One of the pleasures (and privileges) of sharing the stories behind LIFE photographs is that, occasionally, people contact us with their own pictures and stories from signature events of the last century. Example: Not long ago, a man named Jan Rooks wrote to LIFE.com and suggested that we might be interested in photos that his father, Dale Rooks, made during the Second World War.
As it turned out, we were very interested: not only was Dale Rooks an eyewitness to a relatively little-known arena of the conflict — namely, the war in the Mediterranean — but he also happened to be an excellent photographer. A combat photographer with the U.S. Coast Guard during the war, Rooks’s later work was featured in magazines and newspapers as prominent and varied as LOOK, House Beautiful, LIFE, Fortune, Science Illustrated and the The New York Times. But it was the Michigan native’s work in the mid-1940s in places like Marseilles, Toulon and other towns and villages in the south of France that caught our eye.
It was immediately apparent that here was a craftsman whose work, at times, rivaled that of celebrated — and far better-known — war photographers. In addition, for all intents and purposes, Rooks’s pictures had been seen by virtually no one except his family and the family’s friends for the past 70 years. They are, in effect, genuinely rare gems from the defining conflict of the 20th century. Here, on Memorial Day weekend, LIFE pays tribute to America’s fallen from that war and from all America’s wars — and we commemorate Rooks’s achievement — with a series of pictures he made during and after the 1944 Allied invasion of southern France.
After the war, Dale Rooks moved back to Grand Rapids, Mich., to start his own business and make a career as a photographer. He married, and with his wife Sally had three children — Jan, Daryll and Dalene. Rooks also authored an early DIY book on photography, Everybody’s Photo Course, which his son Jan hopes to soon feature, in its entirety, on the website he’s been building for the past few years: dalerooks.org.
Dale Rooks died in 1954 of cancer, when he was just 37 years old.
NOTE: As the caption information that accompanies so many of Dale Rooks’s photos from France is limited — and often non-existent — we’re hoping that some viewers of this gallery might recognize specific locations or even individuals in the images. If you or anyone you know is able to provide details about any or all of the pictures, please contact Jan Rooks at firstname.lastname@example.org.