Sailor In Iconic WWII Photo Dies

Feb 19, 2019
Originally published on February 19, 2019 3:38 pm

George Mendonsa, the Navy sailor whose passionate kiss in Times Square symbolized a nation's exuberance over the end of World War II, has died. He was 95.

The photographer never got the name of the sailor, but Mendonsa claimed it was him, and many experts who analyzed his facial structure came to the same conclusion.

Mendonsa died Sunday after complications from a fall at an assisted living facility in Rhode Island, his daughter told The Providence Journal. He was two days short of his 96th birthday.

The iconic photo on the cover of Life magazine was taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt and has become one of the most recognizable photos of the 20th century. The same moment was also captured by a Navy photographer, Victor Jorgensen, and that photo of the kiss (the one above) is often seen in newspapers as well.

After Japan declared its surrender in August 1945, impromptu celebrations broke out across the United States. During one of them, Mendonsa and his date were walking through Times Square when he saw the woman, whom he took to be a nurse. The joy of the moment and his admiration for nurses who had treated fellow servicemen compelled him to embrace her, he told the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress in 2005.

As a sailor in the Pacific, Mendonsa had been aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill when Japanese kamikaze pilots attacked. Men were trapped in the fires of the ship, he said, and others jumped overboard and waited to be picked up.

Hours later, Mendonsa's ship transferred the injured to a hospital ship called the USS Bountiful.

"I was watching how the nurses were taking care of the wounded as we were sending them over," he told the Library of Congress. "And I believe from that day on I had a soft spot for nurses."

A few months later, fueled by jubilation and a few drinks, Mendonsa walked up to the woman in Times Square.

"It was the uniform she had," he said. "If that girl did not have a nurse's uniform on, I honestly believe that I never would have grabbed her."

Mendonsa didn't say anything to the woman; he just kissed her. "It happened. She went her way and I went mine." Why didn't he ask for her name? "I was with a date," he said.

His date didn't mind — in fact, the two went on to marry. Mendonsa didn't get the name of the woman he kissed. But years later, Greta Zimmer Friedman saw the photo and wrote to the editors of Life to say it was her. In 1980, Mendonsa and Friedman were reunited when the magazine brought them together for a photo re-creation.

Friedman, a Holocaust refugee who grew up in Austria, told the Veterans History Project that she was 21 and working as a dental assistant when she became immortalized in the photo.

"It wasn't a romantic event," she said of the surprise kiss. "It was just an event of 'thank God the war is over' kind of thing. ... It was a day that everyone celebrated because everyone had somebody in the war and they were coming home."

Friedman died in 2016.

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