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A Sailor, a Nurse and a Kiss, on V-J Day

Black and white photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square at the end of World War II. The subjects are believed to be George Mendonsa and Great Friedman.

Autographed digital print in B&W, of George Mendonsa and Greta Friedman kissing on V-J Day in Times Square, New York. George Mendonsa Collection. Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/42868.

The following is a guest post by Monica Mohindra, Head of Program Communication and Coordination, Veterans History Project.

“A Kiss is Just a Kiss.”  Or is it, “As Time Goes By?” When the publishers staged a reunion in 1980, they used another crooners’ standard, “It Had to be You” on a placard in the background.

George Mendonsa and Greta Friedman recreating the kissing scene from V-J Day in Times Square, New York, 1980.

George Mendonsa and Greta Friedman recreating the kissing scene from V-J Day in Times Square, New York, 1980. George Mendonsa Collection. Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/42868.

But was it the right sailor, the right nurse?

She said, he said.  Do you remember the argument that took the Internet by storm four years ago? Did you see a blue dress with black stripes, or a white dress with gold stripes? So often it comes down to a matter of perspective, and the limitations of thinking in the strict terms of a dichotomy.

The woman was 21 years old.  She wore a white uniform to work in a dentist’s office. The man was 22 years old; he thought she was a nurse. The year was 1945; V-J Day. She says she was on her lunch break.  He says it was late afternoon or early evening.  She was worried about getting back to work, and would later become a bookbinder and an artist. He was on a date with a “beautiful blond,” also 21 years old, who would later become his wife of 72 years, Rita.

Rita witnessed the kiss, but didn’t notice the photographer snap the image of George, who later said,

…it was the uniform she had. If that girl did not have a nurse’s uniform on, I honestly believe that I never would have grabbed her.

Neither George nor Greta Friedman, the dental assistant, saw the photographer either.

Greta reflected,

I felt he was very strong, he was just holding me tight, and I’m not sure I…about the kiss because….but it wasn’t a romantic event. It was just an event of ‘thank God the war is over’ kind of thing, because it was right in front of the sign.

One of the things that fascinates me most about our work at the Veterans History Project is the ongoing relationship and rhythm between the two major facets of oral history.  It is both a process and a product. The different vantage points offered—of what appears to be the same event—by various people, complicates, colors and provides layers of context.  It also illuminates biases, assumptions and cultural understandings relative to the time the events occurred, when the interviewer asks questions and when the record is reviewed.  And over a long life, those multiple realities can compound even for the original narrators.

There are so many lenses to this particular story of “The Kiss,” so many characters beyond the focal point of the photo.  The photographer of the famed image, Alfred Eisenstaedt, wasn’t the only photographer, and there were lots of grabs and kisses on that day in Times Square, as people gathered together in the euphoria of the end of the war.  The staged reunion in 1980 was also full of twists, turns and more concerns.

Greta said, “Actually the fame belongs to the photographer because he provided an art. I can’t call it a skill. He was an artist.”

George said, referring to himself, “The sailor is the guy that made that picture.”

But that isn’t all either of them said, and it doesn’t tell you their story, or who they were.  There are as many mysteries to unravel about them, money, fame, multiple images, media business and publication decisions, identity, consent, cultural norms, as there are primary sources to dive in to. These are just the words I chose to focus on.

Think you know this story?  Start here, and listen to Greta and George in their own words.

With thanks to Patricia Redmond, interviewer, for her tenacious pursuit of documenting this story.

4 Comments

  1. Norma
    February 20, 2019 at 6:34 pm

    Did the project research discover anything about the two sailors to the left in the picture, one in blue and one in white? I was 13 years old on V-J Day, so I’ve seen the picture of this kiss for most of my life. It carries the elation of the day and the time when the war was at last over.

  2. Lisa Taylor
    February 21, 2019 at 2:41 pm

    Norma, thank you (and everyone else who has participated so far!) for reading. The mission of the Veterans History Project is to collect, preserve and make accessible the personal accounts of U.S. military veterans, so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand their selfless service. We can’t be certain of who those two sailors might be; however, there are many articles and publications out there dedicated to this photo and Times Square on VJ Day. One you may want to check out is “The Kissing Sailor,” published by Naval Institute Press. Again, thanks for reading our blog.

  3. Steve
    February 22, 2019 at 1:43 am

    My recently deceased uncle and my son’s great uncle was Roger Grigson of Downingtown, Pennsylvania. He spearheaded the Veterans Project in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and was instrumental in gathering the wartime stories of some 3,000 veterans of World War II & Korea and adding them to the Historical Society annals. He is survived by his second wife, Carol Kucera Grigson, who still lives in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

    I figured that, given his contributions to recording the stories of many hundreds of veterans in Pennsylvania, he truly deserves both recognition and a shout out from his grateful nephew.

    On a lighter note, I have to wonder if The Kiss involved any tongue or the fact that his future wife was standing by prevented that from occurring. Just curious if you know what I mean.

  4. Patricia Redmond, interviewer of both George and Greta for the VHP
    February 25, 2019 at 4:03 pm

    I am so pleased that the Veterans History Project is getting so much attention!
    It is so sad that the press and the #Me Too movement are trying to put another slant on this historic event…. It was NOT sexual harassment, as they try to maintain; George was not a sexual predator. He was just a sailor celebrating the relief and joy felt by our nation at the end of World War II. He was happy he didn’t have to return to the Pacific and continue the fight! George “had a soft spot in his heart for the nurses” after observing how they cared for the war wounded. Kissing Greta was a spontaneous act of gratitude when he “grabbed that girl in a nurse’s uniform” for the celebratory kiss.
    Greta never felt that she had been ravished! In later years she became friends with George and Rita. After I interviewed them for the VHP, I became friends with both Greta and George. Once when I took her to a friend’s home to view the movie “Night at the Museum”, she laughed when she saw the actor (Ben Stiller) kiss the nurse in the photo of the Kissing Sailor, and her comment was “I only got one kiss!”
    I know that they would be devastated to see this photo of history turned into something sordid and sinful! The photo of the Kissing Sailor and Greta is one of the most iconic images of the 20th century signifying the end of years of war, and should not to be judged by “today’s standards” 74 years after it happened.
    On a lighter note, I smile every time I hear the newscasters say, “The kissing sailor, George Mendonsa…..” because George worked for forty years to get that “title” without the “He claims to be the Kissing Sailor.”!

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