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Photographer's Note

This note got FAR longer than I had anticipated, but this is such as fascinating story that there's now a book about it! Going on my to-read list!

This 25-foot tall, 6000-pound statue is situated in the Tuna Habor Park, in front of the USS Midway in San Diego. The Midway is also now a museum, and its foundation apparently raised $1 million to fund the sculpture. It commemorates one of the most famous photographs in American history, probably the most recognized of all WWII photos, up there with the one showing the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. It was taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt (who died in 1995), in Times Square, during V-J Day celebrations after the announcement of the end of the war, just a couple of hours prior. The official name of the sculpture is "Unconditional Surrender." It's also called "Embracing Peace." There are multiple versions of it in other cities around the US, including in Sarasota, FL, New York City, Key West, and at Pearl Harbor, although not all of them are still on display. The San Diego sculpture was just reinstated recently after having been moved for restoration, where it remained for several years.

ABOUT THE PHOTO

There has been a fair degree of controversy about this iconic photo in recent years (consent, and all), but it remains one of the most famous photographs ever taken, on August 14, 1945, just south of 45th Street, looking north. Entitled simply as "V-J Day in Times Square," it was published in LIFE Magazine a week later. Curiously, however, another photographer, US Navy photojournalist Victor Jorgensen, captured the same scene, from another angle. His photo, entitled "Kissing the War Goodbye," was published in the New York Times the following day, but it is nowhere near as famous as the LIFE Magazine version.

Apparently, because of the confusion and jubilation, the pair had no idea they had been photographed by not one, but two different photographers, at the instance of the impromptu act. Nor did they know that the photos had been published in the New York Times or even in LIFE Magazine, and they certainly had no idea that decades later, numerous persons would come forward claiming to be the people in the photo. Only 35 years later, when the editors claimed to have found the woman, did the photo become widely publicized again, and the true identities uncovered.

As no one knew who the figures were at the time, after the photo achieved global acclaim, the photographer (and quite a few others) attempted to find them. The photo took on a life of its own as many people became invested in its story. Almost as many claimed to be the anonymous couple. Eisenstaedt believed that he had identified the woman, in 1980, as Edith Shain, who apparently wrote to him, but researchers eventually determined that it wasn't her, because of her diminutive height (4' 10").

The identity of the woman in the photo has since been generally accepted to be Grete(a) Zimmer Friedman, a 21-year-old dental assistant (who was wearing her hygienist uniform at the time), who died in September, 2016, at age 92, in Richmond, VA. A striking twist on this scene: Grete was an Austrian-born Jewish immigrant, who at age 15 emigrated to the US from Nazi-controlled Austria with her two younger sisters. Their parents Max and Ida, unable to escape, were tragically murdered in concentration camps during the Holocaust. On the day of The Kiss, Greta didn't know the fate of her parents, where they were, or if they were even alive; devastatingly, they weren't. Greta's eldest sister, Lily, emigrated to Palestine and took the name Tirza, remaining in Israel for the remainder of her life.

Reportedly, Greta had left work at the dental office still dressed in her uniform (so, she was NOT a nurse, as is often assumed), to celebrate the end of World War II in Times Square, when a stranger in a Navy uniform grabbed her and kissed her. After she was identified, Greta stated that she didn't think much of it: "I was grabbed by a sailor and it wasn't that much of a kiss; it was more of a jubilant act [because] he didn't have to go back to the Pacific where they had already been throughout 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," Greta recounted during a 2005 interview with the Library of Congress. In 1956, she married Dr. Mischa Friedman, also a WWII veteran of the Army Air Corps and researcher at Fort Detrick. Greta later attended Hood College, studying art, but only graduated in 1981, the same year as her two grown children. She worked for ten years at the college restoring books. She is now buried beside her husband in Arlington National Cemetery.

The sailor has been identified as George Mendonsa, a 22-year-old Navy quartermaster on leave from the Pacific theater, who died in 2019 at the age of 95, two days before his 96th birthday, in fact. This generation is something else: I don't think we will ever see their like again. He had dropped out of school at age 16 and started working with his father, a commercial fisherman, in Rhode Island, but enlisted in the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He had reportedly just come back stateside from the Philippines, where his ship had seen much action, and he was experiencing quite a lot of anxiety over being sent back for what was expected to be an invasion of Japan. That didn't happen, because of an event no one could foresee: the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Mendonsa, who admitted that he had "had a few drinks," stated that he just grabbed and kissed a random woman who looked like a nurse on a whim after apparently imbibing a bit too much alcohol; in fact, he reportedly did it right in front of a woman named Rita Petry, who was on her first date with him (!), whom he eventually went on to marry! As his wife, she stated later that the kiss hadn't bothered her, because of the overwhelming jubilation and high emotion of everyone celebrating that day, but noted somewhat wistfully that "in all these years George has never kissed me like that." (!!)

George had met Rita, then aged 20, a few weeks prior at a barbecue at his family's place in Rhode Island. She was related to his new brother-in-law, and was still living with her parents in Queens, New York. George said of his future wife, "she was beautiful... I think I fell in love with her the first time I saw her." The pair had taken the train to midtown Manhattan that day, headed for Radio City Music Hall for a 1 PM showing of "A Bell for Adano," the story of a fisherman's daughter who falls in love with a US Army major assigned to her Italian village. The couple reportedly didn't get to see the end of the movie that day: pounding on the doors from the street and shouting was followed by the illumination of the auditorium, and the announcement that the war was over and that the Japanese had surrendered. Pandemonium ensued.

The couple ran out of the building into the street along with everyone else, and into Childs Bar a few blocks away. The bartender had lined up glasses all along the bar and just kept pouring drinks for anyone who came in. George admitted that he had "popped quite a few." He and Rita then proceeded to Times Square, where he spotted what he thought was a nurse, then grabbed her, and kissed her. George later stated that he had singled out someone in a nurse's uniform, he thought, because of the great admiration and gratitude he had for nurses on account of what he had reportedly witnessed a few months earlier.

On May 11, two Japanese kamikaze planes had crashed into the USS Bunker Hill, killing 346 sailors (43 bodies were never recovered). He had helped pull hundreds of men from the water, many of whom were horribly burned, and watched as nurses went to work in an attempt to save them. Rita can be seen holding a small purse under her arm behind them in the photo, looking somewhat shocked, but amused. George and Rita apparently saw the photo for the first time in 1980, when Rita saw the photo and said, "I think that's me!" The photo hung in the hallway of their home until their deaths.

As I stated, there has been some controversy about this photo in recent years: in fact, "MeToo" was spray-painted on the statue in Sarasota, Florida, after that movement became more widespread.

If you want to read more about this photo, which just took on a life of its own, and the search for the identities of the two figures, there's a book about it: "The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II."

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Additional Photos by Terez Anon (terez93) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 89 W: 78 N: 1040] (1865)
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