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V-J Day and iconic kiss

On Aug. 14, 1945, President Truman announced Japan’s surrender. The official surrender would come on Sept. 2, 1945. Celebrations broke out all over the world. People everywhere were elated, jumping up and down, yelling, smiling, hugging and kissing one-another….. celebrating the most joyous and unbelievable news – World War II was OVER!

Alfred Eisenstaedt, photojournalist for Life magazine, was in New York’s Time Square hoping to capture a photo that was different from others. Life wanted their readers to know what the end of the war felt like.

What he did get was a photo that portrayed what long sought-after peace felt like, an elated US sailor grabbing and kissing a nurse. All but the celebrating was quickly over, so Alfred did not have the opportunity to get the names of the “kissing couple.” The photograph was one of the most iconic and famous images of the 20th century, the “V-J Day Kiss in Time Square.”

Many thought this photo was a sailor kissing his girl, but they were strangers. Regardless, I think it is a romantic story that captures the joy of that day.

George Mendonsa, 22-years old and a petty officer first class, was on his last day of leave from the war in the Philippines and would be heading back to the war. He had taken his girlfriend Rita Petry, whom he later married, to a matinee. The movie was interrupted by people pounding on the doors with the news that the war was over.

The couple went to a nearby bar to celebrate, and after several drinks, it was time to head for home. George couldn’t contain his joy and excitement. Try as she might, Rita couldn’t keep pace with his vibrant energy as she followed him through the crowd, always a few steps behind him. Spotting a woman in a nurse’s uniform, he remembered watching how the nurses cared for the sailors of the USS Bunker Hill after Japanese Kamikaze planes smashed into it, killing 346 sailors. George had helped pull hundreds of men out of the water, some badly burned. He quickly grabbed her, spun her around, dipped her, and kissed her; and then just as quickly as it happened, he released her.

No real attempt was made to identify the couple until 1987. Many women claimed to be the woman in the picture, but she was later identified as Greta Zimmer Friedman. Greta was actually a 21-year old dental assistant, who hearing the news the war was over, had walked to Time Square on her lunch break to confirm its accuracy. She was totally unaware of George’s presence when she found herself in his embrace and unable to free herself. She said she wasn’t kissing him; he was kissing her. Greta passed away in 2016 at age 92, and George passed away in 2019 at age 95.

Today, some would call George’s behavior sexual harassment, but that wasn’t his intention. George’s kiss was one of spontaneous joy that the war was finally over, and gratitude for the nurses that were dedicated to helping those who stepped up to the call of duty and put themselves in harms way.

“Freedom has a taste to those who fight and almost die that the protected will never know.” – An American POW

Schaefer is State

Americanism Chairman with the Dept. of North Dakota VFW Auxiliary.

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