Paratroopers just before they took off for the initial assault of D-Day, June 6, 1944.

50 historic photos from American military history

Written by:
December 4, 2020
Archive Photos // Getty Images

50 historic photos from American military history

On the world stage, as a leading military superpower, Americans have been involved in wars and conflicts to protect nations, to fight for American values and democracy, and to support allied nations whose conflicts have results on a global scale. Beyond our reasons for engagement, one aspect of living in a free, democratic country is being aware of the sacrifices of those who give all to defend the rights of the people. Keeping alive the actions and history of a nation allows us to be aware of how to move forward into the future as individuals, and as a nation.

Each military branch, from the Army and Marines, to the Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard, have gone through dramatic strategic and technological advances throughout their history. Sailing vessels became steel-powered diesel ships capable of protecting the entirety of the planet's oceans. Aircraft grew from biplanes to the modern jet-powered fighters we see today. Warfare went from lines of troops and trenches to highly strategic, multifaceted combat leaning more on technology than on individual soldiers, though a military is only as strong as the people who serve within.

America's military history includes countless moments of triumph and loss during conflicts in locations both at home and abroad. From the American Revolution to the end of the Gulf War, over 42 million people have served in the United States Military during wartime. The losses suffered are countless and only a fraction of the stories of their work, heroism, and sacrifice are told. Often a single picture says more than words ever could. The following are images ranging from rescues to moments when our troops finally return home.

Stacker compiled both well-known and lesser-known photographs from Getty Images—each has its place in American military history. Shown here are mothers, sons, fathers, and daughters who were drafted or enlisted, and who served their country throughout the generations. These snapshots offer a window into the lives of veterans and civilians during moments in military history.

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1862: Abraham Lincoln at Antietam during Civil War

The battle of Antietam was known as one of the most important wins for the Union troops, though it was also known as the bloodiest battle in United States history. Shown here is President Abraham Lincoln with General George B. McClellan at his headquarters at Antietam on Oct. 3. From left are: General George W. Morell, Col. Alexander S. Webb, General McClellan, scout Adams, Dr. Jonathan Letterman, unidentified officer, President Lincoln, Col. Henry Hunt, General Fitz, John Porter, and an unidentified officer.

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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

1917: Welcoming

An American soldier in August of 1917 shakes hands with a young member of the watching public as his troop parades through the streets of London. The first world war, also known as The Great War, began in Europe in 1914. After the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, they remained involved until the war's end in 1918.

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Archive Photos // Getty Images

1918: Service for war dead

A service is held in Hoboken, New Jersey, for American soldiers, who died on the battlefields of France during World War I. The war claimed the lives of over 100,000 American service members, and injured more than twice that amount.

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1918: Newspaper headlines on Armistice Day

Jubilant Americans in Washington D.C., show newspaper headlines which announce the surrender of Germany, ending World War I, Nov. 8, 1918. The United States sent over a million troops into Europe alone throughout the duration of the war.

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1919: Ship of soldiers returning home

Soldiers on the USS Agamemnon cheer as they return home to Hoboken, New Jersey, from battles in France. The deck of the ship is crowded with cheering soldiers. Over 4.5 million Americans served the United States Military war efforts.

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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

1941: Attack on Pearl Harbor

The American destroyer USS Shaw explodes during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, home of the American Pacific Fleet during World War II. The attack from Japan came as a complete surprise and was followed soon after by Italy and Germany declaring war on the United States.

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Archive Photos // Getty Images

1942: Battalion of army engineers

Group view of the soldiers of the 41st Corps of Engineers, an African American army battalion, standing in formation and holding the American flag in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. African American soldiers still fought in segregated units during World War II. The United States Military did not desegregate units until 1948.

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Corbis Historical // Getty Images

Circa 1940s: Women building a bomber

Women workers assemble the tail fuselage of a B-17F bomber, also known as a "Flying Fortress," at the Douglas Aircraft Company in Long Beach, California. Millions of women worked in factories and volunteered for the Red Cross in order to serve war efforts.

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Moment // Getty Images

1943: Lockheed P-38 Lightning

Wing Commander Adrian Warburton DSO DFC (center) poses with the first United States Army Air Forces unit in Malta. American pilots shown from left to right include: German, Spencer, Sculpone, Webb, Sugg, Bury. The United States effort involved over 16 million servicemembers.

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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

1943: Medal of honor

Staff Sergeant Maynard Harrison Smith of the United States Army Air Forces is decorated with the Congressional Medal of Honor by Henry L. Stimson, the U.S. Secretary of War, on July 16, 1943. Smith was recognized for his conduct as a gunner aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber during World War II. The medal symbolizes the greatest honor given by the military and has been awarded 3,525 times.

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Corbis Historical // Getty Images

1943: Sailor rescuing pilot from a plane wreck

Lt. Walter Chewning, catapult officer aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, clambers up the side of a downed F6F Hellcat to assist the pilot, Ensign Byron Johnson, from the flaming cockpit. The F6F Hellcat achieved a stunning 19:1 kill ratio during the war, showing the dominance of the technology and the incredible skill of the pilots.

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Archive Photos // Getty Images

1944: Paratroopers preparing for D-Day

Resolute faces of paratroopers just before they took off for the initial assault of D-Day, June 6, 1944. The paratrooper in the foreground has just read General Eisenhower's message of good luck and clasps his bazooka in the other hand. The assault on the beaches at Normandy included the largest airborne force ever deployed up to that date.

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Archive Photos // Getty Images

1944: Operation Overlord

Pictured here are American assault troops landing at Omaha Beach in Normandy supported by naval gunfire. The battles at Normandy, which paved the way for the invasion of Europe, involved almost a quarter of a million casualties for the allied forces.

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Archive Photos // Getty Images

1944: Tuskegee Airmen

Tuskegee Airmen, with fighter aircraft, at Tuskegee Army Flying School during World War II, Tuskegee, Alabama, 1944. The success of these airmen helped in the breaking down of racial barriers in the war effort. They were known across Europe and Northern Africa for their heroism and bravery.

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Archive Photos // Getty Images

Circa 1940s: Burial at sea for USS Intrepid casualties

U.S. Navy sailors gather to honor shipmates killed in action during a burial at sea on board the USS Intrepid off Luzon in World War II. The United States reported 291,557 deaths throughout the duration of the war. The Navy alone suffered over 100,000 deaths.

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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

1945: Women's Army Corp

A contingent of the Women's Army Corps from America being addressed by Major Charity Adams. The group show was known as the Six Triple Eight and was the first group of Black women to be deployed in Europe to sort mail for troops overseas. Though thought to have been set up to fail, they ended up running the most efficient mail service in all of Europe during the war.

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Universal Images Group // Getty Images

1945: Raising the flag on Iwo Jima

In one of the most iconic photographs in American military history, pictured here are members of the United States Marine Corps 5th Division as they raise an American flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima. In 2019, the US Marine Corps positively identified the six men pictured as Corporal Harlon Block, Corporal Harold P. Keller, Private First Class Ira Hayes, Private First Class Harold Schultz, Private First Class Franklin Sousley, and Sergeant Michael Strank.

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Historical // Getty Images

1945: Marine charging during Battle of Okinawa

A U.S. Marine charges forward through Japanese machine gun fire on Okinawa. Marines and infantry of the U.S. 10th Army controlled three-quarters of Okinawa three weeks after landing on the island on March 31, 1945. The allied invasion of Okinawa took three months and included 1,300 U.S. ships. More than 12,000 American servicemen from various branches of the military perished in the fight to take the island.

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FPG // Getty Images

1945: Sharing food

An American serviceman shares his rations with two Japanese children in Okinawa, Japan, 1945. Shortly after the allied forces took control of the island of Okinawa, which was to be used as a base for an attack on mainland Japan, the Japanese government gave in and offered an unconditional surrender.

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FPG // Getty Images

1945: Leaving Nordhausen

A survivor of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp at Nordhausen after the camp was liberated by the U.S. Army, 1945. It is commonly stated that over 6 million innocents were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust, though the true number may be almost double that. The Nazis hid as much of the evidence of their atrocities as they could, so the true number lost may never be known.

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Keystone // Getty Images

1945: Manhattan skyline

With the Empire State Building and the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop, the aircraft carriers USS Midway (CV-41) and the USS Enterprise (CV-6) of the United States Navy make their way to the post-World War II Navy Day review by President Truman on Oct. 27, 1945, in Manhattan, New York. Over 16 million Americans served in the war effort.

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Keystone // Getty Images

1945: Japan surrenders

Following the German surrender in May, the war officially ended on Sept. 2, 1945. Shown here are crowds cheering on Great White Way, New York City, as President Truman announces the formal signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender. A scaled-down version of the Statue of Liberty is in the foreground.

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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

Circa 1950: Bed of shells

An American soldier is pictured here sleeping on his ammunition in the Mason area during the Korean war. The war began in 1950 with the invasion of South Korea by North Korea and ended in 1953, though the Korean peninsula is still divided to this day.

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Central Press // Getty Images

1951: The Mighty Mo

The battleship USS Missouri bombards Chongjin, North Korea, with her 16-inch guns during a mission to set out the lines of communication between the northern and southern parts of Korea during the Korean War. Chongjin is very close to the Soviet border and the Russian naval base at Vladivostok. Although millions of fighters perished during the war, the Korean War is known as "the forgotten war."

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Historical // Getty Images

1962: Kennedy and military leaders

President Kennedy meets with U.S. Army officials during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October to November 1962. The crisis lasted only a matter of weeks, and was perhaps the closest the United States and the USSR came to using nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

1965: US combat unit in vietnam

U.S. Army combat platoon leader Second Lieutenant John Libs (center) of 2nd platoon, C Company, 2d Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division, surveys the situation with his men from the relative safety of a watery rice paddy, as they prepare to advance on a Viet Cong sniper position. Libs and the rest of 2nd Platoon participated in the battle of Xa Cam My/Operation Abilene in April 1966, during which Charlie Company suffered 82% casualties.

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Tim Page // Getty Images

1965: US infantry

The U.S. 173rd Airborne are supported by helicopters during the Iron Triangle assault. The Iron Triangle was a strategic stronghold for the North Vietnamese and remained so until the end of the war. The United States involved over 3 million service members in the conflict, which spanned 19 years.

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1965: American soldiers arriving in Vietnam

Guitar slung over his shoulder, a trooper of the United States 1st Cavalry walks ashore from a landing craft. More than 2,500 cavalrymen arrived here, bringing the total of the Army's First Airmobile Division up to 16,000 men. Over the following two years, the amount of U.S. troops deployed in Vietnam totaled 500,000.

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U.S. Army // Getty Images

1967: US Army rifleman charge viet cong

U.S. riflemen from the 173rd Airborne Brigade charge toward Viet Cong positions, holding machine guns in a wooded area of War Zone D during the Vietnam War. Massive protests against the war efforts, and the involvement of the United States, were spreading back home while the soldiers fought abroad.

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1967: Soldiers engaged in long crawl to crest

Members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade are engaged in a long, long crawl to the crest of Hill 875, a steep mound that in four days cost American forces some of their highest casualties of the war. Pushing inch-by-inch of sloping earth behind them, U.S. paratroopers seized most of the hill on Nov. 22. They were then faced with a North Vietnamese stronghold atop the peak and reports of two fresh regiments of NVA troops moving into the region.

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1968: Soldier shaving colleague's head

Hairstylist service was a rarity at the embattled Marine bastion of Khe Sanh, so Marine PFC Robert DuBois of Brooklyn, New York, did the honors for a buddy and shaves the head of Cpl. Efrain Torres of New York outside their bunker. Scores of Communist troops moving toward the Marines fortress were killed in napalm and bombing attacks by Allied aircraft.

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Terry Fincher // Getty Images

1968: Hill Timothy

U.S. soldiers, one wounded and being carried by a colleague, walking down Hill Timothy during the conflict in Vietnam. Almost 60,000 Americans died in Vietnam. The unconventional ways of fighting, and the knowledge the Vietnamese had about their own terrain, led to the United States removing troops without completing their objectives.

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U.S. Navy // Getty Images

1969: Naval patrol craft

United States Navy inshore patrol craft (PCF) 43 cruises along a riverbank in the Republic of Vietnam during Operation Slingshot in the Vietnam War. Patrol boats like this one were used to transport troops and secure areas along the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

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Dirck Halstead // Getty Images

1975: The fall of Saigon

American military Chinook helicopters helping with the evacuation of Saigon in April 1975. America's involvement in the Vietnam War ended as troops from communist North Vietnam invaded Saigon, the capital of the Republic of Vietnam in the South. Chinook Helicopters first saw battle in the Vietnam War, and were known for their speed and ability to carry large numbers of people.

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1975: Evacuation

A CIA employee (thought to be O.B. Harnage) helps Vietnamese evacuees onto an Air America helicopter from the top of 22 Gia Long Street, a half-mile from the U.S. Embassy. The fall came two years after the Paris Peace accords, which saw the U.S. leave the conflict. This moment is also known as the "Liberation of Saigon."

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Steven D Starr // Getty Images

1989: US soldiers look into a prison cell

American soldiers look inside a secret police prison cell during the invasion of Panama. The United States invaded Panama in 1989 to bring leader Manuel Noriega back to the U.S. to face charges of racketeering, drug trafficking, and money laundering while making way for the rise of the democratically elected leader, Guillermo Endara.

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Tom Stoddart Archive // Getty Images

1990: Operation Desert Shield

U.S. Marines make camp beside the Stars and Stripes in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, during the Gulf War in December 1990. Operation Desert Shield began after the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. The operation turned into Operation Desert Storm when efforts at diplomatic resolution failed.

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Tom Stoddart Archive // Getty Images

1990: Persian Gulf War

Deck crew and an F-15 aircraft from the tactical fighter wing taking off from the aircraft carrier USS Independence in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, to carry out a mission over Kuwait during the Gulf War in December 1990. Operation Desert Storm involved the largest use of United States military aircraft since the war in Vietnam. The U.S. and its allies dropped over 80,000 bombs during the offensive.

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Mike Nelson // Getty Images

1991: USS America

The bow of the aircraft carrier USS America looms above the sand dunes along the Suez Canal on Jan. 15, 1991, as an Egyptian army truck and anti-aircraft position guard the strategic waterway. USS America is shown here making its way towards the Red Sea to be on alert in the Iraq-Kuwait conflict.

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Patrick Durand // Getty Images

1991: US soldiers watch oil refinery burn

U.S. soldiers arrive at a burning oil refinery in Al-Khafji, Saudi Arabia, near the Kuwait border, after Iraqi bombardment during the Gulf War. Over 600,000 troops participated in the war effort, with nearly 300 being killed. The burning of the oil fields had a toxic impact on soldiers who reported symptoms and pain involving the lungs and eyes.

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David Turnley // Getty Images

1991: Kuwaitis with American soldiers

American soldiers have tea with Kuwait citizens during Operation Desert Storm. Americans have continued to be viewed favorably by Kuwaiti citizens, and the two nations have maintained strong diplomatic ties since the end of the Gulf War ended in 1991.

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1991: The border Kow in Saudi Arabia

Once the offensive against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein began, it didn't last long. Within a single day, the United States and its allies controlled the airspace in the region. Hussein fired airstrikes at strategic positions in Saudi Arabia in response. The UN passed a ceasefire on March 2, which included sanctions and a requirement to pay for damages inflicted during the war.

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Wathiq Khuzaie // Getty Images

2003: Shock and awe

Smoke rises from explosions during the first few minutes of a massive air attack on March 21, 2003, in Baghdad, Iraq. Though Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was captured later that year, combat missions in Iraq wouldn't end until 2011. The conflict left over 30,000 civilians dead.

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Mario Tama // Getty Images

2003: Oil fires burn in Iraq

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Dominguez, of Mathis, Texas, stands guard next to a burning oil well at the Rumayla oil fields in Rumayla, Iraq. Several oil wells were set ablaze by retreating Iraqi troops in the Ramayla area, the second largest offshore oilfield in the country, near the Kuwaiti border.

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Mike Theiler // Getty Images

2003: Families mourn soldiers killed during war with Iraq

A member of an honor guard holds an American flag as he waits for the funeral of U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Wilbert Davis at Arlington National Cemetery April 18, 2003, in Arlington, Virginia. Davis was killed on April 3, 2003, in a vehicle accident in Iraq, along with journalist Michael Kelly. Suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) caused numerous deaths during the war.

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Wathiq Khuzaie // Getty Images

2003: The fall of Baghdad

U.S marines and Iraqis are seen on April 9, 2003, as the statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is toppled at Al-Fardous Square in Baghdad, Iraq. After the fall of Baghdad, and the arrest of Hussein, the people of Iraq participated in democratic elections to install new leadership for the country.

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David McNew // Getty Images

2005: 1st Marine division honors comrades killed in Iraq

U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton, California, salute behind memorials to their fallen comrades, at a service memorializing the 420 soldiers, sailors, Marines, and British soldiers who lost their lives while serving with the 1st Marine Division in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The 1st Marine Division had recently completed a year-long deployment to Iraq, serving in the Al Anbar Province from March 2004 until March 2005.

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David McNew // Getty Images

2006: Marines return after one year deployment to Iraq

Gunnery Sergeant Deborah Dangremond kisses her son Tyler, 4, as her daughter Basia, 3, looks on. Marines and sailors of the 1st Marine Logistics Group (MLG) were returning home from a 12-month deployment to Iraq on Feb. 2, 2006, at Camp Pendleton, California. The 1st MLG provided logistical support to the ground fighters, such as maintenance, supply, medical care, and other necessary elements of daily existence in a combat zone to keep the fighters on the frontlines.

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John Moore // Getty Images

2008: US Army battles Taliban in Kunar Province

U.S. Army First Lieutenant Matthew Hernandez looks down the Korengal Valley from a mountaintop outpost on Oct. 24, 2008, in the Kunar Province of eastern Afghanistan. The remote and isolated area was the site of some of the heaviest fighting between U.S. forces and Taliban insurgents.

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Andrew Renneisen // Getty Images

2017: United States in Afghanistan

A U.S. Army helicopter flies outside of Camp Shorab on a flight to Camp Post on Sept. 11, 2017, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. About 300 marines were deployed in Helmand Province in a train, advise, and assist role supporting local Afghan security forces. At this point, the United States had about 11,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan, with a reported 4,000 more expected to arrive in the coming weeks. 

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