Getting the perfect shot in wartime is not only about weapons. With over 30 countries involved in World War II and the loss of over 50 million lives, war photography captured the destruction and victories of the deadliest war in history.
Lead by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, over one million German troops invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Just two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany—and the world was once again at war. Photographers were there every step of the way to capture the heroic triumphs and devastating losses.
Here is a look at some of the most poignant moments captured.
After German soldiers swept through Belgium and Northern France in a blitzkrieg in May of 1940, all communication and transport between Allied forces were cut, leaving thousands of troops stranded. Operation Dynamo was quickly put in place to evacuate the Allies stuck along the beaches of Dunkirk, France. Soldiers waded through the water hoping to escape by rescue vessels, military ships, or civilian ships. More than 338,000 soldiers were saved during what would be later called, the “Miracle of Dunkirk.”
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On December 7, 1941, the U.S. naval base Pearl Harbor was the scene of a devastating surprise attack by Japanese forces. Japanese fighter planes destroyed nearly 20 American naval vessels, including eight battleships, and over 300 airplanes. More than 2,400 Americans (including civilians) died in the attack, with another 1,000 Americans wounded.
This event was the tipping point for the U.S. The next day, December 8, 1941, Congress approved Roosevelt’s declaration of war on Japan. Two years after it’s bloody start, the U.S. had officially entered World War II.
Just three days later, Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy, declared war against the United States, which Congress reciprocated by declaring war on the European powers. The world was once again at war.
With the United States now involved in the war, men were joining the fight by the millions. Women stepped in to fill the empty civilian and military jobs once only seen as jobs for men. They replaced men in assembly lines, factories and defense plants, leading to iconic images like Rosie the Riveter that inspired strength, patriotism and liberation for women.
Women also took part in the war effort abroad, even taking on leading roles behind the camera. This photograph was taken by photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, one of the first four photographers hired for Life Magazine. She later became the first female war correspondent and the first woman to be allowed to work in combat zones during the war.
This photograph, taken in 1942 by Life Magazine photographer Gabriel Benzur, shows Cadets in training for the U.S. Army Air Corps, who would later become the famous Tuskegee Airmen. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black military aviators and helped encourage the eventual integration of the U.S. armed forces.
With racial segregation still remaining in U.S. armed forces during this time, it was believed that black soldiers were incapable of learning to fly and operate military aircrafts. As the U.S. involvement in World War II increased, however, civilian pilot training programs expanded across the country forcing inclusion.
After Hitler’s invasion of Poland, more than 400,000 Jewish Poles were confined within a square mile of the capital city, Warsaw. By the end of 1940 the ghetto was sealed off by brick walls, barbed wire and armed guards as other Nazi-occupied Jewish ghettos sprung up throughout Eastern Europe.
In April 1943, residents of the Warsaw ghetto staged a revolt to prevent deportation to extermination camps. The Jewish residents were able to stave off the Nazis for an impressive four weeks. However, in the end the Nazi forces destroyed many of the bunkers the residents were hiding in, killing nearly 7,000 people. The 50,000 ghetto captives who survived, like this group pictured here, were sent to labor and extermination camps. This photograph was found amongst others in a report by the SS General Stroop titled, “The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw is No More!”
The photographs that emerged from the Nazi-lead concentration camps are among some of the most horrifying ever produced, let alone during World War II. The images remain clear in one’s mind, families being captured and separated, emaciated bodies in barracks.
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This 1944 photograph shows a pile of remaining bones at the Nazi concentration camp of Majdanek, the second largest death camp in Poland after Auschwitz.
This photograph titled “Taxis to Hell- and Back- Into the Jaws of Death” was taken on June 6, 1944 during Operation Overlord by Robert F. Sargent, United States Coast Guard chief petty officer and “photographer’s mate.” The photograph was originally captioned,
“American invaders spring from the ramp of a Coast Guard-manned landing barge to wade those last perilous yards to the beach of Normandy. Enemy fire will cut some of them down. Their ‘taxi’ will pull itself off the sands and dash back to a Coast Guard manned transport for more passengers.”
The D-Day military invasion was an enormous coordinated effort with the goal of ending World War II. Today, it is regarded by historians as one of the greatest military achievements.
On January 27, 1945, the Soviet army entered Auschwitz and found approximately 7,600 Jewish detainees who had been left behind. Here, a doctor of the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army helps take survivors out of Auschwitz. They stand at the entrance, where its iconic sign reads “Arbeit Mecht Frei,” (“Work Brings Freedom”). The Soviet Army also discovered mounds of corpses and hundreds of thousands of personal belongings.
Prior to the liberation of the camps by the Allies, Nazi guards forced what was known as death marches. Throughout the month of January, over 60,000 detainees were forced to march some 30 miles in their frail, emaciated states leading to the death of many prisoners. Those who survived were sent on to other concentration camps in Germany.
This Pulitzer Prize winning photo has become synonymous with American victory. Taken during the Battle of Iwo Jima by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, it is one of the most reproduced, and copied, photographs in history.
During the battle, marines took an American flag to the highest point on the island: Mount Suribachi. U.S. Marine photographer Louis Lowery captured the original shot but several hours later, more Marines headed to the crest with a larger flag. It was on this second attempt, that the iconic image was snapped. Three of the six soldiers seen raising the flag in the famous Rosenthal photo were killed during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
The Battle of Iwo Jima image was so powerful in it’s time that it even caused copycats to stage similar images. This photograph was taken on April 30, 1945, during the Battle of Berlin. Soviet soldiers took their flag in victory and raised it over the rooftops of the bombed-out Reichstag.
The photograph was also manipulated. The photographer concealed the wrists of the soldiers, which were covered in stolen wristwatches that were looted from the Germans. Stalin had given his soldiers strict instructions not to loot, so the photo manipulation was to avoid harsh consequence, discipline and possibly even death.
On August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay dropped the world’s first atom bomb over the city of Hiroshima. Prior to the outbreak of the war, American scientists had been considering the development of atomic weapons to defend against fascists regimes. Once the U.S. joined the war, “The Manhattan Project” began creating the bomb that created this mass destruction. Oddly enough it was nicknamed “Little Boy.”
The bomb exploded 2,000 feet above Hiroshima with an impact equal to 12-15,000 tons of TNT. This photograph captured the mushroom cloud.
Approximately 80,000 people died immediately, with tens of thousands more dying later due to radiation exposure. In the end, the bomb wiped out 90 percent of the city.
Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captured this photo in Time Square on Victory against Japan Day (“V-J Day”), August 14, 1945. Sailor George Mendonsa saw dental assistant Greta Zimmer Friedman for the first time among the celebration at V-J Day. He grabbed and kissed her. This photograph would go on to become one of the most well-known in history, while also stirring up controversy. Many women have claimed to be the nurse over the years, some saying it depicts a nonconsensual moment, even sexual harassment.
Watch full episodes of World War II: Race to Victory.