U.S. Army/National Geographic Creative
U.S. Army/National Geographic Creative

Found in the Archives, Seldom Seen Photos From World War II

U.S. Army soldiers make an amphibious landing on the banks of Germany’s Rhine River. Navy sailors take a break from combat for a dip in the Pacific Ocean. A young marine cleans sand out of his shoe. These World War II–era images are part of a small collection of photographs currently on display in the basement of National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Sorry, not open to the public, but we’re bringing you a selection here on Proof, along with the original captions.)

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“The Marines Land.” Marines hit three feet of rough water as they leave their LST to take the beach at Cape Gloucester, December 26, 1943. Photograph by the U.S. Marine Corps
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“Sittin’ On Top of the World.” Of all things, Marine Private First Class Raymond L. Hubert, of Detroit, Michigan, chooses a huge unexploded naval shell for a sofa as he removes a three day accumulation of Saipan sand from his field shoes. Photograph by Staff Sgt. Andrew B. Knight, U.S. Marine Corps

Tucked away among the 11.5 million photographic items housed in the National Geographic archive, the images were among those recently pulled from storage by NG Creative’s Julia Andrews and Debbie Li and archivist Bill Bonner in homage to the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, marked earlier this year.

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French mademoiselle waves tricolor in tribute to the forces which liberated her city as they march past Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. August 26, 1944. Photograph by U.S. Army Signal Corps
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Women employees working on the nose assemblies of Douglas “Havoc” A-20 attack bombers. Photograph by the Douglas Aircraft Company, Inc.

Bringing them out of the archive provides an insight into the lives and mentalities of the past. “They tell a story we don’t want to forget,” says Li.

The National Geographic Society archive once had an entire collection of photographs specifically dedicated to World War II, but in the early 1960s, the archive ran out of physical space to house prints, and the collection was culled. What remained was stashed in files not related to the war, and Bonner periodically came across them while doing research on other topics.

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Crouching low in a DUKW for concealment and protection, men of the 89th division, U.S. Third Army, cross the Rhine River at Oberwesel, Germany. March 26, 1945. Photograph by the U.S. Department of Defense
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“Relaxing After Battle.” Crewmen of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier banish post-battle nervous strain by taking a swim in the warm waters of a lagoon in the Marshalls only a few days after laying siege to and conquering Roi Island in the Kwajalein atoll. Released April 18, 1944. Photograph by the U.S. Navy

According to Bonner, National Geographic magazine published “a lot of stories about soldiers—a life for the soldier, that kind of thing … and less [about] the frontline battles.”

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“Wedding Ceremony at Church Hit by Bomb.” The bombing of this beautiful Roman Catholic Church in London did not stop Fusilier Tom Dowling and Miss Martha Coogan being married there today. After the ceremony was over, Father Finn, who performed the ceremony, assisted the bridal couple over the debris to the church exit. Fox. September 14, 1940.
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“Londoners Sleep in Safety at Aldwych. First Pictures in New Shelter Where People Occupy Railway Lines.” These are the first pictures to be taken at Aldwych Shelter, the stretch of underground railway between Aldwych and Holborn which has been taken out of service to provide safe shelter for Londoners in air raids. Photograph shows the railway lines as well as the platforms provide a dormitory for Londoners during the night raids. October 5, 1940. Photograph by Acme Newspictures

“You would never think that National Geographic was even interested, but we were,” says Andrews. “Editors were paying attention to this. They wanted it in the [archive] collection but never published it.”

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“It Was Worth It, Abe.” … so that … “freedom … shall not perish from the earth …” A fighting Coast Guardsman, who gave his right arm in battle pays Memorial Day tribute at the Lincoln shrine in Washington, D.C. He is Coast Guardsman Thomas Sortino of Chicago, who participated in the North African invasion. Photograph by U.S. Coast Guard

Many of the photos on display are wire photos—distributed by news agencies and not commissioned by National Geographic magazine. They’re displayed with the original caption information that was taped on the back of the print. These captions add a rich layer to the show, giving the viewer insight into the mentalities of the time. The captions are clinically written and matter-of-fact, with a “neutrality you wouldn’t have now,” says Andrews.

Thanks to Bonner, Li, and Andrews, these incredible photographs not seen in decades can ensure that some moments won’t be forgotten.