In the closing days of fighting in Europe during WWII, Allied Forces were driving German troops before them like a bulldozer. On April 19, 1945, the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division, Company D, 23rd Infantry Regiment was battling for Leipzig, Germany. After taking half of the city, the American commanding officer ordered the heavy weapons squad to climb to the third floor of the Jahnallee apartment building and train their .30-caliber Browning M1919 machine gun on the entrenched Nazis.
What set this scene apart from many others in war-torn Europe was that photographer Robert Capa, dressed in unmarked Army fatigues, followed the squad up the stairs to capture the fight on film. Return fire from the Germans was so heavy that only one man at a time could run the MG. Shortly after switching gunners, a German sniper fired and killed a 21-year-old American soldier with a single shot between the eyes. The young soldier fell to the floor and his comrade had to climb over his sprawled body to continue firing at the Germans. Capa captured the tragedy on film.
Three weeks later, when Life magazine published their May 14, 1945 issue proclaiming victory in Europe, the photos of the MG squad were published with the faces of the men obscured. The identities of the American soldiers remained a mystery, but Capa’s photos entitled Death on a Leipzig Balcony and The Last Man to Die have become iconic images repeatedly seen in WWII history books.
The mystery was recently solved when the sole surviving member of the MG crew, Lehman Riggs of Cookeville, TN, shared his story of that day. “We had taken half of the city, and the city was divided by a man-made canal,” the now 92-year-old Riggs said. “We had to go across these bridges to get to the other side of the city. They had blocked the bridges with burned-out tanks and streetcars, anything that would obstruct us from going across. There was a park in front of this building, and they [German troops] were dug in and we couldn’t see them. We had orders to go up to the third floor of this apartment building and set up our guns to spray that area out there in the park to try to keep them pinned down until our troops could cross that bridge.”