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Reaction to this article was intense. Life Magazine denied the coverup. Time Magazine and most major newspapers in the U.S. and worldwide reprinted the story and covered the controversy that followed. Good Morning America, Fox in the Morning, and many television and radio programs worldwide also carried interviews with Jim Reynolds (and a few with me) after the story came out.
An Old Sailor Confesses
George Byron Koch
The Wall Street Journal, August 14, 1996
"In the middle of New York's Times Square a white-clad girl clutches her purse and skirt as an uninhibited sailor plants his lips squarely on hers."
This is the caption on the world-famous photo in Life Magazine's August 27th, 1945, spread on VJ day—when the whole country exploded in celebration of victory over Japan. The photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt, gained fame for his slice-of-life candid photos. They captured the spirit of events in a way at once both spontaneous and memorable. Virtually everyone has this famous picture in mind as the very image and essence of VJ day.
The white-clad girl was recently identified and had a brief moment of fame on national TV. The sailor remained a mystery. Was he still alive? Why hadn't he come forward? And thereon hangs a tale...
Signalman Second Class Jim Reynolds was a married man on VJ day, August 14. He and his bride, Mary Ann, had wed during a brief leave in Chicago on May 24 of the same year, just after his release from the hospital and return to the states.
When the Life photograph appeared, Mary Ann and her mother recognized the sailor immediately as her beloved Jim. Yet there it was in capital letters, "...a white-clad girl clutches her purse and skirt as an uninhibited sailor plants his lips squarely on hers." How could her new groom do this, even in a victory celebration?
He denied it, of course. The photo was in Times Square, New York. On VJ day he was in San Jose, Calif., and he could prove it. "Not me—it couldn't be me."
They were both so sure it was Jim, but he was right. It couldn't be. And so life went on: a good marriage, four children, years of teaching school in St. Charles, Ill., and West Chicago, joys and struggles, decades of love and care and truthfulness.
Mary Ann died on March 23, 1996, after a year and a half in a nursing home, with Jim at her side every day. Now 75 years old, he still works as a security guard, to pay for the nursing home and the medical bills and the care.
And, Mary Ann, you were right all along.
Other sailors had claimed now and again that they were the one in the photo. It could be true, couldn't it? After all, many of them had kissed a pretty nurse in Times Square on VJ day. But it wasn't what Life said it was, and it wasn't what Alfred Eisenstaedt said it was, and the young sailor's silence all these years had protected their journalistic deception. The proof is in the photo itself, always waiting there to be seen.
It was VE day—Victory in Europe. Sailors in the background of the photo are virtually all wearing blue uniforms, standard dress on May 8 but unusual on VJ day, August 14, when most sailors in New York would have been in summer dress whites. The famous photo was not of the VJ day celebrations, as Life and Eisenstaedt purported, but of VE day, and simply pulled from the files for the latter occasion. The photo was posed, and the "uninhibited sailor" was very inhibited.
On May 8, Signalman 2nd Class James Reynolds had just landed from England after release from the hospital. In Times Square a photographer named Eisenstaedt asked him to pose with a young woman in a nurse's uniform. Jim demurred; he was engaged to Mary Ann, and it wouldn't be right. The photographer persisted, promised to keep him anonymous, even to hide his signalman's crossed flags. Would he please help out? Shy and very reluctant, but always ready to help out, he agreed.
Eisenstaedt posed the two of them carefully, even positioning their hands, the angle of their bodies, the position of their lips, the clutching of the purse and skirt.
Now, 51 years later, Jim wants all of us to hear this confession: He always loved Mary Ann. He never wanted to hurt her. He was always faithful.
And yes, he was the sailor in the photo.
Mr. Koch is pastor of Church of the Resurrection in West Chicago, Ill., and a former senior vice president of Oracle Corp.