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V-J Day: A Window Into a Vanished World

4 years ago
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Sixty-five years ago on Aug. 14, New Yorkers gathered in Times Square to celebrate the surrender of Japan. On that day, photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt captured what may be the most famous kiss in history.

V-J Day was a unique moment in time. Cameras were abundant enough to preserve events like spontaneous celebrations, and people were not so wary as to turn away the kiss of a stranger. We were all Americans, and we'd defeated the enemy.

Although there exists another photograph of that same V-J kiss, taken by Lt. Victor Jorgensen, there's no comparison to the Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph.

There may be a reason for that. Glenn McDuffie, a former sailor who claims to be the V-J kisser said, "Then I heard someone running and I lifted my head and it was that photographer." In one account, McDuffie claimed he "kissed her for a while" because of the photographer's presence.

McDuffie is one of more than a dozen men who've come forward to claim they were the sailor in the photo. But he's the only one who had an explanation for the awkward angle of the kisser's left arm. "I moved my hand back so he could see her face."

Forensic artist Lois Gibson took measurements and photographs of McDuffie posed in a similar position. She concluded that McDuffie is the guy.

We know who the woman in the photo was. In 1979 she wrote a letter to Eisenstaedt stating she was the woman and asking for a copy of the photograph. Her name was Edith Shain, and she died June 20 at the age of 91.

More recently an eyewitness has added a few details about that kiss on V-J day. Another nurse, Gloria Bullard, stands in the background in the Jorgensen photograph. Bullard said that she got off her 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift early and that she and a friend headed for Times Square, along with other New Yorkers who sensed news of a surrender would soon be forthcoming.

Bullard's timeline would peg the iconic photograph not at 7 p.m., when President Harry S. Truman announced on radio the unconditional surrender of Japan, but earlier in the afternoon. If Bullard's account is correct, the mystery of the bright sky in Eisenstaedt's photograph is solved.

Bullard said the nurse "wasn't really struggling. It looked to me like she was trying to keep her skirt down. I got the impression she was enjoying it."

They kissed for a while. When Bullard looked back, "they were still kissing." Which would track with McDuffie's story that the kiss at least partly was for the camera.

"It was a good kiss," McDuffie has said. "It was a wet kiss."

A good, wet kiss. Oh, those were the days, when a good, wet kiss really meant something.

This weekend Times Square unveiled a 25-foot statue of the V-J kiss. The statue is large in scale but short on aesthetics. Take a look for yourself.

The Eisenstaedt photograph, on the other hand, is dear to my heart, regardless of whether or not the picture was a bit staged, and therefore tainted as photojournalism.

It's a peek into a world I never knew. A world that believed total victory was possible. A world that had not yet read John Hersey's searing moment-by-moment account of what happened to the men, women and children in Hiroshima just a few days before the V-J kiss took place.

And something called the Cold War was on the horizon. We just didn't know it yet.
Filed Under: Woman Up, Culture

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