True Romance: The Heartache of Wartime Farewells, 1943

Feb 13, 2013

Does anyone like Valentine's Day? Not in a "Sure, it's nice to get flowers and candy every once in a while" kind of way, but in an "I love, love, love Valentines Day!" kind of way? Does anyone really, truly enjoy it, or look forward to it, or unabashedly, unreservedly celebrate it?

The central problem with the holiday, of course, is that it's so obviously manufactured — a charge one can level at virtually any holiday, but one that seems to fit Even the grumpiest, most cynical carbuncle on the planet would find it hard to sneer at the notion of millions of people spontaneously celebrating love; but one need hardly be a cynic to see that Valentine's Day, in its current form, is primarily a way to get us — men and women, alike — to spend money. Any romance, fondness or passion that's left over can sometimes feel pretty anemic in the wake of the marketing juggernaut that always accompanies the annual Feast of Saint Valentine.

Here, on St. Valentine's Day 2014, in recognition that human love is not only — as the old song has it — "a many-splendored thing" but a fraught, varied and often profoundly painful thing, LIFE presents a series of pictures that focus on a central aspect of romance that has stirred artists, poets and songwriters for centuries: namely, sadness. Misery. The blues.

("Now I know I've got a heart," the Tin Man says near the end of The Wizard of Oz, "because it's breaking." Exactly!)

The photos here, made by LIFE's Alfred Eisenstaedt in April 1943 at the height of the Second World War, capture true romance — its agonies, its resilience — in ways that pictures filled with sweetness and light never could. Yes, the emotions on display are clearly heightened by the fact that some of these young men, bidding their sweethearts farewell, might never return from the war. But at least they are genuinely heightened — by the promise of separation and the threat of permanent loss — and in that intensity we glimpse a side of love that's never written about in greeting cards.

In its February 14, 1944 issue (yep, February 14 — Valentine's Day), in which many of these pictures appeared, LIFE magazine put it to its readers thus:

They stand in front of the gates leading to the trains, deep in each other's arms, not caring who sees or what they think.

Each goodbye is a drama complete in itself, which Eisenstaedt's pictures movingly tell. Sometimes the girl stands with arms around the boys' waist, hands tightly clasped behind. Another fits her head into the curve of his cheek while tears fall onto his coat. Now and then the boy will take her face between his hands and speak reassuringly. Or if the wait is long they may just stand quietly, not saying anything. The common denominator of all these goodbyes is sadness and tenderness, and complete oblivion for the moment to anything but their own individual heartaches.

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