Not being accepted to the Signal Corps would ultimately become Vacarro’s greatest advantage. He was sent to fight on the front lines as a combat infantryman—and he brought a $47.50 Argus C3 35mm camera secretly in tow. Unlike the Signal Corps photographers who lugged 30-pound military-grade 4x5 cameras and shot from the sidelines, Vaccaro was able to bring his handheld camera to the heart of the battlefield. “I have it here, the camera that went through the war with me,” Vaccaro says, rummaging through a sprawl of Leicas, Nikons, and Rolleis spread across his table. “I had this around my neck from Normandy to Berlin.” For 272 days, while fighting with the Army’s 83rd Infantry Division, Vaccaro’s unprecedented access yielded some of the most impactful, personal images taken during World War II. And unlike the Signal Corps’ frequently staged images, Vaccaro’s told the graphic, bitter truth.
It was no easy feat. “I was lucky, I had many bullets come very close to me but I’m here,” says Vaccaro. But carrying both rifle and camera, survival was met with an equally challenging ambition to show the war to the world outside the battlefield. No shortage of logistical impediments stood in Vaccaro’s way, not the least of which was a promise that any camera found would be destroyed. On D-Day, as the troops moved in on Normandy’s Omaha Beach in the largest seaborne invasion in history, Vaccaro emerged from the ocean, his camera wrapped in tens of layers of cellophane. His first pictures were taken incognito, through a hole in his raincoat. “I kept my camera inside my coat, and what I did, I made the hole a bit bigger and put it around the lens,” he recalls with a smile. “I kept one hand on the camera and with the other, I saluted the officer.”