This weekend felt like a blast-to-the-past as famous World War II and Vietnam photographs made headlines once again. On Friday, the trending hashtag #napalmgirl almost broke Facebook after the company banned the iconic Vietnam War photograph “The Terror of War” because it included a naked child. Following internet arguments (and likely company policy discussions), Facebook decided to re-allow the photograph to be posted due to its cultural and historical significance. Just a day later, war photos took over the news once again when Greta Friedman of the iconic “The Kissing Sailor” VJ-Day photograph passed away.
As these two photographs reemerge decades after they first made headlines, they remind us of the never-ending power of memory. We decided to take a closer look at some of the most iconic war photos of all time.
1. The Kissing Sailor
Perhaps the most iconic war photograph in Western memory, “The Kissing Sailor” shows what appear to be two lovers locked in a celebratory kiss. What many viewers don’t know though is that the sailor and the woman he is kissing did not know each other at all. Greta Friedman, the woman in the photo, told CBS News in 2012 that, “I did not see him approaching, and before I know it I was in this vice grip.”
George Mendosa, the sailor, had been celebrating VJ-Day, victory in Japan, with his future wife in Times Square. Caught up in the excitement (or perhaps male entitlement to women’s bodies), he began kissing women in the street – including Friedman.
Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt had been shooting photographs of couples celebrating in the square and noticed Mendosa. Since Mendosa was dressed in a dark-colored uniform, Eisenstaedt photographed any time he kissed a woman in a light-colored dress.
2. The Terror of War
“The Terror of War,” depicts children, including the nude Phan Thị Kim Phúc or “Napalm Girl,” running from a Napalm attack during the Vietnam War. Kim Phúc, who was nine years old at the time of the photograph (taken June 8, 1972), had been living in Trang Bang when South Vietnamese planes bombed her city to attack North Vietnamese forces. The South Vietnamese had bombed her city with Napalm to hit the North Vietnamese, but when one of their Air Force pilots saw Kim Phúc, civilians, and some other South Vietnamese soldiers fleeing to safe ground, he mistook them for enemy soldiers.
Those napalm bombs killed two of Kim Phúc’s cousins, and severely burned her. Photographer Nick Ut helped Kim Phúc to the Barsky Hospital all the way in Saigon for treatment. However, when they arrived doctors said that Kim Phúc’s burns were so bad she’d likely die. Fourteen months and 17 surgeries later though, she returned home.
3. Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima
“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” may be the most famous photograph of World War II. Photographed by Joe Rosenthal on February 23, 1945 during the Battle of Iwo Jima, it became the the only photo to win a Pulitzer Prize the same year it was published.
The photograph shows six marines raising an American flag at the end of the battle. Three of those marines were killed in action during the next days, while the three others were recognized for their service just this past June.
4. Tank Man
“Tank Man,” sometimes called “Unknown Protester” or “Unknown Rebel” stood before three tanks the morning after the Chinese military stopped student protests in Tiananmen Square during 1989.
The Tiananmen Square protests were student-led demonstrations for democracy which ended when the Chinese government declared martial law. During the protests, Chinese troops killed several hundred students in what became known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
To this day, no one can confirm the fate of the man who stood in front of the tanks. But, he’ll forever be remembered for blocking the tanks that stormed Tiananmen Square.
5. The Falling Soldier
“The Falling Soldier,” or “Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936,” shows a young soldier at the moment he has been fatally shot. Robert Capa, the photographer, described the photo as the death of an Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth soldier, but the man was later identified as an anarchist militiaman.
Though this photograph was once known as perhaps the greatest photo ever taken, many have questioned its authenticity. After photographs that were taken in the same location were discovered to have been staged, “The Falling Soldier” began to lose its renown.
“The Kissing Sailor” and “The Terror of War” are far from the only war photographs that have shaped world memory. “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” the “Tank Man” Tiananmen Square photo, and “The Falling Soldier” of the Spanish Civil War–among so many more–changed how the world perceived conflict. In a world that is overrun with graphic imagery, these snapshots from the past remind us of a time when a handful of images shaped our memory.