The Wall Street Journal vs. The Kissing Sailor: Kissing Sailor 1, WSJ 0

Eric Felten did readers – and the Nation – a great service in his weekend piece “Embraceable Who?” in the May 19-20, 2012 Wall Street Journal.  His robust and well-written article called attention to the recent book, The Kissing Sailor by Larry Verria and George Galdorisi (Naval Institute Press, May 2012, $23.95, ISBN 978-1-61251-078-1).

One of the two most iconic photographs ever taken (the other being Joel Rosenberg’s picture of the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima) and far and away the most iconic photo ever taken by the father of American photojournalism, Alfred Eisenstaedt, and published in America’s photo magazine, LIFE, V-J Day, 1945, in Times Square has been the photo most Americans have grown up with.  It still adorns college dorm walls today, over 66 years after it was shot in the chaos of Times Square on that national day of jubilation.

And that chaos is precisely the reason for this book.  Eisenstaedt had become separated from his reporter and did not record the names of the couple – something he rarely failed to do.  Nor did the principals introduce themselves to each other in the teeming turmoil of the world’s most famous square.  And, as Felten described, that was the first domino in a decades-long mystery that began in 1980 when LIFE caused multiple sailor and nurse claimants to come forward and seek their due.

Referring specifically to the kissing sailor in the photo, Felten claims he “couldn’t care less who he was.”  Really?  Would he feel the same way if the Marines and Navy Corpsman in Rosenberg’s photo – one that eventually graced the cover of James Bradley’s best-seller, Flags of our Fathers, just over a decade ago – remained unidentified years after than iconic photo was taken?  Surprising – and disappointing – that a regular columnist for the world’s most widely-read newspaper has such a cavalier attitude regarding not only correcting the historical record, but giving two of the Greatest Generation their due.  One wonders how Felton would feel if he were related to either George Mendonsa or Greta Zimmer Friedman.

What Felton completely misses is The Kissing Sailor is about vastly more than just proving that Mr. Mendonsa and Ms. Friedman are the principals in this photo.  It’s about “Five Ps:” The Picture, the Place, the Publication, the People and the Proof.  By over-focusing solely on “The Proof,” which he somehow finds unsatisfying, Felten violates the first principal of responsible journalism – getting the whole story.

Publisher’s Weekly sees this book in a different light:

On V-J Day in 1945, famed Life photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt took the Times Square photo of a sailor’s spontaneous kiss that became the single image many associate with the end of WWII. However, the couple’s faces were covered, Eisenstaedt did not ask their names, and Life never pursued the couple’s identity until decades later. When more than a few came forward, the mystery deepened. Even Eisenstaedt misidentified his subjects years later. Retired naval aviator Galdorisi (coauthor, Act of Valor) and Rhode Island history teacher Verria sought a solution by researching records, interviewing claimants, studying photos, and identifying others seen nearby. The book features photos, some of which enabled the authors to recreate plausible scenarios of how Eisenstaedt got the photo. With a team of photo analysis experts, forensic anthropologists, and facial recognition specialists, the final result reads like Rashomon in its comparisons of crucial discrepancies and conflicting memories. The authors deliver a convincing conclusion to their romantic detective tale about the last day of WWII and the photo that “savored what a long-sought peace feels like.”


Mr. Felten reminds us of that famous character in Hogan’s Heroes, Master Sergeant Hans Georg Schultz, the highly unmilitary 300-pound Sergeant of the Guard, when confronted by evidence of the prisoners’ covert activities, simply looked the other way, repeating “I hear nothing, I see nothing, I know nothing!” (or, more commonly as the series went on, simply “I see nothing–NOTHING!”) to avoid being blamed for allowing things to have gotten as far as they already had – which might see him given a one-way trip to the Eastern Front.  We don’t want to sentence Mr. Felten to the Eastern Front, and we’re confident most readers won’t want to put their heads in the sand the way he does.  Perhaps he just had a bad-hair day.

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