By Ginny McPartland
Where were you on August 14, 1945? Not born yet? Most of us weren’t. You may remember the day President Kennedy was shot (November 22, 1963), the night the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan (February 4, 1964), the day the Berlin Wall was doomed to come down (November 9, 1989). Or maybe for you the biggest day in history was the night Barack Obama was elected president of the United States (November 4, 2008).
But for the generation that endured World War II (and, for many, the Great Depression), the day the war finally ended has no competition for the most significant day in American, if not world, history. Those left of the Greatest Generation in 2010, 65 years after the war ended, are making a valiant effort to get across to the latest generation why we can’t forget WWII.
I met one of the WWII history ambassadors and an icon –Edith Shain – the other day in Oakland. Her claim to fame is the unscripted role she played in a spontaneous drama in Times Square on the day the war ended. Her shapely legs with a nice turn of the ankle were part of the attraction of the photo of a sailor and a nurse kissing as if there were no tomorrow. She was adorable then, and she’s adorable now.
Tiny Edith is traveling around America at age 91 to spread the word of the WWII legacy. Spokeswoman for “Keeping the Spirit of ’45 Alive” with actor Hugh O’Brien (Wyatt Earp), she’s stumping with the message that “we” have to stick together like Americans did during the four-year nightmare to defeat Adolph Hitler and Japanese imperialists.
As someone who soaks up everything I can about WWII, I was excited to meet Edith. I was especially jazzed because Kaiser Permanente is also celebrating our 65th anniversary. The health plan, set up to take care of Richmond shipyard workers during the war, opened to the public in October of 1945. So our heritage work gels beautifully with the Spirit of ‘45 initiatives.
The day the world could breathe again
Edith was a part-time nurse and student at New York University on the day President Harry Truman announced the Japanese had surrendered. She and a friend, at work in Manhattan at Doctors Hospital, took the subway to Times Square when they heard the news. Still wearing her nursing whites, Shain joined the crowd in expressing their impossible-to-describe exhilaration that the horrors of world war were over.
Amid the pandemonium, Edith was suddenly grabbed, embraced and passionately kissed by the unknown sailor who’d forgotten his manners in the heat of the moment. Alert photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt and naval photographer Lt. Victor Jorgenson seized the opportunity for the image of a lifetime. Jorgenson’s version was published the next day in the New York Times; Eisenstaedt’s shot appeared on Life magazine’s cover.
Eisenstaedt’s iconic photo has for six decades epitomized the unbridled jubilation of all Americans on that day in history. People surmised the sailor and the nurse were being reunited as a couple at war’s end. But actually, after the kiss the ecstatic sailor went looking for another thrill. “He went one way and I went the other,” Shain said in a 2005 NPR interview following the dedication of a 26-foot bronze statue replicating the famous kiss.
Sharing the lessons of a world at war
Edith left nursing after the war and became a teacher of small children in West Los Angeles. She took on the mission of education with a vengeance, and today she wants to teach all generations about the lessons of war.
She laments: “The younger generation knows nothing about the war.” She complains our current military actions in the Middle East are not justified and we shouldn’t be there. “In World War II, we were fighting for something.”
The “Spirit of’45” campaign is to bring attention to the war legacy by sponsoring numerous events through 2010 to culminate with special events nationwide on August 14. The organization is asking people to write letters to their representatives in Congress to designate a day in August to commemorate World War II veterans. The group has set up a Web site for veterans and other people to share their war stories.
Permanente marks 65 years as public health plan
Permanente’s first years after the war were rough. We had a small membership so it was difficult to keep the enterprise going. Things picked up in 1950 when the longshoremen’s union, the retail clerks, cannery workers and other small groups brought an influx of members. Through these 65 years, the health plan has grown to 8 million-plus members in eight states – California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Georgia, Ohio, Maryland (and Washington D.C.) and Colorado.
We will be marking the milestone along with our partners at the Rosie the Riveter National Park in Richmond, especially during the Home Front festival in October. With the park service, we are developing educational displays and other interpretive materials to highlight our shared history and the war legacy.