George Mendonsa, whose Times Square kiss became an iconic photo, dies at 95
George Mendonsa never doubted that he was the sailor in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photo from Times Square, when news broke in 1945 that Japan had surrendered and World War II was ending.
Eisenstaedt shot four quick frames of Mr. Mendonsa kissing a stranger, Greta Zimmer Friedman, and a photo of their brief embrace became one of the era’s most iconic images. It was unforgettable for Mr. Mendonsa, too.
“This moment put magic into my life,” he told the Globe in 1988.
Mr. Mendonsa, a well-known commercial fisherman in Rhode Island, was 95 when he died early Sunday from complications of falling a short time earlier in an assisted living center. He had lived in Middletown, R.I., most of his life and would have turned 96 Tuesday.
On leave after serving in the Pacific during World War II, Mr. Mendonsa was in New York City on Aug. 14, 1945, on just his second date with Rita Petry, whom he would marry the following year.
“My date and I were at Radio City Music Hall watching a show. They stopped the show and made the announcement that the war was over,” he recalled in a 2015 interview with boston.com. “So my date and I came out into Times Square, and of course Times Square was wild.”
While serving in the Pacific aboard the USS The Sullivans, Mr. Mendonsa had witnessed nurses heroically tending to the critically injured after two kamikaze pilots attacked the USS Bunker Hill aircraft carrier during the invasion of Okinawa.
About three months later, he was on leave in Times Square when Japan’s surrender was announced. While walking with Rita, he spotted a woman dressed in white and thought she was a nurse, though Friedman actually was a dental assistant.
Caught up in his memories of Okinawa and the emotions of the moment — people were embracing all around — Mr. Mendonsa reached for Friedman, kissed her, and then they went their separate ways.
In a 2005 interview with the Veterans History Project, Friedman recalled that everyone around was celebrating. The kiss, she said, “wasn’t a romantic event. It was just an event of, ‘Thank God the war is over.’ ”
The photo became popularly known simply as “The Kiss.”
“People tell me that when I am in heaven they will remember this picture,” Eisenstaedt once said.
The photographer’s two unnamed subjects, however, became the subject of debate decades later. Life Magazine ran a full-page display of the photo in 1945, and in 1980, the company said that anyone who thought they were part of the couple should step forward.
Several men did, but Mr. Mendonsa was always sure he was the sailor, especially after he saw Eisenstaedt’s three outtake photos. A sleeve insignia he hadn’t yet sewn on his uniform was stuffed in his pocket, and an “M” — part of a GM tattoo for his initials — was visible on his arm.
The most significant evidence, though, was the woman he wasn’t kissing. Rita Petry’s face was visible over his shoulder.
In 2012, Rhode Island history teacher Lawrence Verria and retired Navy captain George Galdorisi published “The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo That Ended World War II.”
After consulting with experts in facial recognition and forensic anthropologists, along with examining hairlines, knuckles, noses, and the tattoo, they concluded that Friedman and Mr. Mendonsa were the couple in the photo.
In 1987, Mr. Mendonsa sued Life, claiming that the magazine hadn’t given him proper credit for being the sailor in the photo. He told the Globe the following year that he wasn’t interested in the money the suit might bring, and said he planned to give any funds beyond legal fees to charity. The suit was settled in October 1988, with an attorney for the company saying that Life “was never able to identify the sailor.”
In the Globe interview, Mr. Mendonsa said the suit had been motivated in part by wartime memories, and the scene he witnessed at Okinawa that prompted the iconic Times Square kiss.
“I know it sounds kind of funny, but people like me don’t often do something famous, regardless how insignificant it seemed at the time,” he said in 1988, his eyes tearing. “I owe it, in part, to the men I served with.”
One of five siblings, George Mendonsa was born in Newport, R.I., a son of Arsenio Mendonsa and Maria DeSa, immigrants from Madeira, Portugal.
Mr. Mendonsa played high school football in Newport, and “one day he came home and told his father, ‘I quit the team and quit the school,’ ” said Jerry O’Donnell, a longtime friend of Mendonsa family and former Middletown neighbor. “His father said, ‘Put your boots in the truck.’ He was a commercial fisherman from that day on.”
As a food provider, Mr. Mendonsa had a military deferment, but he joined the Navy, anyway, and entered boot camp on Thanksgiving Day in 1942, O’Donnell said. Mr. Mendonsa went on to serve aboard the USS The Sullivans, named for the five Sullivan brothers who had been killed in action.
After the war, he worked for Tallman & Mack, the fishing company his family bought. He kept going out onto the waves captaining the Maria Mendonsa, named for his mother, until he was 82, even after his family sold the company, O’Donnell said.
Mr. Mendonsa formerly served on the Rhode Island Marine Fisheries Council, including during the mid-1980s, a time of contentious discussions about the striped bass harvests.
“His 6-foot-2 frame was imposing, and his hands were as large as ham hocks,” Dick Russell wrote in a lengthy 1984 Globe account of the disputes. “His weathered face bespoke a lifetime in the elements.”
In addition to his wife, Rita, Mr. Mendonsa leaves his daughter, Sharon Molleur of Portsmouth, R.I.; his son, Ron of Florida; a sister, Hilda Todd of Tiverton, R.I.; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will said at 10 a.m. Friday in St. Mary’s Church in Newport. Burial will be in St. Columba Cemetery in Middletown, R.I.
Though Mr. Mendonsa was immortalized kissing Friedman — she was just Greta Zimmer at the time, and had walked to Times Square from the dental office where she worked — he only had eyes for Rita, his soon-to-be wife.
They had met through family — Rita was the niece of his brother-in-law’s parents.
“When I saw their niece, I went, ‘Holy Jesus, she’s beautiful,’ ” he told boston.com in 2015.
“If you saw her,” he added, “then you’re not surprised why I married her.”