53 Astounding Photos Of WWII That Speak To Us Across Decades

We’ve all seen numerous images from World War II that make our hearts jump or sink. As the most well-documented war at the time, the range of emotions captured by photographers during WWII is truly astounding. The contrast between victory and loss is apparent in the thousands of images that tell the story of WWII. They speak to us from across decades and express what our parents and grandparents lived through.

D-day Baby Carriage

D-day Celebrations in France 1944 Via/ Flickr

The Normandy landings on D-day (June 6, 1944) were a huge cause for hope for most of the world. In France street celebrations were documented by an American pathologist, Major Sylvester F. Crynes MC, in this amazing color photograph showing the allied flags strung like bunting on this baby’s stroller. What a symbol of unity!

The Battle of Tarawa

Inflatable Rescue Boat at the Battle of Tarawa Via/ Flickr

The rescue of their fellow soldiers by guiding an inflatable raft to shore is an extremely moving scene. The Battle of Tarawa in November of 1943 resulted in over 6,000 deaths (between the American and Japanese losses). Most of us can only imagine what a wounded solder in the water might have been feeling at that moment.

German Troops at the the Arc de Triomphe

German Troops Marching Along the Champs Elysee Near the Arc de Triomphe Via/ Wikimedia Commons

A clear sign that the Germans have taken control: lines of Nazi soldiers at the Arc de Triomphe. It must have seemed like the world was ending and that France would surely cease to exist. This photo from June 1940 is what Parisians in the street would have seen as their city was rendered nearly unrecognizable.

Parisian Man Mourning

Parisian Man Weeping As News of German Invasion Spreads

Via/ Shutterstock

A Parisian man weeps as the Germans take control of the city in 1940. This photo speaks volumes about the impending sense of doom they felt. Invasion was the fear of all Allied nations.

Malaria Sign

363rd Station Hospital Anti-malaria Sign Papau New Guinea WWII

Via/ Flickr

Any soldier stationed in the South Pacific would have needed to be on top of their anti-malaria medications. Soldiers were reminded in no uncertain terms what consequences lay ahead for those who did not. This sign was posted at the 363rd Station Hospital in Papua New Guinea.

Storming the Beaches of Normandy

This image of U.S. troops approaching “Omaha” beach in on the coast of France on June 6, 1944, is one of the most powerful images showing what our boys were headed into. The water, the gunfire and the chaos must have been overwhelming, and yet they pushed on with courage. 2,000 U.S. soldiers and 1,200 German soldiers lost their lives during this attack that went awry. Because nothing went to plan, those few of our troops who survived unharmed were left to improvise small battles once they were behind enemy lines. Those small wins led to the eventual success of the D-day goals and the turn of the war in our favor.

Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima

Between the losses on each side, the casualties of the Battle of Iwo Jima numbered at more than 20,000. And, nearly 20,000 U.S. troops were wounded. The placement of the flag in 1945 was a small victory for us and this photograph (taken only five days into a battle that lasted over a month) was a hopeful token to hold on to. This image, taken by Joe Rosenthal, became one of the most widely circulated images of the war at the time and remains a powerful image for the U.S. The United States Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, is based on this image and it attempts to bring the photograph to life for the thousands of visitors each year.

Flag Raising at Iwo Jima

Via/ Flickr

Bergen-Belsen Liberation Train

The relief the prisoners feel in this photograph is clear on their faces as they run up the hill, the passengers disembarking realizing with joy that they are not headed to a concentration camp. The liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and the passengers headed there in 1945 was a monumental undertaking, as was the liberation of each camp. Despite the fact that there were no gas chambers in Bergen-Belsen, tens of thousands of Jews and other prisoners died there from typhus and poor conditions. This image makes it utterly clear what we had been been fighting for.


V-J Day Kiss

The number of celebrations on V-J Day were countless and any Allied citizen had great cause to rejoice. Scenes like this one could be seen all over Europe and the U.S. Though the term can refer to several different significant dates involving the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, the first of such celebrations took place on August 14th.

V-J Day Sailor Kissing a Young Woman

Via/ Shutterstock

NY Times Square Kiss

This, though, is by far the most well-known image from the end of the war and the celebrations of victory on V-J Day on August 14, 1945. There are several slightly different versions that were made famous. The image below was taken by Victor Jorgensen, though a competing image was published in LIFE magazine (taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt). Is there a more joyous and enthusiastic observation of our victory than this?

The Times Square Victory Kiss Via/ Wikimedia Commons

These famous photographs formed the basis for our understanding of WWII and of what the war was like. The tensions were high on every front, for every battle won or lost, every flag that came up or went down. These images capture a small portion of that emotion and give us just a glimpse at the war that changed the world.

Check out these real-life Rosie the Riveters»

Negotiations

Negotiations between Germany, Italy, and England, 1938. Left to right: Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Paul-Otto Schmidt, Neville Chamberlain. Via/ Wiki Commons

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced over the radio on September 3rd, 1939, that England had no choice but declare war with Germany after the German invasion of Poland.

Stunning Color Photographs

World War II in Stunning Color Photographs Camouflage class artist training, NYC, 1943. Via/ Library of Congress

World War II in Stunning Color Photographs Mrs. Eloise J. Ellis, Assembly and Repairs Department at the Naval Air Base, Corpus Christi, Texas, 1942. Via/ Library of Congress

World War II in Stunning Color PhotographsWashington D.C., 1943. Via/ Library of Congress

World War II in Stunning Color Photographs French, Canadian, and American soldiers coordinating with the Cruelly WWI monument in the background, 1943. Via/ Flickr

World War II in Stunning Color Photographs Utah Beach, June 6th, 1944. Via/ Flickr

World War II in Stunning Color Photographs Mrs. Irma Lee McElroy, civil service employee at the Naval Air Base, Corpus Christi, Texas, 1942. Via/ Library of Congress

World War II in Stunning Color Photographs American soldiers crossing farm country in Normandy, France, 1944. Via/ Flickr

World War II in Stunning Color Photographs Tule Lake Japanese Internment Camp, 1942-43. Via/ Library of Congress

World War II in Stunning Color Photographs Horse-drawn carts and military jeeps share the same narrow streets in Cherbourg, France, 1944. Via/ Flickr

World War II in Stunning Color Photographs Canadian troops with Sherman tank, Caen, France, 1944. Via/ Flickr

World War II in Stunning Color Photographs Troops play darts while awaiting deployment for Operation Overloard, Portland Harbor, England, 1944. Via/ Flickr

World War II in Stunning Color Photographs General MacArthur gives his speech aboard the USS Missouri at the formal surrender of the Japanese, September 2, 1945. Via/ Wiki Commons

Cologne, Germany

Cologne Cathedral 1945The Cologne Cathedral stands high despite the complete combing of the rest of the city. Note that even the bridges in the background have been bombed. Via/ Wiki Commons


There are few instances in which any of the combatants involved in WWII attempted spare specific landmarks, save for the Cologne Cathedral, which some historians believe was maintained by the Allies because it made an excellent visual landmark for their pilots.

Berlin, Germany

Brandenburg Gate WWII damaged. The Brandenburg Gate after substantial damage during WWII. Via/ Wikimedia Commons

The Blitz was fully retaliated against by the British Royal Air Force, which dropped tons of bombs on Berlin. Hitler had been assured that it would never come to that, but in 1940 bombs were dropping on London and Berlin nightly. The famous Brandenburg Gate managed to stay standing throughout the war, though it was very badly damaged and had to be restored in the the years following the war.

Paris, France

Eiffel Tower in 1945 with American Troops in jeep The Eiffel Tower gets her French flag again as American soldiers watch from their Jeep. Via/ Wiki Commons

Paris was not bombed heavily by the Germans because it was a German-occupied city it for most of the war and Allied forces did drop many a bomb on the City of Lights. And, yet, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe still stand.

The Arc de Triomphe in 1944. The Arc de Triomphe in 1944 after the Allies liberated Paris. Via/ Library of Congress

Vatican City, Italy

Parts of the Vatican City were bombed, but not destroyed. The concern was more for religious reasons and less for concern over the historic buildings.

Vatican City in 1944 after becoming occupied by British forcesVatican City in 1944 after becoming occupied by British forces. Via/ Wikimedia Commons

Hollywood Canteen

The Hollywood Canteen 1942-1945Bette Davis serves cake at the Hollywood Canteen. Via/ NYPL

The people in Hollywood who felt strongly that military service should be honored wanted to make this a special time for soldiers before they went off to fight in World War II.
The list of volunteers at the Hollywood Canteen was long and included some of the all-time greats of the entertainment industry, like Betty Grable, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, and Shirley Temple.

The Hollywood Canteen 1942-1945 Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth serving servicemen. Via/ Wiki Commons

The female stars could often be seen dancing with the troops and sailors or escorting them in. The stars also worked behind the scenes, too, serving and preparing food. What a thrill it must have been to meet your favorite actor or singer as they served your meal! But, the canteen also offered dancing and entertainment by some of the hottest bands of the day like Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, and The Andrews Sisters among many others.

Airplane Nose Art

The Incredible Nose Art of WWII Bomber Planes Via/ Wiki Commons

The pin-up girls and gritty slogans from the nose art on World War II military plane fuselages speaks of another time, another way of doing things. Going into battle, these designs cemented the determination to win in the minds of all who saw them. They were also a unique expression of individual Army and Air Force units. While some of the designs were quite scandalous, many recall the all-American girls back home or the locality of the pilot.

The Incredible Nose Art of WWII Bomber Planes Via/ National Archives

The Incredible Nose Art of WWII Bomber Planes Via/ Flickr

While the tradition of nose art extends back to World War I and across many countries, it was during the 1940s that this distinctive style came into its own. Many of the American designs were inspired by pin-up girl drawings of artists like George Petty and Alberto Vargas. Other designs had at their roots a strong desire to remain on Lady Luck’s good side and return home safely. Dice, boomerangs, and other superstitious emblems were often found painted on planes. On such dangerous missions any token of luck or of home might be seen to sway the balance in your favor.

The Incredible Nose Art of WWII Bomber Planes Via/ Flickr

While some of the designs were clearly the work of skilled artists, many others were painted on hastily by less-skilled military personal who were off duty, sometimes using second rate materials.

The Incredible Nose Art of WWII Bomber Planes Via/ Flickr

The Incredible Nose Art of WWII Bomber Planes Via/ Flickr

The Incredible Nose Art of WWII Bomber Planes Via/ Flickr

Bazooka

The Musical Instrument That Inspired the Ubiquitous WWII Weapon Via/ Library of Congress

An incredible 440,000 American bazookas were in use during World War II, and many thousands more German and Japanese versions came into use after some of the U.S. Army’s bazookas were captured in North Africa and in Europe and then copied.

WAVES

Waves, Farmerettes, and Munitions Workers from the 1940s in Action

Via/ Flickr

If you have a relative who served in the WAVES or the Women’s Land Army then you might have heard stories about their roles during World War II. But, many folks have never heard of these historic organizations which contributed greatly to the war effort. Between these two groups and the huge numbers of women who began working in factories, the role of women was, for a time, quite different than it had ever been before. Take a look at the ladies of the war effort in these historic photos.

Waves, Farmerettes, and Munitions Workers from the 1940s in Action

The first African American WAVES, Harriet Ida Pickens and Ens. Frances Wills, 1944. Via/ U.S. National Archives


Waves, Farmerettes, and Munitions Workers from the 1940s in Action

WAVES mechanic working on a plane, 1942. Via/ U.S. National Archives

The WAVES came from all over the country and served alongside their male counterparts. WAVES stands for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service and the organization (under the purview of the Navy) was created in 1942 as a way to gain much-needed military personnel. While most WAVES served stateside, towards the end of the war some WAVES were shipped out to the front.

Waves, Farmerettes, and Munitions Workers from the 1940s in Action

1941. Via/ Flickr


The all-important work of producing aircraft, supplies, and ammunition became an important (if fleeting) role for women during World War II. Likewise, the Women’s Land Army sought to make sure food production did not fall below national requirements, employing women who were often called “farmerettes.”

Without these strong women, the war efforts might have not have been so successful. They might not be a major topic today, but the Women’s Land Army, the WAVES, and all the Rosie-the-Riveters contributed so much to outcome of the war.

V-J Day

VJ Day in Oak Ridge, Tennessee

VJ Day headlines in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Via/ Flickr

August 14th, 15th, and September 2nd of 1945 were all celebrated as Victory Over Japan Day, the dates correlating to the initial surrender (in different time zones) and also the day that formal surrender paperwork was signed by Japanese officials. For the Allied countries, long weary of the war, these were days for celebration – as much as could be forged from the rationed cupboards of the average working man at any rate.

Marines celebrate VJ Day

From original caption: “Victory Carving-First Division Marines on Okinawa gather around Corporal John Dulin as he wields a Japanese samurai sword to cut a VJ cake that he baked for the celebration. That isn’t sugar cake though, the icing is made of starch.” Via/ Flickr

Times Square, NYC, on 8/15/45 VJ Day

Times Square, NYC, on 8/15/45 VJ Day. Via/ Flickr

Crowd of people, many waving, in Times Square on V-J Day at time of announcement of the Japanese surrender in 1945

From original Caption: “Crowd of people, many waving, in Times Square on V-J Day at time of announcement of the Japanese surrender in 1945.” Via/ Library of Congress

Regardless of which day they were celebrating on or where in the world they were, civilians and service men and women in Allied countries were partying like they hadn’t done since the end of World War I. And, these photographs show huge numbers of folks letting loose and celebrating – especially those in uniform!

 Surrender of Japan, August-September 1945. Victory Celebrations (VJ Day) at CINCPAC HQ, Guam, August 15, 1945.

From original Caption: “Surrender of Japan, August-September 1945. Victory Celebrations (VJ Day) at CINCPAC HQ, Guam, August 15, 1945.” Via/ Flickr

Farewells

Because the U.S. entered World War II only after Pearl Harbor in 1941, many young men who had been following the news were raring to join up when the time came.

This huge influx of soldiers and sailors meant that bus and train depots were often full of scenes like these in the 1940s, while other Allied countries already had large numbers of soldiers shipping out since the beginning of the war. Have a look below at the touching send-offs from around the world.

Flickr

Enlisted and in love. Via/ Flickr


Even in times of war, you can see the love in these photos. Soldiers from around the world gave tender goodbye kisses to their wives, sweethearts, and mothers as they left for battle.

State Archives of Florida

Couples saying goodnight in front of FSCW’s Bryan Hall in Tallahassee, Florida. Via/ State Archives of Florida

Library of Congress

From 1943 caption: Chicago, Illinois. Private D.N. Daniels kissing his wife goodbye at the Greyhound bus terminal.” Via/ Library of Congress


Library of Congress

From 1943 caption: “Indianapolis, Indiana. A soldier and a girl saying goodbye at the Greyhound bus station.” Via/ Library of Congress

Library of Congress

From 1943 caption: “Chicago, Illinois. Soldiers saying goodbye at the train concourse of the Union Station.” Via/ Library of Congress


Library of Congress

From 1943 caption: “Bus trip from Knoxville, Tennessee to Washington, D.C. Soldier saying goodbye to his wife and child at small town in Tennessee.” Via/ Library of Congress

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