The man in the famous WWII photo of “a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square” passed away this Sunday, and as we all take a look back at the true story behind the picture, we can find an unfortunate truth about society then and now.
Shortly after Japan officially surrendered to the US, effectively putting an end to World War II, the victory was announced all over the world. Times Square was a celebratory ground full of cheers and smiles and, of course, booze. On that day, at that time, a photographer named Alfred Eisenstaedt was looking for the perfect moment to capture the joyous occasion forever. And sure enough, he got his shot. People now wonder whether his iconic photograph depicts a moment of actual celebration or an unfortunate sexual assault.
As Eisenstaedt was looking around, dissatisfied with the material he had up to that point, suddenly, a movement near him called his attention. A young man was running around in extravagant jubilation. Eisenstaedt's photographer instincts kicked in as he took the fateful photograph. It was a sailor who had run over to a girl and kissed her in what appeared to be a romantic, festive instant of sheer bliss. This kiss represented, as far as anyone could tell, the mood of an entire nation—the energy, passion, romance, euphoria, and exhilaration of youth itself, the very features that empowered America to win the war in the first place. Eisenstaedt never asked the couple's names, nor did he do much to find out the full story behind his own photo. That wasn’t the point, after all.
The photo was published a week later on LIFE magazine on a 12-page spread that documented the American spirit on that momentous date (called Victory Over Japan Day, or V-J Day). The image became instantly iconic and earned a privileged spot in American pop culture from then on. Naturally, people wanted to know the story behind it.
Years later, the protagonists were finally identified and the details came to light. The woman in the photo is Greta Zimmer Friedman, a young dental assistant back then, understandably mistaken for a nurse because of her white attire. The sailor is George Mendonsa, who just recently passed away. As it turns out, the two were complete strangers when the kiss took place, and didn’t much know about each other even afterwards.
You see, Mendonsa, a young sailor on leave from the USS The Sullivans, was on a date that day with the woman who’d eventually become his wife, Rita. He was admittedly very drunk and simply not thinking straight. As they reached Times Square, Mendonsa, having learned of his country’s victory, took to celebrating in a very controversial fashion. As Eisenstaedt himself recalls,
“I was walking through the crowds on V-J Day, looking for pictures. 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. Now if this girl hadn't been a nurse, if she'd been dressed dark clothes, I wouldn't have had a picture. The contrast between her white dress and the sailor's dark uniform gives the photograph its extra impact.”
This is an unfortunate account, pretty much confirmed by Friedman and Mendonsa themselves. While on a date with another woman, Mendonsa simply started kissing any woman he could without consent. As Friedman admitted in a 2005 interview,
“Suddenly, I was grabbed by a sailor. It wasn’t that much of a kiss... I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight. I’m not sure about the kiss... it was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event.” At some other point she said “That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.”
George Mendonsa recalls it similarly, and explained his thinking by claiming he wanted to express gratitude to all the nurses for their efforts during the war (even though Friedman wasn’t a nurse, but you can understand his confusion). Plus, he was really, really drunk, he said. “I popped quite a few drinks.”
“It was the moment,” Mendonsa told CBS News a few years ago. “You come back from the Pacific and finally, the war ends. The excitement of the war being over, plus I had a few drinks. So when I saw the nurse, I grabbed her and I kissed her.”
It was certainly a different time. This pre-feminist America didn’t see anything wrong in such behavior by a man, regardless of whether the women felt uncomfortable or not. Mendonsa certainly didn’t mean wrong: labelling him an outright sexual predator would be, shall we say, unfair given the context. But his behavior was nonetheless problematic, and doing that today would warrant a sexual assault accusation. Rightly so. Non-consensual kissing is simply not okay. Not then, not now.
Still, Mendonsa was a man of his time, not a monster. In this case, we should criticize society’s moral blindness before we blame the sailor. But after the story has been revealed, knowing what we know now about sexual assault and women’s rights, the least we could do is stop celebrating that particular photo. Iconic though it may be, it depicts a behavior we should simply not encourage.
Unfortunately, many members of our society don't only still hold that picture dear. Many also would sooner criticize an actual manifestation of consensual love than acknowledge toxic masculinity.
Just last year, a recreation of the V-J Day moment featuring a gay couple faced homophobic backlash in Florida. Bryan Woodington was returning from a seven-month deployment in the Middle East, and as soon as he saw his husband Kenneth, he gave him a consensual kiss in the same fashion as the iconic shot. The heartwarming moment aired on news network WJXT in Jacksonville, Florida.
Sure enough, the network soon received angry calls about it. “How sad that your station has dropped to such a low as to show a gay couple kissing on your newscast,” said an angry caller, “thought this was a ‘family friendly’ news channel,” said another. I don’t know if that last caller and people like him would have a problem with the V-J Day photo, but if they don’t (and many likely don’t), in their mind, a gay consensual kiss is wrong, but a non-consensual straight kiss is okay (and 'family-friendly'). Unfortunate indeed.
Greta Zimmer Friedman died on September 8, 2016, at age 92. George Mendonsa passed away on Sunday, following a seizure two days before his 96th birthday, according to his daughter, Sharon Molleur. In the end, they died as they kissed: as strangers to each other.
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