Mendonsa deserves formal recognition as the ‘Kissing Sailor’

By Lawrence Verria 
Posted 2/19/19

George Mendonsa fought in World War II’s Pacific Theater, fished a lifetime on Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, remained married to the love of his life for …

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Mendonsa deserves formal recognition as the ‘Kissing Sailor’

Posted

George Mendonsa fought in World War II’s Pacific Theater, fished a lifetime on Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, remained married to the love of his life for over 70 years, and raised two children. 

Surely those feats counted for more than a single kiss photographed in the middle of Time Square on the day World War II ended. And George knew that. Still, he spent decades making his case for a coveted part in an iconic photograph. For George, that pursuit was all about due acknowledgment, and a larger than life story to be told. 

During World War II George Mendonsa was a quartermaster on the USS The Sullivans, a destroyer in Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s Third Fleet. With George stationed at her helm, The Sullivans shot down diving kamikazes and survived Typhoon Cobra, unlike three other destroyers that sank during the deadly storm. In the summer of 1945 George dreaded a looming invasion of Japan. 

Fortunately, Japan surrendered on Aug. 14, 1945. George Mendonsa was on leave in Times Square that day. Shortly after learning of the war’s conclusion, The Sullivans’ quartermaster couldn’t contain himself. Relieved and jubilant, a war memory caused him to kiss a woman he thought to be a nurse,  just south of New York City’s 7th and 44th Streets. Alfred Eisenstaedt, Life magazine’s renowned photographer, stood within feet of the soon to be famous kiss. Acting more on reflex than reflection, Eisenstaedt snapped four photos of the couple’s brief encounter. He did not ask for their names. After the kiss, the couple parted without speaking a word. 

The next day Life editors had much to say about the photos, especially the second of the four frame kissing sequence. That black and white photograph showcased perfect symmetry, stark contrast, and a surreal quality. A glance at the still frame shipped the viewer to Times Square’s motion filled streets on the day World War II ceased. 

In contrast to the Life editors’ energetic reception, initially Eisenstaedt could not recall the instance to which they referred. Life’s caption under the published photograph referenced the sailor and nurse anonymously. George Mendonsa did not even discover the photograph of his kiss until decades after Life first printed the picture on their oversized magazine page. Despite a somewhat modest debut, that photograph became one of history’s most beloved images.

In 1980, Life named (erroneously) the nurse in Eisenstaedt’s famous photo. That same year Life invited the sailor to come forward. And he did, amongst many would be kissing sailors. Rather than determining who kissed whom, the magazine’s executives later declared that the identity of the kissing sailor would remain a mystery. 

With Life out the picture, any campaigning sailor with an enticing story attracted a curious public’s attention. This development demoted verifiable proof below the rank of sensationalized offerings. One kissing sailor applicant claimed that Eisenstaedt posed the kissing couple. He did not. Sources referenced the kiss as romantic or lustful. It is neither. A reverend revealed that the famous kiss occurred in May on V-E Day, not in August on V-J Day. The suggestion is ludicrous. Regardless, certain media outlets provided credence to many farfetched assertions. 

Over time experts in the fields of photography, facial recognition technology, and forensic anthropology produced evidence confirming George Mendonsa is the kissing sailor. Life remained unreceptive. Curiously, despite Life’s snubs, and after the magazine transformed into Life.time.com, George continued to seek Life’s namesake endorsement. That seemed to matter little to the former periodical giant. Shortly after 1980, Life cut off communication with their relentless kissing sailor. 

On Feb. 16, 2019, at age 95, the kissing sailor died. The United States lost a national treasure and a personal escort to the happiest day, when quite by chance, and against long odds, two survivors communicated for the ages what the end of a long, costly, and triumphant war feels like. 

George Mendonsa, the kissing sailor, loved to tell his amazing story about that day. He shared it at every opportunity. He deserved that. So might we.

Lawrence Verria is co-author (along with George Galdorisi) of the book, “The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II.” He is also chairman of the North Kingstown High School Social Studies Department.

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.