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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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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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Photo by Jack Hardisty

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

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Photo courtesy of Jack Hardisty

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

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.

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.