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Friday, Apr 12 2013 10:23 AM

Pucker up and go -- to 'kiss' statue in S. Diego

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    By Photo courtesy of Jack Hardisty

    The "smooch" seen around the world after the end of World War II is on display in a 25-foot bronze statue next to the USS Midway Museum in San Diego.

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  2. 2 of 4

    By Photo courtesy of Jack Hardisty

    The "smooch" seen around the world after the end of World War II is on display in a 25-foot bronze statue next to the USS Midway Museum in San Diego.

    click to expand click to collapse
  3. 3 of 4

    By Photo by Jack Hardisty

    The San Diego skyline glistens in the afternoon sun as a cruise ship passes by.

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  4. 4 of 4

    By Photo courtesy of Jack Hardisty

    One- and two-hour trips are booked by water front vendors for cruising around the San Diego Harbor.

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BY DIANNE HARDISTY Contributing writer

It's way bigger than life and certain to put a smile on your face when you see it.

The 25-foot-tall "kiss" statue -- officially labeled "Unconditional Surrender" -- was bolted into place and officially dedicated on Valentine's Day. It now looms over the San Diego waterfront park adjacent to the retired U.S. Navy aircraft carrier museum USS Midway.

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A fun and memory-filled day on the San Diego waterfront would include:

The "Greatest Generation Walk," including the "Unconditional Surrender" statue and the Bob Hope Memorial Plaza at 910 N. Harbor Drive.

USS Midway Museum. Allow at least two hours for your self-guided tour of the nation's longest-serving aircraft carrier, which was retired to be a museum in 1992. The ship and its crew saw combat action during the Vietnam War, the Cold War and Operation Desert Storm. The museum includes 60 exhibits and 27 restored aircraft. Admission ranges from $19 for adults to $10 for children 6 to 12. Children ages 5 and younger are free. Go to www.midway.org for more information.

Harbor cruises. Several options are available on the water front. At the pier alongside the USS Midway are one- and two-hour cruises operated several times a day by the Hornblower, a company also known for its evening dinner cruises. Harbor daytime cruise tickets start at $23 for adults. Discounts are available for seniors and children. Go to www.hornblower.com for more information.

Seaport Village. Just a few steps south of the USS Midway, along the water front, is Seaport Village, a collection of shops, restaurants and bars that will provide the frosting on your tourism cake and a good way to mellow out at the end the day. Go to www.seaportvillage.com for a directory and map.

It is a sight to behold and the cornerstone of a weekend getaway to San Diego, a 232-mile drive south from Bakersfield. If the traffic gods are cooperative, the drive should take only 3½ hours.

If you have a couple of days, you and the family can hit the more commercialized venues like Sea World, the San Diego Zoo and Legoland.

But if you're looking for something unusual and a bit off the beaten path, head to the waterfront park, which has been renamed the "Greatest Generation Walk," at 910 N. Harbor Drive.

"Unconditional Surrender" was created by artist J. Seward Johnson and inspired by the Aug. 14, 1945, photo of a sailor grabbing an unsuspecting nurse in New York's Times Square and planting a wet celebratory kiss at the announcement of the end of World War II.

While many contend the statue is based on the iconic photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, which appeared in Life magazine, Johnson said he actually used a lesser-known image taken of the same scene by Victor Jorgensen.

Johnson's original statue was made of a foam core, with a urethane outer layer. Susceptible to weather damage, it was loaned to San Diego in 2007 by Johnson's nonprofit Sculpture Foundation. It remained in San Diego until May 2012, when it was returned to a New Jersey foundry for repairs.

At its 2007 installation, retired Los Angeles teacher Edith Shain, who claimed to be the nurse in the now-famous photograph, recalled the kiss.

"During the moment of the kiss, I don't remember much; it happened so fast and it happened at the perfect time. I didn't even look at the sailor who was kissing me," she told reporters. "I closed my eyes and enjoyed the moment like any woman would have done."

Shain, who died in 2010 at the age of 91, acknowledged that the statue brought back "so many memories of peace, love and happiness. There is so much romance in the statue; it gives such a feeling of hope to all who look at it."

In addition to Shain, several men and women have stepped forward over the years claiming to be the "Unconditional Surrender" sailor and nurse. Because of the chaos at the scene, neither photographer obtained the subjects' names.

But it really doesn't seem to matter.

The photographs and statues are representative of a heroic generation that fought a long, hard war and saved the world for the rest of us.

When the original statue was yanked from its San Diego perch last year, the USS Midway Museum and a national coalition of World War II interest groups called "Keep the Spirit of '45 Alive!" led a communitywide "Save the Kiss" fundraising drive to purchase a permanent replacement made of bronze. In just a few months, more than $1 million was raise to pay for a more durable statue and to re-landscape the surrounding park.

Landscaping includes cherry trees donated by the Japanese Friendship Garden Society of San Diego. The park also features the Bob Hope Memorial Plaza, which includes statues of the much loved entertainer and his soldier audience.

Replicas of Johnson's "Unconditional Surrender" statue also are on display in Hamilton, N.J., and Pearl Harbor, near the battleship USS Missouri.

Until last year, a statue also adorned the water front in Sarasota, Fla. That statue was removed for repairs after it was damaged by a car crash.

The Sarasota statue initially received a cold shoulder from the arts community, which called it a garish "giant cartoon" unworthy of water front display.

Artistic taste aside, there is no denying that "Unconditional Surrender" is a real crowd-pleaser. Even on the overcast day of my San Diego visit, people pressed around the base -- some to admire the size, others to peek up the nurse's skirt and many young lovers to mimic the pose.

But mostly, people were smiling.

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