In some ways, it’s a simple photograph: An old soldier stands on the shore at Normandy in June 1969, 25 years after the D-Day invasion. We can guess at some of what’s going through his mind: memories of comrades, living and dead; a kind of grim satisfaction in having played his part in an epic endeavor; a hope that, ultimately, the peace won by the violence that convulsed Omaha Beach — and that defined all the terrible battles that followed — was somehow worth it.
But in other, critical ways, it’s not a simple picture, at all. First, the old soldier is Gen. Omar Bradley, who as a three-star Lieut. Gen. in 1944 oversaw the training of the invasion force in England; was in command of all American forces — 1.3 million troops — aimed toward Berlin from the west after Normandy; and by the time he retired was one of only nine generals in American history to hold a five-star rank. (“I’ll see you on the beaches,” he famously told his men in the run-up to D-Day — and the man the troops called “a GI Joe with three stars on his shoulders” kept his word, landing on Omaha Beach just 24 hours after the invasion launched.)
But beyond the complexity of the man himself, there’s the wonderful story behind the making of the picture. As photographer Bill Ray remembers it, he had tried for days before the 25th anniversary of D-Day to convince the general — or rather, to convince Bradley’s numerous handlers — to fly out to Omaha Beach for an exclusive portrait for LIFE. “I begged, I pleaded, I cajoled,” Ray recalls. “I wanted to photograph this man who had played such a central role in the planning and execution of the D-Day invasion, on the beach, on the very spot where it had all taken place.”
Finally, after endless phone calls back and forth, the general consented. Ray hired a helicopter and, with Bradley pointing the way to the area of the beach where, to the best of his recollection, he had come ashore 25 years before, the photographer and the five-star general — in uniform — walked the strand, alone.
“After all the time I spent working to set this up,” Ray says, “actually taking the picture probably only took 15 minutes, tops. [Bradley] was a very quiet man, but it was obvious to me, as he stood there, that there was a lot going on under that calm demeanor.”
Ray laughs, and shares the punchline to the entire story.
“And you know what? After all that — the pleading, getting the helicopter, flying out to the beach, taking this exclusive picture of the man who commanded the First Army during D-Day — LIFE never ran the picture!”
Here, on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, LIFE.com is pleased to rectify that long-ago oversight.
[See more of Bill Ray’s work at BillRay.com]
[Buy the LIFE book, D-Day: Remembering the Battle that Won the War — 70 Years Later]