The candid photo below of a sailor kissing a girl goodbye in Penn Station during World War II was part of a famous series of shots taken by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt for LIFE Magazine in 1943 and ’44. The magazine only provides the names of about five of the 24 couples. Since the time they appeared in print, nobody has ever known what happened to anyone in them.
It is their uncertainty that makes these shots so compelling. We are pulled in emotionally by their ability to convey the fear and worry of these brave individuals at the time. The servicemen were risking their lives and answering the call to duty. Perhaps every one of the men going off to fight did make it back, we just don’t know for sure, there is no record.
On the left is Fred McDow kissing Ethel Huseland before leaving to go back into service in the navy. I was able to track down the McDow family, Fred’s wife Mary, and younger brother Robert, who still live in New Jersey, and found out what happened to him. We now know that he survived the war and went on to live a wonderful life.
In 1944 he lived in Jersey City, and Ethel wasn’t really his girlfriend. Wife Mary explained that she and Fred were sweethearts from the start and never had any other serious romantic involvements. Mary suggested that Ethel may be the girlfriend of the other gentleman in the photo, which she thinks is why he appears so uncomfortable.
McDow fought in the Philippines aboard the USS Pennsylvania. He stayed in the Army until 1948, then tried the Merchant Marines before returning to graduate from Dickinson High School in Jersey City. He had gained enough knowledge of air conditioning refrigeration systems to get a job with York refrigeration, but when a similar job opened up at the Port Authority Fred seized the opportunity to work there. He went on to earn a degree at the Newark College of Engineering. Fred did a second round of duty with the Navy during the Korean War. He married sweetheart Mary in 1950, and when the war was over, was assigned to the cooling systems of the George Washington Bridge.
The famous 1944 photo of Fred McDow is taken at one lost iconic landmark, Penn Station, while most of his career was spent in charge of another, the World Trade Center. Once the towers were completed, Fred was assigned the position of Maintenance Supervisor of heating and air conditioning where he remained until his retirement in 1993.
Fred and Mary had three children, Doreen, Sharon, and Fred Jr., and they all have families of their own. Fred, or Mick as he was often called, was an enthusiastic and active member of several veterans organizations. He became the president of VFW post 9503 in Berkley Township. He was eventually granted membership into the prestigious Cooties 95 Pine Ticks Lodge of New Jersey. Its uniform of a bright red jacket, tie, and hat made Fred look like the “grand high exalted mystic ruler” out of the Raccoon Lodge of a Honeymooners episode.
Fred never gave up his love for the sea; he owned boats and went on frequent weekend outings. Fred started to lose strength and his vibrancy and passed away in 1998. Brother Robert and wife Mary feel their own special loss with the World Trade Center now gone, as it was such a part of Fred’s life.
Robert thought his family probably knew about the 1944 photo when it first appeared in LIFE Magazine and that they held on to it for a few years after. He suspected that it was eventually just left behind and forgotten about during one family move or another. They were very proud of Fred and his life, and were happy to have the chance to explain to me his list of detailed accomplishments.
This is but one story, one photo among 44, taken by Eisenstaedt in Penn Station and published. He was capturing a tiny fraction of the forced separations brought by the war. Most thankfully saw their men return from war, some unfortunately did not. It is with that uncertainty in mind that these photos draw us in and make us curious to know how these heroes lives turned out. We will never know what happened after all the difficult goodbyes, but at least in the case of this one, we have the answers.
My previous entry on this Eisenstaedt Penn Station Photo series is here.
Many thanks to Fred McDow’s wife Mary, his younger brother Robert, and Robert’s wife Helen for sitting down and talking with me and to Mary for writing several pages about Fred. Without their help, this story would not have been possible to tell.