On 14 August 1945, 18-year-old Glenn McDuffie was changing trains in New York City when he heard the news that Japan had surrendered.
“I was so happy. I ran out in the street,” McDuffie said. He ran out into Times Square, which was beginning to fill with those jubilant at the news, and saw a nurse. “She saw me hollering and with a big smile on my face,” McDuffie remembered... “I just went right to her and kissed her.”
That kiss – photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine – became the defining image of the end of the war and one of the 20th century’s most reproduced pictures.
After the embrace, McDuffie hopped back on the train and travelled to Brooklyn to see his girlfriend. “We never spoke a word,” he said of the nurse, who was later identified as Edith Shain – who died in 2010.
McDuffie – who died aged 86 on 14 March in a nursing home in Texas – had long claimed to be the sailor in the photograph. He drafted in the help of Lois Gibson – a forensic artist at the Houston Police Department – to help him prove it was him in Times Square with the nurse in his arms.
Gibson – who won a place in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2005 for having successfully identified more suspects than any other forensic artist – took more than 100 photographs of McDuffie and, in 2008 on his 81st birthday, confirmed McDuffie as the kissing sailor.
McDuffie’s cameo role in Times Square 70 years ago was a fleeting moment that ultimately came to symbolise more: the hope of what a post-war world might bring and the aspiration that things might at last be better than they were.
It’s the bit players in some of the most important chapters of our collective histories that often have the most important part to play. Be it a moment of jubilant frivolity in Times Square, or a moment of desperation at a fruit stand in Tunisia in 2010, it’s the people who articulate – in one impulsive moment – the best and worst of the world around them that often shape the story to come.
So, as Glenn McDuffie is laid to rest on Friday at the Forth Worth military cemetery in Dallas, let’s celebrate the bit players who – whether we acknowledge it or not – often have the most important role to play of all.
Tomos Lewis is a producer for Monocle 24.