Many of you have seen the iconic image of a sailor sweeping a nurse off her feet while they get lost in a kiss. We have all at some point in our lives looked at this picture in awe as we admire the two love birds celebrating the U.S. victory over Japan, also known as V-J Day. It is one of the most enduring photos from the 20th century, signifying the end of World War II. But many of us have wondered – who is this sailor and his beloved nurse? It turns out there is a little more to the story than we thought.
The first thought, of course, is to ask the photographer himself to shed light on this mystery. Albert Eisenstaedt was a photographer for Life magazine, and the man behind it all. However, because of the chaos in the streets, he could not tell you who he captured on that victorious day.
Iconic photo known as “The Kissing Sailor” ... August 14, 1945 - The "Kissing "New York City celebrating the surrender of Japan (VJ Day). Photo by Life magazine photographer Albert Eisenstaedt ... courtesy of National archive (#80-G-377094) and Naval Historical Center (#520697)
They Didn’t Know Each Other
Although the photo known as The Kissing Sailor was taken in 1945, it didn’t become popular until the 1960s. Before its fame, editors already had discovered the woman in front of the lens – or at least they thought they did. For years, the nurse was thought to be a woman named Edith Shain, but in reality it was Greta Zimmer Friedman, who was a dental assistant, not a nurse. It turns out they had dressed very similarly. As soon as Friedman saw the picture, she wrote to Life to make her claim. Even though editors believed they had identified Shain, further research indicated Friedman was, in fact, the true “nurse” in the famous photograph.
Friedman, 21 at the time, was working at a nearby dental office when she heard that the war was ending. She walked right down to Times Square to see for herself, and the rumors were true. Suddenly, she was grabbed by a sailor and smooched on the lips. He was so happy he didn’t have to go back to war, that he took it upon himself to show his gratitude toward a nurse by planting a kiss on one. Friedman also said she received a peck on the cheek from another sailor on the way home.
So Who Is the Sailor?
The happy sailor is thought to be George Mendonsa, who was a Navy quartermaster on leave from the Pacific theater. He didn’t see the picture until about 20 years after it was taken. Multiple other men were thought to be the sailor, but Mendonsa is the most well-known.
Why? It turns out, there’s someone else in the picture – Mendonsa’s date, Rita Petry, his future wife. They say she’s the woman “photobombing” the pic from behind the sailor’s right arm, in about four snapshots that were taken at different angles. She and Mendonsa were in Times Square for the same reason as Friedman, and out of happiness, Mendonsa grabbed what he thought was the closest nurse he could find to celebrate. It was not a romantic gesture, but a celebratory event that was taking place.
Did this eminent photo cause an end to their relationship? Interviews with Petry claim that the kiss never bothered her. It was just a happy day, she said.
Throughout the years, some 20 men have claimed to be the sailor, and three women say they were the nurse. Though various accounts continue to exist of this amorous moment, everyone is free to make up their own mind.
What’s indisputable is that the war was over, victory had been claimed, and this picture exemplified it perfectly.
By Molly Manuszewski
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