MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — For a generation, World War II was a defining event and most remember where they were the moment they learned the war was over.
For George Mendonsa, where he was that day made him an icon.
The 22-year-old sailor, on a month’s leave after nearly two years of war, was in New York seeing the Rockettes with his new sweetheart when they heard a ruckus.
“They stopped the show and said, ‘The war is over. The Japanese have surrendered’,” he recalled.
They rushed from the theater to join the street celebration.
“New York was wild,” Mendonsa said, adding that the couple — he married the woman who accompanied him to the Rockettes that day, Rita Petry — ended up at Child’s Bar. “The booze was flowing and I popped a few.”
Still, he had to start the long journey back to his ship, so the couple headed to Times Square to catch the subway.
“I see a nurse approaching,” Mendonsa said. “I’m half bombed and the war is over.”
What happened next made history.
It also made sense, given Mendonsa’s experience three months earlier at Okinawa. During that historic battle, Mendonsa’s ship, the destroyer U.S.S. Sullivans was close by the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill when it was hit by Japanese suicide planes.
“The planes on deck had just been refueled and all that fuel in probably 90 planes was all aflame…. when the men on the Bunker Hill that were trapped in the fire, … they started jumping,” he said.
A curtain of fire extended from the flight deck to the water more than 80 feet below, Mendonsa said.
Those who did not die immediately suffered horrible burns.
“We loaded our ship up with men that we pulled out of the water,” he said.
“Later in the day, both the Bunker Hill and my ship, the Sullivans, met with the hospital ship the Solace.”
The nurses rushed to aid the injured sailors. “I always remember that, when I saw those nurses, what they did that day.”
So, when Mendonsa saw a nurse in Times Square on VJ day, he grabbed her and he kissed her, with his sweetheart smiling in the background.
Nearby was Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, who snapped the image that came to represent America’s joy that the war was over.
“I honestly believe … if that girl didn’t have a nurse uniform on, I wouldn’t have done that,” said Mendonsa.
What Mendonsa did not know, and what he would not find out for years, was that the woman he kissed was not a nurse, but a dental assistant named Greta Zimmer Friedman.
She actually got two kisses from sailors on VJ day, but only the one from Mendonsa was captured.
For years, Mendonsa was among several men who claimed to be the sailor in the iconic photo.
Several women also claimed to be the nurse.
Authors Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi set out to determine just who the kissing sailor was and have settled on Mendonsa.
Despite that, others continue to say they’re the ones in the photo.
In “The Kissing Sailor,” published last spring by the Naval Institute Press, the authors describe their research into all those who claim to be the people in the photo.
The evidence, Verria said, points decisively to Mendonsa and Friedman.
“I’m very confident at this point it’s George,” Verria said.
“In fact, I don’t think there’s any serious doubt at all.”
Verria, chair of the history department at North Kingstown High School in Rhode Island, said Mendonsa’s recollection of events is credible, but it’s an analysis of the photo and Mendonsa by Norman Sauer, a forensic anthropologist at Michigan State University, that offers the most definitive proof.
Sauer’s team examined facial features and noted similarities and differences.
Different people can show likenesses, but discrepancies eliminate candidates, the authors found.
Sauer “tried to find inconsistencies with George Mendosa and the kissing sailor,” Verria said.
“He looked at the bone structures, ear shape, ridge of nose, mouth … he couldn’t find a single thing that was inconsistent with the photograph.”
Those who claimed to have been the kisser probably were caught up in the emotion of a critically important day in American history.
“I think all these people kissed someone in Times Square,” Verria said.
When the photo comes up in class, Verria said many of his students first focus on the romantic or sexual aspect.
“They miss the point entirely,” he said.
“What this kiss is about … is elation, joy that this war, after all these terrible years, all this loss, all this cost, is over.”