‘Kissing Sailor’ a good frame of history


Published June 24, 2012 – by The Galveston Daily News:

“The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo That Ended World War II,” by Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi, Naval Institute Press, 2012, 224 pages, $23.95

It was one of the iconic photographs of World War II: A sailor and nurse kissing at Times Square on V-J Day. Along with photos of the battleship Arizona exploding Dec. 7, 1941, GIs crawling ashore on D-Day and the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, it remains one of the most-remembered images of that war.

While the other three photos show how we fought and won the war, V-J Day, 1945, “Times Square,” as the photo was titled, shows how we celebrated victory. Its popularity grew with time.

So what is the story behind that photo? Who was the kissing couple? Why were those two people there?

“The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo That Ended World War,” by Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi, answers those questions. In the process, the book strips away the misconceptions and myths surrounding the photo and piece together the real story.

The book weaves five individual strands to create the thread of its story. It devotes a chapter each to the history of “Times Square,” the location of the story, Life Magazine, the publication in which the photo appeared, and Alfred Eisenstadt, the picture’s photographer.

Around that, it wraps the lives of the two individuals who appeared in the photo, George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer.

These may not be the names you associated with the kissing couple. As the book explains, Eisenstadt did not get their names when he snapped this picture. He was not even aware what he had captured that day. The image, unseen by Eisenstadt until it was published, captured an editor’s attention, who ran it as a full-page photo in its Aug. 27, 1945, issue.

Life did not attempt to identify the couple until 1980 — by which point, numerous claimants “remembered” how they had participated. Life’s attempt created more confusion about the identities.

The last half of “The Kissing Sailor” filters through these claims using modern forensic techniques before determining Mendonsa and Zimmer as the two most likely to have been the ones captured by Eisenstadt.

While thorough and probably the final word on the subject, it seems the weakest part of the book.

The book’s strength lies in its ability to frame the photograph within its historical context. The image was haunting because of a unique intersection of photojournalism, history and place.

In “The Kissing Sailor,” Verria and Galdorisi capture that moment almost as perfectly as Eisenstadt’s photo.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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