D-Day Veteran Portraits for The Washington Post

You may not know this, but I graduated college with a degree in History. Yes, you read that correctly, History. I knew that I never wanted to teach the subject, and everyone would ask what I planned to do with it if not teach. Frankly, I had no idea. Like photography, it was something that I was very passionate about and still am. Like my photography internship at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum - Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, I am always looking for opportunities to mix both history and photography. This personal project of photographing D-Day veterans from WWII for the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, France is one of these opportunities.

Back in March, I realized that June 6, 2014 would be the 70th anniversary of D-Day when the Allied forces invaded Normandy, France in hopes of turning the tide of WWII. The sad truth is that we are losing WWII veterans at an increasing rate every day. With this in mind, I wanted to do my part in recording history the best way I know, through photography.

I immediately went to the internet searching for names of soldiers who had taken party in the Normandy landings and lived within a reasonable driving distance. In the end, I was able to get in touch with three veterans who were willing to sit down with me, share their story, and allow me to photograph their portrait.

The first gentleman I met was 90 year old Harry Walker Zimmerman of Frederick, MD. Drafted into the war, he was in the 79th Infantry Division and was trained as a truck driver. He and I sat in his dining room where he told me about his experiences during the war over several maps and books to help illustrate his journey. As he talked about D-Day and what he witnessed, I realized I wasn’t sitting with just a man, but someone who is a piece living history. After our two hour discussion, he showed and allowed me to read through several letters he wrote and received during the war. His thoughts I read on the aged paper were like a time machine that took me back to the time when good and evil were in a hard fought battle across the world.

After reading through his letters together, we got situated for his portrait. Half way through the shoot, he pulled out his old service jacket with his ribbons and other military insignia. Still able to get himself into the jacket, he wore it for a few shots. By the time I had finished the shoot and packed up my car, I had been visiting with him for five hours. I’m so thankful that he was willing to take that much time out of his day to share this part of his life with me, a complete stranger.

The next D-Day veteran I was able to meet with was 97 year old Mortimer Caplin of Chevy Chase, MD. Caplin enlisted into the U.S. Navy and worked in intelligence. Wanting to be more involved with the war effort, he requested to be transferred to shipboard duties and became beachmaster of the 7th Beach Battalion. I visited Mr. Caplin at his office in Washington D.C. where he shared his stories about D-Day. His job was to direct traffic on Omaha Beach and keep communication between ships and forces on land open and operating. Hearing how he would take cover from German fighter planes strafing the beach at night took something that you see in movies and made it a reality. Movies can make these sorts of things seem real, but listening to first-hand accounts like this make them feel real. For his actions in France, he was awarded the French Legion of Honor on March 2, 2009 by the Embassy of France in Washington D.C. Another interesting thing about Mr. Caplin is that he was appointed as U.S. Commissioner of Internal Revenue in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. I’d like to thank Mr. Caplin for taking the time out of his busy day to chat with me and sit for a portrait.

In May, the third veteran I had the honor of meeting was 91 year old Eugene Bujac of Annapolis, MD. Mr. Bujac was part of the 29th Infantry Division after enlisting in 1940. As a staff sergeant, he was part of the second wave to land on Omaha Beach after the first wave made up of the 116th Infantry Division suffered heavy casualties. When he landed on the beach, he and his fellow soldiers found themselves directly in front of a German pillbox. The next words he heard were, “Bujac, you’re on point for battalion!” With something that sounds so terrifying, I asked him how he kept himself together and what he was thinking at the moment. He said his training kept his mind straight and he just wanted to get his men off the beach. Wounded twice during the war, he found himself out of the war after being severely wounded by shrapnel near Titz, Germany in February 1945.

I am incredibly grateful for having the opportunity to meet and talk with Mr. Bujac. On oxygen and unable to walk, it was tough for him to get his story out, but he was determined to share it with me. After hearing about his experiences during the war, I asked him if he had the strength to sit for a few photos. With the help of his son and that same determination, he moved to his desk where he sat for a few minutes.

I later received an email from Mr. Bujac’s son informing me that his father had passed away on June 1. This is the moment that I realized just how important this personal project is. As a photographer, I feel even more compeled to photograph men and women like Mr. Bujac so that history will never forget them and what they have done for their country. Like the other two veterans, it was such an honor to meet and have the opportunity to photograph Mr. Bujac, and it is something that I will never forget.

When I decided that I was going to begin this new personal project, I contacted The Washington Post to see if they might be interested in using the portraits for their coverage of the 70th anniversary of D-Day. There was some interest, so I kept them updated after every shoot. I wasn’t too focused on trying to get the portraits published. All I knew is that I wanted to complete this project, even if it was only a small group of portraits. Getting them published would just be an added bonus.

As it turned out, I got a call from The Washington Post later in the day on Monday, June 2. They wanted to print portraits of all three veterans on the front page of their Metro section. I was so excited because their stories were going to be shared with people all over the D.C. area 70 years later.

With the anniversary passed, I plan on expanding this project to include any United States veteran that is willing to be part of it. I don’t have a specific end-goal in mind for it. All I know is that I would like to continue it as a way to say thank you for all they done and sacrificed so that I can have the life I do today.

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