Sailor in Iconic ‘Kiss’ Photo Turns 95

Posted in Uncategorized on May 1, 2018

It was a moment of spontaneous celebration that would become an iconic symbol of relief from war, recognized by generations of Americans as the “kiss heard round the world.” A Navy Quartermaster 1st Class, caught up in the overwhelming celebration that swept over Times Square during the first hours of Victory Over Japan Day, grabbed a young lady in a nurse’s uniform on the street and planted an impromptu kiss.

Sailor in Iconic ‘Kiss’ Photo Turns 95

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE

Although the couple shown in the photo were later discovered to be strangers and the kiss to be more celebratory than romantic, the image captured the imaginations of Americans for decades and became the model for four larger-than-life statues placed around the world.

Sailor in Iconic 'Kiss' Photo Turns 95

Recently, the Navy sailor in the photo, George Mendonsa, celebrated his 95th birthday, sharing a cake with his wife of 71 years, Rita, and reminiscing about the days and moments that lead up to his famous photo. Rita herself can actually be seen in several of the frames before and after the kiss, laughing, as she joined in the city-wide celebration where drinks and signs of affection for friends and strangers alike overflowed.

Mendonsa had been on leave and was on his way to catch a train to return to his ship when he had stopped to visit Rita in New York City. Word of Japan’s surrender began to spread by word of mouth and crowds poured into the streets of the city, overjoyed at the end of the war.

In interviews conducted decades later – Mendonsa himself was not even aware that the image had been captured until the 80s when LIFE Magazine published the image again, looking for the sailor and the nurse – he explained that seeing the nurse in the city streets triggered such a strong response due to a particular time during his service.

As an officer aboard the destroyer "The Sullivans" (named for the brothers who all went down on the light cruiser Juneau off Guadalcanal), Mendonsa helped rescue 166 sailors who had gone overboard from the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill after two Kamikazes smashed into it on May 11, 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa. Because the planes on the Bunker Hill had been refueling at the time, the deck exploded into a wall of fire, forcing many sailors into the ocean waters. After pulling as many as they could from the burning water – many badly injured and burned – they transferred them to the hospital ship "Bountiful." Mendonsa explained that seeing the nurses aboard the Bountiful help those injured sailors aboard – how they were so caring and skilled – left a lasting impact in his memory.

When he saw 21-year-old Greta Zimmer Friedman in a nurse’s uniform on V-J Day in Times Square (although she was actually a dental assistant), those memories of the care and courage of Navy nurses came flooding back. Friedman, who passed away in 2006, would later say that the kiss was not a romantic one, but purely a moment of pure celebration, gratitude and relief that the war was finally over.

Mendonsa would go on to marry Rita, the girl in the background of the photos (who actually happened to be a nurse herself) and the two today are enjoying 71 years of marriage.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that scientists narrowed down the identity of the couple in the photo, as many over the years claimed to be the sailor and the nurse; in 2004, a team of research scientists from the Mitsubishi Electric Research Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, gave final confirmation, reconstructing the scene using technology often used by law enforcement agencies to apprehend criminals.

Despite the fame of his image, Mendonsa remained unfazed and returned to fish the waters of New England, just as his ancestors before have. His moment of affection and celebration, however, continues to embody the feelings of joy and hope the accompany the end of war for generations of Americans.

Written by Megan Hammons

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