The image above, often referred to “V-J Day in Times Square” or simply “The Kiss,” is iconic. The photo was taken in New York City on August 14, 1945, shortly after President Harry S. Truman announced that the United States has prevailed over Japan in World War II. The photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt, was on the staff of Life Magazine at the time, and the photo was first published in that magazine in a section of photos chronicling victory celebrations. The image became famous quickly, but the people depicted did not share in that fame. Eisenstaedt was taking picture after picture on the 14th and didn’t stop to ask any of his subjects who they were, and as one can see, neither the man’s or woman’s face is clearly visible in the image.
But eventually, the identity of the man who is likely shown in The Kiss came to light. Unfortunately, it turned out the kiss wasn’t romantic. It was, by contemporary terms, probably assault.
The guy most likely to be the sailor is a man named George Mendonsa. According to a profile in the New York Post from 2015, Mendonsa was on date that afternoon — a first date — with a young lady named Rita Petry. The two attended a movie together at nearby Radio City Music Hall. Before the film ended, though, news spread throughout the city and the theater alike that the Japanese were surrendering. Manhattan (and for that matter much of America) turned into an impromptu party. People took to the streets, cheering, with alcohol flowing in celebration. Mendonsa told the Post that he himself had “quite a few drinks” before the pair made their way to Times Square. The Post explains what happened next:
As they crossed Seventh Avenue at 44th Street, George caught sight of a woman in a nurse’s uniform: “What I remembered about the nurses from five months earlier . . .”
Actually, George has it wrong. It had been three months before, out in the Pacific, aboard the USS The Sullivans. He’d watched on the morning of May 11 as two Japanese kamikaze planes, one after the other, smashed into the nearby USS Bunker Hill, setting off a series of explosions and killing 346 sailors (43 bodies were never recovered). George helped pull hundreds of men, some horribly burned, out of the water, and watched with awe as nurses went to work on them.
So on this joyous and unbelievable afternoon, George ran from Rita — the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen — grabbed the first nurse he saw, spun her around, dipped her and kissed her.
The two had never met before they locked lips — which means that he didn’t have the nurse’s permission to give her the now-famous kiss.
We can’t be sure how the nurse reacted, though, because her identity is unclear. There are a few theories as to who she is — the Post and CNN share a few of them — but there simply isn’t a lot of evidence to support any one woman’s claim. But we’re pretty sure that it’s Mendonsa in the sailor’s uniform. The best piece of evidence? In another photo of the kiss, Rita Petry is standing in the background, clearly identifiable and smiling at her date as he dips and kisses a complete stranger. And Rita has kept in contact with George since V-J Day — the two ended up getting married, and should be celebrating their 70th anniversary this month.
From the Archives: The Holdout: The Japanese soldier who didn’t know that the Japanese had lost the war.
Take the Quiz: Ten countries were on hand for the formal surrender by Japan on September 2, 1945. Name them.
Related: A poster of The Kiss.