The Face in the Surf

Lowell L. Getz

Abstract: One of the enduring images from World War II is the photograph of the face of the GI in the surf on the Normandy beachhead, taken by Robert Capa and originally published in Life Magazine on June 19, 1944.  The photograph now appears in most accounts of the Normandy invasion and has been listed as one of the most important images of the 20th Century. The infantryman in Capa’s photo was not identified.  The photo was captured in the confusion of the men in the first wave fighting their way to the shore.  There was no opportunity for Capa to find out who he had photographed.  Over the years several men suggested they were the GI in the photo; none has  been able to verify such  a claim.  The research reported on this web site proposes that a very likely candidate for the GI in the photo is PFC Huston Riley of Fox Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division.  Hu currently (2007) lives on Mercer Island, WA. Because of copyright laws, we cannot include Capa’s photograph on this web site.  It can be seen in a variety of venues, as listed below, so that the reader can compare the image captured by Capa with those of Huston Riley included in this web site. 

In addition to the text and maps of Omaha Beach showing where Hu and Capa came ashore and photos of Hu taken summer 1945, the audio of an interview of Hu’s recollections of D-Day is included with the web site.  This interview was recorded as a part of a video documentary (Omaha Beach, D-Day June 6, 1944, Volumes I and II) made by Larry Cappetto on Omaha Beach 7 June 2004.  Hu and Larry made the documentary at the exact place on Omaha Beach where Hu came ashore with the first wave on 6 June 1944.  The entire documentary is available from Larry Cappetto (e-mail: larry at veteranshistory.org: website: http://www.veteranshistory.org).


One of the enduring images from World War II is the face of the GI in the surf on the Normandy beachhead, frozen for all time in the photograph taken by Life Magazine, Robert Capa.  The blurry image captures the determined dedication of troops struggling to gain the beach amidst chaotic carnage surging around them.  Unfortunately, the GI was not identified.

Capa came ashore in the first wave, at 0630 hours, with Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Regiment, 1st Infantry Division (Figure 1).  Easy Company originally was scheduled to land on the western part of Easy Red Beach.  However, after action reports show that five of the six sections of Easy Company, including the landing craft to which Capa was assigned, drifted to the left and came ashore on the eastern part of Fox Green Beach.

Figure 1: Locations of landing sites of sections of each company in the first wave of the Normandy D-Day invasion, 6 June 1944. From the United States. Center of Military History. 1984. Omaha beachhead (6 June-13 June 1944). American forces in action series. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army.

Fig 1 - D-Day First Wave

Capa left his landing craft more than 100 yards off shore and made for the nearest iron hedgehog obstacle.  From there he started taking pictures of 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 amtrack (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 taking more pictures.  After an hour and a half on the beach, approximately two hours after leaving his landing craft, Capa finally gave in to the trembling fear evoked by the death and destruction all about him.  He ran to a nearby LCI unloading medics.

LCI 85 came ashore at H-Hour plus 125 minutes, at 0835 hours.  Aboard were 89 men of Able Company of the 1st Medical Battalion, along with 100 other support and command personnel.  It, too, was swept eastward from its designated landing site, Easy Red Beach, and onto Fox Green.  Twenty men, including medics had made it into the water when the landing ramps were shot away by an artillery round, killing and wounding several troops in the landing craft and throwing others into the water.  LCI 85 backed off with its wounded.  The crew put out the fires and the casualties were transferred to the troop ship, USS Samuel Chase.

Capa saw LCI 85 come ashore and medics running off the ramps.  He made a mad dash to the craft where someone pulled him up the ramps and into the craft.  Just then the artillery round hit the LCI, blowing away the ramps.  Capa left LCI 85, along with the casualties, and went back to England on the USS Samuel Chase.

Owing to the urgency in viewing prints of pictures from the Normandy beaches, one of the developers set the drying oven temperature too high.  Almost all 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.  Regan based this identification on what he perceived to be his facial resemblance to the GI in the photograph.  However, Regan was in King Company, 3rd Battalion, 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division.  King Company was in the second wave, coming ashore at 0725 hours (Figure 2).  The company landed on the east-central part of Easy Green Beach, approximately 2,900 yards west of where Capa landed on Fox Green Beach.  Further, Capa had finished taking pictures of men in the water before King Company came ashore.  Regan could not have been the GI in Capa’s photograph.

Figure 2.  Locations of landing sites of sections of each company in the second wave of the Normandy D-Day invasion, 6 June 1944. From the United States. Center of Military History. 1984. Omaha beachhead (6 June-13 June 1944). American forces in action series. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army.

Fig 2 - D-Day Second Wave

I have recently come into possession of photographs of another GI, PFC Huston (“Hu”) S. Riley, who was in the first wave on Fox Green Beach, and who bears an exceptionally striking resemblance to the GI in Capa’s photograph (Figures 3 - 5).  Hu came ashore with Section 2, Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Regiment, 1st Infantry Division.  Fox Company landed 10 minutes behind schedule, at 0640 hours.  The Company had been scheduled to land in the eastern section of Easy Red Beach.  LCVPs carrying sections 2, 4 and 5 were swept eastward during their run into the beach.  They landed on the eastern part of Fox Green Beach, intermixed 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.

Figures 3-5: Photographs of Huston "Hu" S. Riley taken in the summer of 1945, while he was recovering from wounds received during World War II.
Fig 3 - Huston "Hu" S. Riley Fig 4 - Huston "Hu" S. Riley Fig 5 - Huston "Hu" S. Riley

Hu’s LCVP hit a sand bar while still more than 100 yards from shore.  The boatswain lowered the ramp.  When Hu stepped out, he dropped into a deep runnel just beyond the sand bar and went in over his head.  He first tried walking on the bottom until his head reached the surface.  When he no longer could hold his breath, Hu activated the two Navy M 26 belt life preservers around his waist.  He bobbed to the surface with his chest and head above the water.  Unfortunately, he then provided an opportune target for the Germans firing at troops in the water.  Hu stripped off the preservers and held them front of his chest.  Hu, now mostly submerged in the water, made a smaller target as he pushed his way toward the beach.  Because of the weight of his pack, rifle, ammunition and other equipment, it was slow going.  Although time had no reference points with all the noise and confusion around him, Hu estimated it took at least half an hour to make his way to the beach.

While still lying prostrate at the water’s edge, Hu was hit by small arms fire.  Two bullets entered the front side of his neck and lodged in his back.  He struggled onto the beach, assisted by a sergeant and a photographer with a camera around his neck.  Hu’s first thought was “What’s a photographer doing on this beach.”  Hu asked the sergeant what company he was from.  “Easy Company” was his answer.  In spite of his wounds, Hu continued across the beach and moved up to the shingle embankment at the far side of the beach.  Here survivors of the three sections of Fox Company attempted to organize themselves.

This was not Hu Riley’s first experience with combat.  Normandy was his third “first wave.”  Hu had enlisted from Mercer Island, Washington, in the 82nd Airborne in January 1942.  While in advanced training at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, he was injured in a practice jump and no longer could remain in the 82nd.  Hu transferred to the 1st Infantry Division then training at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts.  The 1st Division shipped out of New York for Scotland on 1 July 1942.  There the division underwent additional training until embarking for North Africa on 16 October to take part in “Operation Torch”, the invasion of North Africa.

Hu, in Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Combat Team (later designated 16th Regiment), landed in the first wave, at 0057 hours, at Arzew on 8 November.  The 16th Combat Team rapidly advanced upon and captured Oran.  The 16th then went into training until 19 November, when it was put back in the line.  On 19 February 1943, the German 21st Panzer Division broke through the 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.  Hu received a slight wound in his hand during the counterattack.  The 2nd Battalion continued to be engaged in heavy fighting throughout the rest of the North African campaign, until the Germans capitulated on 9 May.

On 4 July the 16th was back aboard ships, this time headed for “Operation Husky”, the invasion of Sicily.  Hu was still in Fox Company, 2nd Battalion.  Fox Company went ashore in the first wave, at Gela, at 0245 hours on 10 July.  During the ensuing days, Fox Company was engaged in a series of ferocious battles, some of the most desperate the 16th  would fight, culminating in the capture of Troina on 6 August.  Hu came through this action unscathed.  On 16 October, the 1st Division packed up and sailed once more, this time to England to prepare for “Operation Overlord” and Hu’s third “first wave”, on 6 June 1944.

Hu and other survivors of Sections 2, 4 and 5 joined up with 3rd Battalion, 16th Regiment troops that followed them onto Fox Green at 0700 hours.  Troops of the three sections of Fox Company remained with the 3rd Battalion as they fought their way off the beach and inland to a position northeast of Cabourg.  The following afternoon the three sections rejoined the rest of Fox Company, then located to the southwest of Colleville.  Sargent Ted Lombarski had taken over command of Fox Company after Captain Finke had been wounded and evacuated on the afternoon of the 6th.  When Sgt Lombarski saw that Hu had been wounded, he had him evacuated back to England for treatment.

Two weeks later, and before he had completely recovered from his wounds, Hu was back in France, this time assigned to Easy Company of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Regiment.  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 with fleeing Germans across France, through Belgium and into Germany to Aachen.

At Aachen the Germans stopped their head-long retreat, digging in to protect the city.  On 17 October, the 16th Regiment moved up to ridges on the eastern outskirts of Aachen and engaged in heavy house to house fighting.  During this action Hu was severely wounded by small arms fire.  The fighting was so close in, Hu saw the German who shot him.  Hu was evacuated to the rear, then back to England and five weeks later, to the States to recuperate.  Hu was discharged from the Army in September 1945.

Following the war, Hu worked part-time in a sporting goods store while attending college.  Upon graduation, Hu started his own business as a representative for several sporting goods manufacturers.  Hu and his wife, Charlotte, (Figure 6) now live in retirement in the beach-front house his father built on Mercer Island, Washington in 1909.

Figure 6:  Huston Riley and his wife, Charlotte.  Photo was taken on 6 June 2004, 60 years to the day Hu landed on Fox Green, Omaha Beach.  They are standing at the exact place Hu came ashore in the First Wave.

Fig 6 - Charlotte and Hu Riley

Is Hu Riley the GI in the picture?  Positive identification obviously cannot be established this far removed in time from the event.  However, the resemblance to Hu in pictures taken a few months after D-Day and the GI in Capa’s photograph, allowing for the fuzziness of the photograph, is striking (Figures 3 - 5).  The narrowing and protrusion of Hu’s chin matches that of the GI.  Further, there is a close similarity in the general configuration of Hu’s mouth, nose and eyes and those of the GI in the photograph.

How many others were in the first wave at Fox Green Beach who might also have resembled the GI in the photograph can only be conjectured.  Approximately 385 men came ashore on Fox Green Beach with the first wave.  These included 128 men from Easy Company, 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry (also swept well east of their assigned beach) and 161 men from Easy Company, 16th Regiment, 1st Division, in addition to 96 men in Sections 2, 4 and 5, Fox Company, 16th Regiment, 1st Division.  Many of these men were killed or wounded as soon as they left their landing crafts.  Thus, the number of potential subjects is limited.

To what degree we perceive the resemblance to be or not to be, the records show Hu was at the right place at the right time to have been photographed by Capa.  He, therefore, most likely is the best candidate we will ever have for the GI in the surf.  Accordingly, I propose that Hu Riley be recognized as the GI in Capa’s photograph.  Hu’s blurry image represents all those men who participated in what is considered by many historians to be the single most important event that shaped the future of civilization as we know it.

Huston "Hu" S. Riley's account:

Text of an interview (scanned gif image) provided by Hu Riley for the June 2004 issue of World War II magazine

Audio from Omaha Beach, D-Day June 6, 1944 (mp3 file - 91.5 MB - download only), a documentary by Larry Cappetto of the Veterans History Project. Copyright Larry Cappetto and provided by permission of Larry Cappetto. All rights reserved.

Additional reading

Ambrose, Stephen E. 1994. D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climatic Battle of World War II. New York : Simon & Schuster.
Capa, Robert. 1999. Slightly out of focus. New York: Modern Library. First published 1947 by Henry Holt and Company.
Baumgartner, John W., Al De Poto, William Fraccio, and Sammy Fuller. 1999. The 16th Infantry, 1861-1946. Du Quoin, IL: Cricket Press.

Sources for Robert Capa’s photo of the GI in the surf at Omaha Beach, 6 June 1944:

Jnauer, Kelly. 1999. Great images of the 20th century: the photographs that define our times. New York: Time Books.
Ambrose, Stephen E. 1994. D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climatic Battle of World War II. New York : Simon & Schuster.
Botting, Douglas. 1978. The second front. World War II. Alexandria, Va: Time-Life Books.

Sources:

1st Infantry Division History (Copy from National Archives)
Co. “F” 2nd Bn, 6 June 1944
Co. “F” 16th Infantry Troop List
16th CT Invasion of France, S-3 Report for Period of 6 June

Neptune Force “O” CT 16 Landing Table

Co. “K” 116th  Regiment, 29th  Infantry Division Troop List

Company pass slips issued to Huston Riley by F Company, 16th Regiment, Company Commander
17 June 1943
20 June 1943
12 February 1944

United States. Center of Military History. 1984. Omaha beachhead (6 June-13 June 1944). American forces in action series. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army.

Capa, Robert. 1999. Slightly out of focus. New York: Modern Library. First published 1947 by Henry Holt and Company.

Whelan, Richard. 1985. Robert Capa a biography. New York: Knopf.

Baumgartner, John W., Al De Poto, William Fraccio, and Sammy Fuller. 1999. The 16th Infantry, 1861-1946. Du Quoin, IL: Cricket Press.

Finke, Blythe Foote, Steven Weingartner, and John F. Votaw. 1995. No mission too difficult! old buddies of the 1st Division tell all about World War II. Cantigny military history series. Chicago, Ill: Contemporary Books, Inc.

Ambrose, Stephen E. 1994. D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climatic Battle of World War II. New York : Simon & Schuster.

Balkoski, Joseph. 1999. Beyond the beachhead the 29th Infantry Division in Normandy. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

Atlanta Journal Constitution.  3 June 1984

Life Magazine. June 1984

Interviews: