vaccaro decided he would show the Army: “I can do better than all the Signal Corps photographers put together.”
With a rifle in one hand and a $47 Argus C3 55 mm camera in the other, he headed to Europe with the 83rd Infantry Division.
His camera was small, lightweight, and needed no setup, so he could react quickly and unobtrusively, capturing moments other photographers missed. He was one of the few photographers who also fought, so fellow soldiers trusted him with unfettered access to their lives—and sometimes deaths.
His images are spontaneous and exude emotion, each telling a story that leaves viewers wanting to know more. That’s artistry. One rare photo shows the exact moment shrapnel kills a soldier. Another silently elaborates on an infantryman’s life through his pocket’s family photos strewn around his corpse.
A heart-rending photo of a soldier frozen in snow eventually leads that soldier’s son, who sees it years later, to contact Vaccaro to learn more about the dad he never knew.
Vaccaro snapped over 8,000 war photos. Not all are gruesome. Many highlight ordinary moments. Others show exuberance after the Allies declare liberation from the Nazis.
In Underfire, the elderly Vaccaro narrates as he revisits sites where he fought and filmed. The juxtaposition of today’s peaceful scenes against his war photos and stories is moving. Other well-known photojournalists add insights.
Though it originally aired on HBO in 2016, the film is apropos now in commemoration of this year’s 75th anniversary of World War II’s end. It is engrossing—sometimes disturbing—and available to rent or purchase. It does depict war violence and includes one quick image of a nude woman.
Not only did Vaccaro survive the war, but in May, at age 97, he recovered from COVID-19.