It’s not hard to understand why, in 1944, a young man with an eye for photography might want to join the official photographic ranks of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps. As TIME explained that year, they had the twofold mission of both relaying the news of the troops at work so that citizens could keep up with the news and documenting the action for future War Department records.
“Like scores of similar companies on other battlefronts, they had had a high proportion of casualties (seven dead, 14 wounded, three captured out of 62),” the magazine noted. “But their work had paid off by helping to make the battles of World War II the best understood in history.”
So when Tony Vaccaro, then 21, was drafted, that “small, brave group” was where he wanted to end up. But, as he relates in the new HBO documentary Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro, he was told he was too young to qualify as an Army photographer.
Undeterred, despite the knowledge that an infantryman was not supposed to be taking pictures, Vaccaro (not to be confused with the correspondent of the same name who worked for the Associated Press during a similar time span) decided to bring his camera along when he went to war. Before the war ended, he had taken more than 8,000 photos—even some that he developed in helmets while on after-dark missions. They offer a rare, close-up view of what a soldier really sees.
After a post-war stint with Stars and Stripes, Vaccaro transitioned to a career in news, sports and fashion photography, a world away from the battlegrounds where his camera had proved so crucial. As these images show, it was a drastic transition—but what he had seen during the war stayed with Vaccaro throughout.
Underfire will receive a Veterans Day HBO Go and On Demand preview on Friday before officially debuting on HBO on Nov. 14.
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