It’s one of the most iconic photos ever taken of a kiss, and arguably of the unspeakable joy that falls across a nation when a time of war and suffering has ended. It’s been featured on greeting cards and calendars and coffee mugs and tote bags. Replicas in statue are everywhere, including in my own hometown of San Diego. It’s the VJ Day Times Square Kiss, of course, which one American sailor planted on one American nurse on this day, seventy years ago. Japan surrendered to the Allies on Aug 14th, 1945. Truman announced the surrender here:
I love this kiss for all kinds of reasons, and therefore I don’t like it when naysayers theorize it was staged or that it happened before the announcement that World War II was finally and at last, over.
For a long time there was much speculation about when photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt snapped it or who the subjects were. This linked article, which appeared today in Wired, says that in a book called The Kissing Sailor, it’s believed the sailor is George Mendonsa and that dental assistant Greta Zimmer is the nurse. But dozens of other people have apparently also claimed to be the kissing couple. And Eisenstaedt didn’t identify his subjects. He also didn’t record what time he took the photo, so that’s always been an arguing point, too. But no longer.
A physicist, an astrophysicist and an astronomer who were teamed together for four years have concluded the photo was taken at 5:51 p.m. The Wired article states this trio made a “meticulous study of vintage maps, aerial photos, and blueprints before building a scale model of buildings. Based upon the lighting and shadows and the position of the sun—more on this in a moment—they are quite confident in their findings.”
Truman made his historic announcement at the White House at 10 p.m. But according to George Mendonsa, he and his girlfriend – not the nurse by the way! – were at Radio City Music Hall near Times Square for a 1:05 p.m. showing of “A Bell for Adano,” but they never saw the end of the film. The house lights came on and the movie was stopped mid-reel. There was pounding on the doors from outside the hall. The streets were alive with the news that Japan had surrendered. George and his date and thousands of others swarmed the Square in jubilation. He kissed the first nurse he saw because of all that he had seen. The war in the Pacific, where he had just come from, had been hell.
I like the idea that this photo was a spontaneous reaction to the best news ever. I like it that the sailor and the nurse probably didn’t know each other. (If it’s George, they didn’t). I like the bend in her body, and how his fingers are still loosely curled into a fist – an echo of the military effort and sacrifice made by American servicemen and women. I like it that her leg has popped in what for me will always be, since The Princess Diaries, a foot-popping kiss. It’s a black and white photo. The nurse in white is a healer, a reliever of pain, an emblem of humanity’s compassionate side. The sailor in black tones is a metaphor for might and bravery and the terrible duty that befalls a nation that must go to war to defend its freedom and the freedom of others. Sometimes we must take up arms. It is always a joy to lay them down again.
I like it that they are in uniform. This is a picture of two people who took on responsibility in the service of others. They won’t always be in uniform, but on this day they were.
And I like the faces of those who are watching them.
I guess all that’s to say I don’t need to know all the particulars; I am content with limited facts and my own imagination. Sometimes it’s better to enjoy the magic and not worry so much about how the rabbit got into the hat.