On a recent trip to San Diego, we stopped to see a 25-foot-tall sculpture by J. Seward Johnson, based on the 1945 Life magazine cover photo taken when the end of World War II was announced. The photograph, known as Unconditional Surrender, was taken on August 14, 1945, V-J Day (Victory Over Japan), when a spontaneous celebration broke out over the news that President Harry S. Truman announced the end of the war.
It turns out that this sculpture was designed after a photograph taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt. In two different books Eisenstaedt wrote two slightly different accounts of taking the photograph and of its nature.
From Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt:
In Times Square on V.J. Day I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight. Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, didn’t make a difference. I was running ahead of him with my Leica looking back over my shoulder but none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse. If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture. If the sailor had worn a white uniform, the same. I took exactly four pictures. It was done within a few seconds.
Only one is right, on account of the balance. In the others the emphasis is wrong — the sailor on the left side is either too small or too tall. People tell me that when I am in heaven they will remember this picture.
From The Eye of Eisenstaedt:
I was walking through the crowds on V-J Day, looking for pictures. I noticed a sailor coming my way. He was grabbing every female he could find and kissing them all — young girls and old ladies alike. Then I noticed the nurse, standing in that enormous crowd. I focused on her, and just as I’d hoped, the sailor came along, grabbed the nurse, and bent down to kiss her. Now if this girl hadn’t been a nurse, if she’d been dressed dark clothes, I wouldn’t have had a picture. The contrast between her white dress and the sailor’s dark uniform gives the photograph its extra impact.
When we got out of the car and approached the plaza, alas, the statue was gone. As the daughter of a WWII vet, I was slightly offended when it wasn’t there because, even though the original photo was taken in New York’s Times Square, San Diego is a naval port, so its placement on the plaza seemed logical with the U.S.S. Midway Museum as its backdrop. Despite the fact that San Diego is known as a Conservative community, California as a whole is known to be anti-anything that represents war or anything that would suggest America’s supremacy, not just in wars won.
A friend suggested that maybe some liberals put together a letter-writing campaign to have it removed. This really irked me, so I set out to research where the statue went.
I grew up in a fairly small Midwestern Big 10 college town. My parents never exposed me to art galleries or stage plays that are familiar to people living in big cities. They could have if they wanted to drive two and a half hours north to Chicago, but art never struck their fancy. When I saw this gigantic sculpture, of course, I knew it was a form of art, but I never dreamed that as iconic as it was that it would offend some of the locals and art critics of San Diego. Surely it was welcome by the naval community.
When it was set up in San Diego, Edith Shain, the nurse memorialized in Eisenstaedt’s photo, and members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association Inc., attended the ceremony. Here are some comments from attendees that day:
“This photo and statue still moves me to this day, said former USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) Sailor Arthur A. Kowalski. It’s nice to know that people haven’t forgotten about that moment in history. This moment is so precious and can never be duplicated.”
“It’s a classic symbol of a Sailor. I can’t put into words the honor it is to meet the woman that was in the photograph and to be a part of the official ceremony for such an amazing piece of work, continued Salyer.”
“This statue brings back so many memories of peace, love and happiness, said Shain. There is so much romance in the statue; it gives such a feeling of hope to all who look at it.”
And from the nurse herself: “During the moment of the kiss I don’t remember much, it happened so fast and it happened at the perfect time. I didn’t even look at the Sailor who was kissing me, Shain continued. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the moment like any woman would have done.”
After finding these comments, my nose was really out of joint as to why this statue was moved, but it turns out that the statue is owned by the Sculpture Foundation of Santa Monica, California, and was on loan to the Port of San Diego.
Then I read this comment from Donald Reeves, who was instrumental in bringing Unconditional Surrender to San Diego. He suggests those who are critical of the statue “…go down there and stand for ten minutes. Listen to all the comments and look at the thousands of people – not hundreds – but thousands who come by.” Reeves goes on to say that ‘Unconditional Surrender’ is by far the most popular tourist item in San Diego. Nothing else comes close.”
Well…maybe not so fast.
Now read these comments from San Diegans after the statue was removed:
“Maybe it’s being replaced by a new statue that is less offensive to our New Navy.”
“Art critic Robert Pincus talked about how ‘Unconditional Surrender’ on a radio show says it fails on an artistic level. He called it monstrous.”
Good riddance “Unconditional Surrender” Godzilla as you lumber away to crush another city’s artistic culture.
…statue is a violation of the unique artistic culture of this city.
I am glad this disgusting piece of rubbish is exiting; hopefully it will never appear here again.
…The picture it is based on is amazing, and I agree it’s a complete insult to take such a spontaneous, master piece of photography and soil it by constructing this campy cartoonish eyesore as homage to it.
…Anything military, no matter what it is, no matter how horrid it is, must be worshiped by all according to radical military propagandists in this town. To suggest that someone who finds this thing repellant is somehow “unpatriotic” is absurd, and to suggest keeping this monstrosity simply because it is militaria is also absurd.
…Of course it is (a popular tourist attraction), but in a good way? No. People flock to see things that are bizarre, in good ways and in bad ways. Hoards of Tokyo tourists are not clicking snaps at this junky statue because they think it’s high art or are jealous they don’t have one in Japan, they are clicking snaps at it because it’s a large, freakish, embarrassing monstrosity that they can show friends back home pictures of and laugh.
I think I might treat my friends to a little celebratory night on the town downtown in celebration of the removal of this hideous embarrassment from our city.
And so what are we left with? A visual echo of a time gone by, another era from yesteryear. It was the conclusion to the hell that the whole world had just passed through and yet managed to survive.
A young sailor stepping off of the deck of a ship to which he was confined for so many years and feeling America solidly under his feet for the first time in a long time, he beheld the first lovely vision of American youth and womanhood—a vision which represented to him all that was home and what he was fighting for: a girlfriend, a wife, a mother, a daughter a sister.
Now…the war was over, and he made it through alive! In a moment of spontaneity, he grabbed that flower of American virtue and for one brief moment, he held her in his arms and kissed—forever, yet so brief a moment—the lips of home.
She must have been momentarily taken back as that kiss passed quickly between the two.
A hero was welcomed home and just as quickly as it began, it was over as they turned and walked away into the final chapter of that dreaded war and unknowingly into the hearts of millions.