Every photograph is, in a way, a story--capturing forever a moment in time and telling the story of that moment to all who view it. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a perfect picture--one that perfectly tells the story of the moment it captured--is priceless.
Few pictures have ever captured a moment more perfectly than "V-J Day in Times Square," Alfred Eisenstaedt's legendary Life Magazine photo of a jubilant kiss celebrating Japan's surrender and the end of World War II. But as perfect as that photo was in capturing that moment, it doesn't tell the full story...and the story of that kiss and the search for the two people who shared it is fascinating.
This is the forgotten history of the mysterious kiss.
The War had finally ended. After four long years, Japan had finally surrendered. We had won. Our boys were coming back home; our nation had played the largest role in ending an existential threat to all of mankind. As the news spread through the streets of New York City, scores of ecstatic people spilled into the streets.
Alfred Eisenstaedt, a veteran photographer for Life Magazine, sprinted from his office to Times Square to capture the moment.
"I was walking through the crowds...looking for pictures," he later wrote. "I noticed a sailor coming my way. He was grabbing every female he could find and kissing them all — young girls and old ladies alike. Then I noticed the nurse, standing in that enormous crowd. I focused on her, and just as I'd hoped, the sailor came along, grabbed the nurse, and bent down to kiss her."
Eisenstaedt snapped as many pictures as he could as quickly as he could. He knew this moment was special; that it perfectly captured four years of sacrifice by men and women, soldiers and sailors, nurses and "Rosie the Riveters" alike.
"Now if this girl hadn't been a nurse, if she'd been dressed in dark clothes, I wouldn't have had a picture," Eisenstaedt explained. "The contrast between her white dress and the sailor's dark uniform gives the photograph its extra impact."
That impact was immediate and universal. As soon as Life Magazine published it, it became a bona fide phenomenon because it perfectly captured the mood not only in Times Square, but all across America and the world. And just as immediately, the world wanted to know who its two most famous kissers were.
But Eisenstaedt had no idea. He was working so quickly, taking so many pictures, and trying to capture so many moments that he never stopped to ask for their names. For years and even decades afterwards, dozens of people came forward, but none of their claims added up.
One woman was only 4'10, much too short to be the nurse. One man's story about the kiss didn't match up with what Eisenstaedt saw. Claims kept coming forward; people even took polygraph tests to back them up, but nothing could ever be definitively proven.
It seemed as if their true identities would be lost to history, but then modern photo analysis provided a clearer answer. A researcher at Yale University looked at the pictures Eisenstaedt took and said a cyst on the sailor's left arm and a dark patch of skin on his right matched the unique features of George Mendonsa, a sailor who had served two tours of duty in the Pacific theater aboard The USS The Sullivans.
In the mid-2000s, researchers 3-D mapped his face and reverse aged it, then a forensic anthropologist at Michigan State University studied it and determined that the sailor in the picture was indeed George Mendonsa.
He had been adamant that it was him for years and even sued Life Magazine demanding it to name him as the kissing sailor.
“How many people in a lifetime do something famous?” he said later. “There isn’t a Navy man alive who didn’t serve in World War II who hasn’t looked at that photo and said, ‘I wish I were that guy.’ I was not looking for any financial gain. I only wanted the recognition.”
Similar photo-mapping technology was used to identify the nurse as Greta Zimmer-Friedman, a dental hygienist who was wearing her uniform as she walked home from work.
"I was grabbed by a sailor and it wasn't that much of a kiss, it was more of a jubilant act that he didn't have to go back, I found out later, he was so happy that he did not have to go back to the Pacific where they already had been through the war. And the reason he grabbed someone dressed like a nurse was that he just felt very grateful to nurses who took care of the wounded," she told the Library of Congress.
Friedman and Mendonsa remained friends for the rest of their lives, but never dated. Amazingly, Mendonsa was on a date with another woman when he started kissing strangers! In fact, his date, Rita Perry, could be seen in the background of some of Eisenstaedt's photos looking on in what appeared to be startled disbelief.
Even more amazingly, she didn't dump George on the spot! They were wed the following year and remained married for 70 years, until her death in 2016. He followed the love of his life three years later, content to finally be recognized for his moment in history.