The Mystery Behind the Photo That Ended World War II

The Kissing Sailor

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George Mendonsa, the kissing sailor

Mendonsa and Greta Friedman, the "nurse", July 4, 2011

On August 14, 1945, Alfred Eisenstaedt took a picture of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square, minutes after they had learned of Japan's surrender to the United States. LIFE magazine published that photograph two weeks later. From then onward everyone who saw the picture knew what it felt like when World War II ended. They wanted to know more. However, Eisenstaedt spoke neither to the nurse or the sailor, and recorded no notes of the occurrence. Mystery surrounded Time Square's most cherished moment.

In the coming years, Eisenstaedt's photo grew in fame and popularity. In 1979 Eisenstaedt thought he discovered the long lost nurse in his V-J Day photograph. He did not. But, for the next thirty years almost everyone assumed Edith Shain was the woman that the assertive World War II sailor kissed. In 1980 LIFE attempted to determine the sailor's identity. The campaign confused matters more than they clarified them. Soon afterward LIFE stepped aside from the wave they helped put into motion. They decided the sailor would remain anonymous. The void presented an irresistible opportunity for former World War II sailors to explain their way into the famous image. Many aging warriors made persuasive arguments to support their claims.

While LIFE took a backseat to the growing controversy, experts weighed in to support one candidate over another. The authorities' opinions differed. Their forwarded proof and testimony became entangled. Claimant kissing sailor's declarations turned combative. Some readers supported Carl Muscarello. Others thought Ken McNeel was the kissing sailor. Many believed Glenn McDuffie to be the kissing sailor. But most who read about the competing claims didn't know what to think. Chaos ensued. The real kissing sailor aged. A national treasure's story went untold.

Until now, no one knew the whole truth behind one of the world's most celebrated pictures. The Kissing Sailor tells the story of a photograph, a place, a publication, pretenders, and proof. When overlaid, an ageless tale of survival, fate, and perseverance comes into clear focus. The view is most befitting of Alfred Eisenstaedt's beloved image.