On August 14th, 1945, as news of the Allied victory over Imperial Japan reached the United States, Life Magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt immortalized an unlikely pair in a photograph which has come to represent the jubilation and relief Americans felt upon the conclusion of the Second World War.
The picture features a sailor planting a kiss on a very surprised dental assistant in the middle of Times Square, New York City, while onlookers smile, laugh, and walk by. On February 17th, one George Mendonsa — widely believed to be the sailor in that image — passed away at the age of 95.
Mendonsa was preceded in death by his paramour in the image, Greta Zimmer Friedman, who died in 2016 of age-related health complications.
Alfred Eisenstaedt signing a print of his V-J Day in Times Square picture.
(Wikimedia Commons photograph by William Waterway Marks)
For years, the identities of the two kissers were unknown, with a number of men and women stepping forward to lay claim to their part in what soon turned into one of the most famous and iconic photographs of all time. Friedman herself did not see the picture until the 1960s, when she came across it in book of Eisenstaedt’s works.
After contacting Life Magazine with her account of what went down that balmy August day in New York, it became apparent that she was undoubtedly the female participant in the picture, though Life only got back to her in 1980 to confirm. It was just around that same time that Life brought along George Mendonsa, who claimed to be the sailor.
V-J Day in Times Square.
(Wikimedia Commons photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt)
Though, according to Friedman, the kiss happened quickly and was a complete surprise to her, she recognized Mendonsa and held that he was the celebrating smoocher from that day, celebrating the end of the war.
Mendonsa served on a destroyer as a helmsman and was, at the time, on shore leave from the USS The Sullivans dreading yet another wartime deployment overseas. As such, the young sailor was with his fiancee (yes, you read that right) taking in shows on Broadway and partying it up before he was due to ship out again.
The news of the war ending was obviously a major relief to the sailor who, living up to the drinking reputation of sailors worldwide, was already sporting an alcohol-induced buzz by early afternoon. He apparently couldn’t help himself amidst the throngs of euphoric New Yorkers and pulled the first woman he saw into a quick kiss.
As it turned out, the first woman he saw was a young dental assistant named Greta, who was told to close the dental clinic and go home to celebrate when news broke about the Japanese surrender in the Pacific Theater.
Greta Friedman and George Mendonsa as the guests of honor at a 4th of July parade in 2009.
George’s then-fiancee, Rita Petrie, is visible in the picture standing there with a laugh watching her sailor’s antics. She must have been greatly caught up in the celebration, as she later recalled, because it didn’t register on her mind that her man had just swapped spit with another woman right in front of her.
Either that, or Rita was in a very forgiving mood, as she spent the next 70 years blissfully married to the love of her life — George Mendonsa — who later joined the family business and became a fisherman in Rhode Island.
Friedman let on that she and Mendonsa maintained a cordial relationship due to their bond as the kissing couple from the V-J Day in Times Square picture, exchanging cards throughout the years before she died in 2016.