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The Mystery of the Missing Film

After 50 years of secrecy, George Hjorth can now talk about shooting footage of the D-day invasion and other WWII events from behind German lines. But the products of his efforts can't be found.

October 23, 1998|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Hjorth's orders that June morning 54 years ago were mysterious: After parachuting into occupied France with his three cameras, he was to hide in front of the German lines at Normandy and film whatever happened on the beach.

It was before dawn on June 6, 1944, and Hjorth was in the dark, literally and figuratively. He had no idea what to expect on that now-fabled stretch of coastline.

Only when the invasion began did he learn that his mission was to film the D-day landing of the U.S Army's 1st Infantry Division and 29th Infantry Division at Omaha Beach--from the German side.

But whatever he saw, Hjorth (pronounced "Yorth") was under standing orders not to discuss it for 50 years. Even today, the Cypress retiree's mission remains an enigma: The film he shot, called unique by historians who recently learned of it from declassified documents, is missing.

"We're hunting it down," said Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history and director of the University of New Orleans' Eisenhower Center. Hjorth's movie footage and photographs--probably gathering dust in a government archive--are the only known invasion pictures from the German perspective shot at the Normandy beaches, he said.

And recovering the film is important because "it shows how [Gen. Dwight D.] Eisenhower and the [Office of Strategic Services] saw the important need to capture on film what they knew would be the greatest invasion ever," Brinkley said.

'Right in the Middle of the Invasion of Europe'

A Hollywood actor before the war, Hjorth became a combat photographer with the OSS--the forerunner of the CIA--when he enlisted after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was part of a secret unit of filmmakers headed by director John Ford that has only become public in recent years.

Hjorth had parachuted into France three nights before D-day. The night before the invasion he was led to his hiding place on the beach by members of the French Resistance. Hjorth hunkered down with his cameras, about 50 yards from shore, and waited for dawn.

"I could hear the waves, but couldn't see anything. Then it started getting light, and I saw large dots out in the water. I told myself, 'Those aren't islands. Those are ships!' I realized that I was right in the middle of the invasion of Europe," he said.

Hjorth could hear the fire above him from the Germans defending the beach against the American assault. He could feel the concussions as U.S. naval shells exploded around the German bunkers and trench lines. He estimates that he saw as many as 400 Americans die on the beach that day--"a horrible nightmare," he remembers.

Reluctant to Speak of Wartime Work

Hjorth, 77 and a retired McDonnell Douglas executive, never saw the film he shot on D-day. A few days after photographing the invasion, he was thrown out of a screening room by an Army lieutenant who declared the film top secret and threatened to court-martial him if he viewed it, he said.

Details of Hjorth's exploits were revealed this year when the government began declassifying OSS files. The declassified records also revealed new information about Ford's band of filmmakers and their work for the OSS.

Hjorth did not consider himself a spy. Instead, he compares himself to "thousands of other guys who went away to fight for our country."

Upon volunteering for the OSS, Hjorth had to sign an agreement that prevented him from speaking of his wartime activities for 50 years. Today, he talks about his wartime work only reluctantly.

He agreed to recall his D-day exploits only after news accounts reported that amateur military historians who have worked with Brinkley were attempting to locate Hjorth's D-day film.

Melvin Paisley, a World War II fighter pilot and former assistant secretary of the Navy, said Lars Andersen and he have been combing the National Archives for Hjorth's footage.

"It's important because it's such a unique situation. Until the records were declassified, we didn't know that OSS photographers like Hjorth were actually dropped behind enemy lines," Paisley said. "Nobody knew about it because the men who did it weren't allowed to talk about it. . . . But now that we know about Hjorth's film, you can bet we're going to find it."

Hjorth said he is proud of the work he did for the OSS but prefers to forget about the war.

"I've put the war behind me. I prefer to recall happy moments. I'm the eternal optimist. I filmed too many terrible scenes that provoke sadness whenever I think about them," he said.

Among the images Hjorth would prefer to forget are pictures of the Buchenwald death camp and film he shot of another Nazi atrocity in France, where he photographed the corpses of dozens of civilians who were trapped in an underpass and burned alive. As an OSS photographer he was called upon to document these scenes as viewed by liberating American forces.

Although it has been more than half a century since he witnessed these events, talking about them still brings him to tears.

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