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The Kissing Sailor: The ‘Cosmic Forces’ Behind How the Book Came to Be Written

Co-authors George Galdorisi and Lawrence Verria describe how a collection of chance meetings produced the book that solved a six-decade old mystery

As we mentioned in our last post, Alfred Eisenstaedt’s V-J Day 1945, In Times Square should never have happened, because the three principals should have been dead. The photographer’s World War I regiment was wiped out at the Battle of Verdun. The Jewish woman’s family perished in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Hundreds of the sailor’s World War II mates drowned in Typhoon Cobra.

But the forces that came together in a “cosmic coincidence” that led to our producing The Kissing Sailor, were, arguably, even more remarkable than the forces that caused the picture to be taken on Aug. 14, 1945. Here is the “story within the story” behind The Kissing Sailor and how we came to write the book about the most iconic photograph in American history – perhaps in all history. It all started….

Like many, for years I wondered about the identity of the sailor and nurse. I assumed the end of World War II sparked the kiss, but wondered what else precipitated the occasion. I wanted to learn the participants’ names, their origins, how they arrived in Times Square at that particular moment and what awaited them in the future seconds, days, and years after the photographed instance. Even with so many questions unanswered, somehow I just knew that the assertive sailor and the nurse he held had an amazing story to tell.

Lawrence Verria: While I do not recall my first viewing of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photograph, V-J Day, 1945, in Times Square, every random spotting of his picture drew my attention. As a young man, I guess I wanted to be the kissing sailor. I probably assumed the picture had something to do with sex, maybe romance, and certainly macho behavior. In truth, none of those descriptions portrayed the moment accurately.

Like many, for years I wondered about the identity of the sailor and nurse. I assumed the end of World War II sparked the kiss, but wondered what else precipitated the occasion. I wanted to learn the participants’ names, their origins, how they arrived in Times Square at that particular moment and what awaited them in the future seconds, days, and years after the photographed instance. Even with so many questions unanswered, somehow I just knew that the assertive sailor and the nurse he held had an amazing story to tell.

The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo That Ended World War II

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

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s many former World War II sailors claimed a part in the famous photo. They all made convincing pitches. Most had an abundance of “proof” supporting their contentions. Determining whose claims were most accurate seemed impossible. Over the years the campaigns for recognition turned contentious. And the battling had just begun.

My first connection to that ongoing debate, though far removed, began in January 1994. While teaching a lesson about the end of World War II, I projected a slide of a sailor and nurse kissing. “This famous picture from LIFE magazine …” I explained, “epitomizes the end of World War II like no other.” As soon as I finished my treatment of the black and white photo a student from the back of the classroom added some color to the lesson.

“I know that guy,” Anthony Restivo announced from an undersized chair that he balanced on its two hind legs. He delivered his claim loudly and with an air of certainty. The class of mostly eleventh graders broke into laughter as they spun around to look in Anthony’s direction. They relied on him for comic relief. He rarely disappointed. On this day, he exceeded their expectations. He knew the anonymous kissing sailor. In fact, Anthony claimed, he had breakfast every Saturday morning in Newport with the now 73 year-old former sailor. He clarified, “Yeah, Mr. Verria, he’s a fisherman now, and sort of a local hero.” I had never heard of him. While Anthony always stretched the truth, on this day he seemed to overreach and come down with a ridiculously farfetched contention. Even his classmates did not believe him. Regardless, the interruption had served its purpose. We all had a good laugh.

The following summer I had cause to be in Newport. During my visit I came upon a diner called the Handy Lunch. Inside of the Handy Lunch’s large front window leaned three black framed 8” x 10” pictures. One of the pictures was of the sailor and nurse kissing in Times Square on Aug. 14, 1945. After a few seconds staring at that photo, I started to connect the dots; Newport … breakfast … Saturday mornings … local hero … Anthony. I went inside and inquired about the picture. I spoke with a Handy Lunch’s waitress who was busily preparing for the day’s lunch crowd. She told me that the man in the photo worked on the docks, not far from the diner. I met him a few minutes later. We made plans to talk more on another day.

He did not learn about “his” photograph, the one Eisenstaedt took on the day World War II ended, until years after LIFE published it. But as soon as he saw the V-J Day photo, he identified the physical evidence in the picture that solidified his claim to be the kissing sailor. After sharing the evidence in support of his argument, he talked about his efforts to be recognized as the kissing sailor in the famous Times Square scene. He raised his voice and bewailed those in positions to formally recognize him in that photo but who had chosen to do otherwise.

Two weeks later I interviewed the fisherman in his Middletown, R.I. home, in a room that resembled a World War II museum. Papers, pictures, plaques, and models from the 1940s surrounded us. The collection clearly played a supporting role in a life story.

As a World War II sailor he had fought the Japanese Imperial Navy but never referred to them as such. Instead, he referred to the sailors and pilots of the once-enemy empire as “Japs.” More than hatred or disrespect, I sensed that a mixture of World War II vernacular and years-long habit accounted for the term he used. One experience from that war, he assured, prompted a later action in Times Square that Eisenstaedt caught on film. When explaining the connection between those two vastly different events, his voice cracked and his eyes welled.

He did not learn about “his” photograph, the one Eisenstaedt took on the day World War II ended, until years after LIFE published it. But as soon as he saw the V-J Day photo, he identified the physical evidence in the picture that solidified his claim to be the kissing sailor. After sharing the evidence in support of his argument, he talked about his efforts to be recognized as the kissing sailor in the famous Times Square scene. He raised his voice and bewailed those in positions to formally recognize him in that photo but who had chosen to do otherwise. As he did so, he clenched his fist and pounded his monstrous right hand and massive forearm on a chair’s padded armrest.

During his three-hour presentation he held nothing back and harbored no reserve to draw from at our meeting’s end. He was convincing, powerful, and larger than life. But was he the kissing sailor in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s V-J Day, 1945 photograph? I could not say.

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Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-36497">

    Watching the View 6/22/12, and heard the story. Loved it and can’t wait to read the book. Looks like a great REAL story.