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The surprising truth behind the classic V-J Day photo of a sailor passionately embracing a nurse

E.L. Hamilton
Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

August 14, 1945, was a day of great jubilation in America. Japan had surrendered, effectively ending World War II. Relieved and excited, thousands of people poured into the streets of New York City to celebrate this epochal moment in history. In Times Square, a sailor grabbed a nurse and bent her back to plant a passionate kiss. A passing photographer snapped the moment, which would be published in the August 27 issue of LIFE magazine. It happened so fast no one exchanged names. The photograph would become one of the most iconic and romantic images of the end of the war, symbolizing the passion and euphoria of V-J Day.

But the photo isn’t everything it seems: The nurse wasn’t a nurse. She had never met the sailor, nor would she see him again for another 35 years. The sailor was not only drunk, but he ditched his date to grab the unknown woman for his unexpectedly strong embrace—while his date watched. None of this was discovered until 1980; and even today, some historians question the essential facts.

George Mendonsa, 22 at the time, was on leave after having served two years in the Pacific aboard the USS The Sullivans. He had taken Rita Petry to Radio City Music Hall to see a movie on their first date when news broke that Japan had surrendered.  “The war is over!” people shouted. The movie was stopped, and Mendosa and Petry rushed out of the theater and into a nearby bar, where Mendosa “popped quite a few drinks,” as he told CBS News in 2012.

Greta Zimmer was born in Austria 1924, one of four daughters of a Jewish tailor. As conditions worsened for Jews under Nazi occupation, her parents sent their children out of the country, according to the New York Times. Greta arrived in New York City in 1939 and landed a job as a dental assistant. (Her parents would die in the Holocaust.)

1939 passport issued by the government of Austria for “Grete Sara Zimmer,” the middle name added by national socialist decree. Photo: Joshuamichaelfriedman CC BY-SA 4.0

1939 passport issued by the government of Austria for “Grete Sara Zimmer,” the middle name added by national socialist decree. Photo: Joshuamichaelfriedman CC BY-SA 4.0

On August 14, 1945, Greta was working in the dental office, clad in a white nurse’s uniform, white stockings, and white shoes, as was the custom at the time for all medical personnel. When she kept hearing from patients that the war was over, she decided to take a walk to see what she could learn.

“I went straight to Times Square,” Greta Zimmer Friedman said in a 2005 interview for the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project, “where I saw on the lighted billboard that goes around the building, V-J Day, V-J Day, and that really confirmed what the people have said in the office.”

War Ends

War Ends

Meanwhile, Alfred Eisenstaedt, whom many call the father of photojournalism, was sent by LIFE magazine to the streets of New York City to capture the wild elation in this moment of history. In his career, the esteemed Eisenstaedt contributed more than 2,500 photos and 90 covers of LIFE magazine.

In the chaos of Times Square, Zimmer suddenly found herself embraced, dipped, and smooched by a sailor. “It wasn’t that much of a kiss,” Zimmer Friedman told the History Project. “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.”

Unconditional Surrender is a three-dimensional interpretation of a photo taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt of a Sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square, New York City on Aug. 14, 1945, following the announcement of V-J Day.

Unconditional Surrender is a three-dimensional interpretation of a photo taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt of a Sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square, New York City on Aug. 14, 1945, following the announcement of V-J Day.

The contrast of Zimmer’s bright white uniform with Mendonsa’s dark suit caught Eisenstaedt’s eye. He captured the seemingly romantic pair in a matter of seconds, and then all three went their separate ways. The photo ran as a full page in the August 27 issue of LIFE amid 12 pages of photos of other jubilant celebrations around the country, and amid several other “kissing sailor” photos from other cities.

What about the sailor’s date? In the photo, Rita Petry is visible over his shoulder, looking on as her drunk beau embraced the “nurse.”

Or as Zimmer Friedman told the History Project, “the reason he grabbed someone dressed like a nurse was that he just felt very grateful to nurses who took care of the wounded.”

Petry didn’t hold it against him—she married Mendonsa soon thereafter.

Amazingly, none of them saw the photo until many years later.

The subject of the photos is still up for debate. Over the years, at least 11 sailors and three nurses have come forward claiming to be the people in the photos. In 1960, Greta Zimmer Friedman (she married Mischa Friedman in 1956) wrote to LIFE magazine to assert her claim she was the “nurse.” Eisenstaedt himself met with another woman who said she was the nurse, though because he hadn’t kept records, he couldn’t be sure; the photographer died in 1995.

In 1980, LIFE finally launched an effort to determine the couple’s identity, located Mendonsa and Zimmer Friedman, and brought the two together for the first time since that historic day in 1945.

Related story from us: The buff WWII-era feminist icon Rosie the Riveter was actually a tiny telegraph operator who’d never been near a factory

Zimmer Friedman’s take on the captured moment has led modern viewers to question the photo’s innocence. “I felt that he was very strong,” she told the Veterans Project. “He was just holding me tight. … It was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event.” She died in 2016.

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