August 14, 1945, VJ Day, the day Japan surrendered in World War II, is probably one of the most historic days for our nation. We were at least for a moment at peace. Word spread through the streets and people rushed out to celebrate. Whether or not anyone was aware of the looming cold war probably didn’t matter much at that second. Whatever was to come was unimportant on August 14, 1945. This was a day Americans had been yearning for for almost five years and it had suddenly come; it was simply a time to be joyful.
The photo that has come to epitomize the day is that of the sailor kissing the nurse as taken by esteemed LIFE magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt. While the picture itself is considered iconic, it also inspired a great photographic mystery: who is really in the photo? Since Eisenstaedt didn’t get the names of the kissers, it was not documented. Anyone could come forth and make a claim to be in the picture. As a result, at least three different women and 11 different men have at one time or another made seemingly legitimate claims to be one of the two in the photo.
In 2005, the Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories (MERL) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, extensively examined the height, weight, and facial features of the sailor and nurse to make the determination that it was at Navy Quartermaster George Mendonca kissing nurse Gretta Friedman. In 2012, the book The Kissing Sailor by George Galdorisi and Lawrence Verria was published, detailing the lives of Mendonca and Friedman.
Two years earlier in April 1943, Eisenstaedt had walked into Penn Station to capture a much more ominous and somber mood. He photographed men kissing their loved ones for possibly the last time as they went into service for their country during wartime. Their embraces were caught with Eisenstaedt’s always captivating photographic eye in uniquely touching and emotional images. These were people in love who did not know if they would ever be reunited to build the dream of a life together or be eternally separated and left with only thoughts of what might have been.
LIFE published five Eisenstaedt Penn Station farewell kisses in its April 19, 1943 issue. The uncredited article in the piece stating “neither Eisenstaedt or his candid camera were noticed as they recorded these little dramas of women saying goodby (sic) to the men they love.” The issue also included shots of nurses, mothers, and women in the service as they, too, waited for trains with nervous, pensive expressions on their faces.
LIFE sent Eisenstaedt back to Penn Station for another set of photos which were published in its February 14, 1944 issue. Whether it was because of the Valentines Day date, or just because romantic shots seemed most compelling, this issue included 19 shots of couples embracing in emotional goodbyes. This series was titled “Life Goes Back to Pennsylvania Station” and it explained that “Boys and Girls say their tender, sad goodbys, (sic) unmindful of their part in a great, familiar drama.”
In the end that was all there seemingly was to this story. We have the legacy of these touching photos, but we also do not know what happened to these people after the pictures were taken. Like the VJ day photo, we have a photographic mystery. The suspense and uncertainty that we see in the couple’s expressions still hang over us because we do not know what their endings were.
It was with that in mind that I decided to find out what happened to at least one of the people in these photos. I didn’t have much information–of the 24 pairs pictured in both issues, only five couples’ names are provided in the text. This is probably because as the first issue stated, the photographer went virtually unnoticed. And so it was with the five sets of names that I set out on my search.
From the beginning, I could not find any trace at all of three sets of the names–nothing in any census or any database at all. Who knows if these three gave Eisenstaedt their real names and if he wrote them down correctly. I did get a match on a fourth set but the trail ended with a Queens death record from 1985 and a corresponding one-line obituary in The New York Times that did not mention any surviving family. And so I was only left with names from number five. I found a matching last name in a phone listing in New Jersey of a sailor shown on the second page of the 1944 series. I made a call and it was returned. It was this sailor’s younger brother, who was happy to speak with me about his sibling; I had made a connection at last.
I now know that the sailor did return from the war, that he settled down in New Jersey and raised three children with his wife. He had a successful career working mostly for the Port Authority and worked in of all places, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. He lived into his 70s and passed away in 1998. He did not marry the woman with whom he is pictured in the photo, but a woman he had known since childhood. I have since met his wife and spoke with her about her husband’s life. I was able to put the pieces of his life story together, and I’ll provide that story in an upcoming piece.