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There are photographs that with one glance epitomize a generation as well as a moment in time. The image of the kissing sailor captured by Alfred Eisenstaedt in Times Square on August 14, 1945 is one of those pictures. There was never a question about who took the picture, where it was taken or even when. The mystery was the identity of the kissing couple.

Forensic analysis of a picture relies on clues. Who took the picture? Where was it taken? What’s in the background? These three questions are just a few of the ones that need to be answered to assess the pictorial data. It’s the same for every photo be it an iconic image or a family photo.

Here’s what’s known for sure:

  • On August 14, 1945, photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt took four pictures within moments of each other all capturing the couple kissing.
  • Life magazine chose one of them for that week’s cover.
  • Eisenstaedt didn’t record the name of the man and woman and no one at Life knew their names either.

As time passed and the fame of the photo grew, more people wanted to know the name of the man and women. Several men and women came forward claiming to be in the right spot at the right time. One man took a lie detector test to prove his claim. Eisenstadt agreed with another of the claimants.

Eisenstaedt signing his VJ photo, August 1995 at an event on Martha’s Vineyard. [1]

Eisenstaedt signing his VJ photo, August 1995 at an event on Martha’s Vineyard. [1]

In 1980, a man now residing in Middletown, Rhode Island, named George Mendoza, received a call from a friend who told him that his picture was in a book published by Life. Thirty-five years after that kiss, Mendoza saw the picture for the first time. He was astonished and annoyed. He immediately recognized himself and began collecting details to prove his case. Mendoza decided to sue Time-Life for using his image. [2]

Could an ordinary guy from Newport be the sailor in the one photo that represents the conclusion of World War II? For two decades Mendoza accumulated his proof.

There are plenty of details in the picture worthy of analysis. The location is clear. The images were “shot just south of 45th St. looking north from a location where Broadway and Seventh Avenue converge.” [3] Location is a key part of every story told by men and women who state they are the couple. Not all of the stories lead those individuals to the right spot for the kiss. This was not the only couple who embraced.

The sailor in this shot shows his stripes on the right side of his uniform. Mendoza clearly remembered placing them on that side on that day. Two of the other claimants were a lower rank than Mendoza. [4]

Celebrating VJ Day in Little Italy in New York City (Library of Congress)

Celebrating VJ Day in Little Italy in New York City (Library of Congress)

One of the details that make television shows like CSI so interesting is the study of facial features and other physical characteristics. There are at least twenty major points in a person’s face worth comparing—eyes, ears, noses, mouths, hairlines and the spacing of all those features. In this case, tattoos on the sailor’s hand and the features of that hand also come into play.

Mendoza’s lawyer hired Richard Mead Atwater Benson, a nationally known photographic expert. Details of the Benson report appear in The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II, by Rhode Islander Laurence Verria and his co-author George Galdorisis.[5] Benson studied all the evidence including details on Mendoza’s right arm and that of the sailor. A close look at a raised bump on the left arm of the sailor compared to one of the exact same size and location on Mendoza’s added further support for the identity. Benson concluded that Mendoza is definitely the sailor in the picture. Fourteen years later a team compiled by the Naval War College in Newport used 3-D facial modeling to compare Mendoza’s face to the sailor. They came to the same conclusion. [6]

Life magazine continued to decline to name Mendoza as the sailor. News media outlets promoted other claimants as the man in the photo. Mendoza persisted in his efforts and has the last word. Verria and Galdorisi compiled all the evidence in their book and at the end call for an end to the controversy. Only Middletown’s own George Mendoza has the right stuff to be the man kissing a woman in the iconic photo celebrating victory. You can watch him tell his tale online in a CNN news item, “V-J Day A War, a Kiss and Mystery.” Click on this link: http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/14/us/vj-day-kissing-sailor/index.html

[Banner photo: Crowd of people, many waving, in Times Square on V-J Day at time of announcement of the Japanese surrender in 1945. World-Telegram photo by Dick DeMarsico (Library of Congress)]

Notes

1          The Kissing Sailor by William Waterway Marks (Private collection, William Waterway Marks) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

2          Verria, Laurence and George Galdorisi. The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2012), p. 167.

3          V-J Day in Times Square, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V-J_Day_in_Times_Square

4 Verria and Galdorisi, The Kissing Sailor, p. 149.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid. 166-183.