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

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The following is excerpted from a post by Monica Mohindra, Head of Program Communication and Coordination, Veterans History Project. It caught our attention for the discussion of biases, assumptions, and cultural perspectives. How might your students respond to the twists and turns raised by this post? You can read the complete, original post at “Folklife Today.”

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.

She said, he said…So often it comes down to a matter of perspective, and the limitations of thinking in the strict terms of a dichotomy…

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.

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, who witnessed the kiss, but didn’t notice the photographer snap the image of George.

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.

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