V-J Day Kiss in Times Square: The story behind an iconic photograph, 1945

Vintage Wonders Dec 12, 2023

After four years of darkness, all the lights in Times Square turned on as Mayor LaGuardia announced Japan’s surrender. In a global celebration, New Yorkers gathered in the square to mark a new era of peace and hope. This iconic moment was captured in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photograph of an unknown couple kissing.

The photo depicts a U.S. Navy sailor kissing a stranger, a woman in a white dress, on Victory over Japan Day (“V-J Day”) in Times Square on August 14, 1945.

Original caption: “In New York’s Times Square a white-clad girl clutches her purse and skirt as an uninhibited sailor plants his lips squarely on hers”. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Published a week later in Life magazine, the image became a cultural icon, featured among many photographs of celebrations across the U.S. in a section titled “Victory Celebrations.”

In his writings, Eisenstaedt provided two slightly different accounts of taking the photograph. In “Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt,” he described capturing the moment when a sailor, amidst grabbing any girl in sight, kissed the nurse in a white dress. He emphasized the importance of the contrast between her white dress and the sailor’s dark uniform.

In “The Eye of Eisenstaedt,” he mentioned walking through the crowds on V-J Day, searching for pictures. He focused on a nurse in a massive crowd, and as he hoped, a sailor approached, grabbed her, and bent down to kiss her.

Another perspective of the same scene was captured by U.S. Navy photojournalist Victor Jorgensen, titled “Kissing the War Goodbye,” and published in the New York Times the next day. Unlike Eisenstaedt’s copyrighted photograph, Jorgensen’s image is in the public domain as it was taken by a federal government employee on official duty.

Jorgensen’s Navy photograph of the V J Day kiss in Times Square.

Many years later, the unidentified couple in the photograph was revealed to be American sailor George Mendonsa and nurse Greta Zimmer Friedman. On August 14, 1945, Greta, then 21 years old, learned about Japan’s surrender and the impending end of World War II while working at a dentist’s office. She decided to go to Times Square, where a passing sailor unexpectedly embraced her.

Recalling the moment in a 2012 CBS news interview, Greta described how the sailor, George Mendonsa, approached her without warning and kissed her. She emphasized that it wasn’t her choice to be kissed; the sailor just came over and grabbed her in a strong embrace. She said, “I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.”

The sailor, George Mendonsa, was 22 years old and from Newport, Rhode Island. On leave from the USS The Sullivans (DD-537), he and his future wife, Rita, were watching a movie at Radio City Music Hall when news of the war’s end prompted people to scream and celebrate. George and Rita joined the festivities on the street but, unable to enter the crowded bars, decided to walk down the street.

It was then that George spotted Greta, a woman in a white dress, and took her into his arms for the iconic kiss. George attributed his actions to having had quite a few drinks that day and considering Greta “one of the troops” since she was a nurse.

Greta Friedman passed away at the age of 92 on September 8, 2016, in Richmond, Virginia. She is buried next to her husband, infantryman Mischa Elliott Friedman, at Arlington National Cemetery.

(Photo credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt).