Astronomers Pinpoint the Exact Time of the V-J Day Kiss

Victor Jorgenson, NARA via Wikipedia Commons // Public Domain
Victor Jorgenson, NARA via Wikipedia Commons // Public Domain / Victor Jorgenson, NARA via Wikipedia Commons // Public Domain

There’s plenty of mystery surrounding one of the most famous photos in U.S. history. Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic Life magazine image of a couple kissing in Times Square in celebration of the end of World War II (as well as the similar image that ran in The New York Times, shown above) has been a source of debate for years, as multiple people have come forward claiming to be the subjects of the photo. In 2010, a new question emerged: when, exactly, was the photo taken? 

That year, one of the nurses in the background of the photo—which, it should be noted, probably isn’t as romantic as it might look on first glance—told The New York Times that the photo was taken in the afternoon, hours before President Truman’s 7 p.m. announcement that Japan had accepted the Potsdam Declaration, ending the war. Were the soldiers getting an early start to their celebrations? A trio of astronomical sleuths say yes. Steve Kawaler, a professor in Iowa State University’s physics and astronomy department, along with Donald Olson and Russell Doescher, a physics professor and a senior lecturer at Texas State University, have pinpointed the time of the photo as just before 6 p.m. 

One of the images used to determine the V-J Day photo's time-stamp. Image Credit: Courtesy Steve Kawaler via Iowa State University

The trio examined a group of images from Times Square, looking for the precise alignment of the buildings and the shadows they cast in the late afternoon, in conjunction with maps and sun data. They concluded that the photo was snapped at 5:51 p.m. on August 14, 1945—more than an hour before Truman announced the war was over. Their findings are published in the August issue of Sky & Telescope magazine. 

The exact time-stamp for a photo taken more almost 70 years ago may seem like a trivial piece of data, but it does help eliminate a few of the claims of would-be subjects of the photo. "Some of the accounts are inconsistent with the astronomical evidence, and we can rule people out based on the position of the sun,” Olson explains in a press release. George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer, who are said to be the couple according to the book The Kissing Sailor, kissed around 2 p.m., several hours before. They may have had a chance encounter that day, but it wasn’t the one memorialized in national news. 

[h/t: Futurity]