Famous WWII veteran dies, sparking nationwide memories

VJ soldier kisses nurse statue Sarasota

photo of Sarasota sculpture by Burton Farbman

As your faithful Sarasota scribe, I feel it’s my duty to tell you that Glenn McDuffie died.  Glenn McDuffie? you ask.  I promise you know who he is.

McDuffie was the sailor who kissed a nurse in Times Square to celebrate the end of WW2.  The moment, on V-J Day in 1945, was captured by legendary photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt for the iconic shot run in Life magazine.  in Sarasota, the photo was immortalized by J. Seward Johnson in a 25 ft. tall sculpture, Unconditional Surrender.  While art snobs turn up their noses, as they do in San Diego where another exists, the sculpture is wildly popular. Anyone who’s visited Sarasota has seen the sculpture near the bay on Tamiami by the Ringling Causeway.  It’s a beloved landmark. You can not drive past without glimpsing tourists gathered at the nurse’s ankles for a photo.

After the war, McDuffie became a mail carrier and semi-pro baseball player.  His life amped up six years ago, at 80, when Houston Police Department forensic artist Lois Gibson, after multiple tests, confirmed his claim as the young sailor in the famous photo.  (In 2005, Gibson was in the Guinness Book of World Records for helping police identify more suspects than any other forensic artist.)  McDuffie said he was changing trains in New York when he learned of Japan’s surrender.  “I was so happy, I ran out in the street.  And then I saw that nurse.  She saw me hollering and with a big smile on my face.  I just went right to her and kissed her.  We never spoke a word.”

Eisenstaedt didn’t get the names of people he photographed that day.  For years McDuffie was bothered that he wasn’t identified as the man in the photo.  He turned to Gibson for support.  Taking some 100 pictures of McDuffie posing with a pillow in the position of the picture taken Aug. 14, 1945, Gibson compared the features of the then 80-year-old McDuffie to the young sailor in the original image.

She didn’t simply glance at the images. This was a comparison worthy of an episode of CSI. According to the Associated Press at the time of Gibson’s announcement: “She measured his ears, facial bones, hairline, wrist, knuckles and hand, and compared those to enlargements of Eisenstaedt’s picture.”

Of the match, Gibson said, “I was absolutely positive.”

And so, in his 80s, McDuffie became a celebrity, sought after by air shows, gun shows, fundraisers and parties to share his story.

Which just goes to show: it’s never too late to be who you might have been. R.I.P., sailor.

There is more to the story: I’m a believer in Gibson’s science and McDuffie’s claim but associations with the famous story didn’t end there. LIFE magazine editors, at the time of Gibson’s announcement, refused to endorse her findings. They knew that other veterans—and their families—still held onto claims of having appeared in that famous scene. The New York Times reported that the other claimants included a Rhode Island fisherman, a New Jersey history teacher and a Harvard University refrigeration mechanic.

I am saluting McDuffie today, by marking his passing, but the real story here is the fading of the entire generation who served in World War II in so many ways around the world. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that more than 700 WWII veterans are dying every day across the U.S. That’s a lot of families who are both grieving and are celebrating heroic memories of men, and women, who served in that era.

Know a WWII veteran? If you haven’t taken the time to ask about their memories—now’s the time.

Question to fashionistas: The sculpture is so lifelike, I wondered if the nurse were wearing garters to hold up her white stockings.  I peered up her skirt to check.  What is your guess?  Garters or not?

(Thanks to Ramit Plushnick-Manti of AP for this story.  And to my esteemed editor, David Crumm, for some collaboration this week.)

Readers, thanks for sharing your Godsigns adventures with me.


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3 thoughts on “Famous WWII veteran dies, sparking nationwide memories

  1. Elaine Greenberg

    Suzi–there is a Detroit connection to that pictures. There was a gal that was on the Dick Purtan show (I can’t remember her name) who talked about the picture and that the man in the picture was her grandfather–now I am really fuzzy –because I don’t think it was the woman who was related to her–I am pretty sure it was the sailor. She and I emailed back and forth for quite awhile because I remember that picture on the cover of Life magazine—-the gal I am talking about was a regular on Dick’s show–just can’t remember her name. You might be able to google her, or contact Dick–he might remember the story.
    Nice article

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