VJ Day girl - who never resented the kiss - dies in US

The woman who was nearly swept off her white high heels on August 14 1945, unwittingly creating one of the 20th century\'s most enduring images.

Published: 12th September 2016 08:49 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th September 2016 08:49 AM   |  A+A-


In this Aug. 14, 1945 file photo provided by the U.S. Navy, a sailor and a nurse kiss passionately in Manhattan's Times Square, as New York City celebrates the end of World War II. | AP

LONDON: The photograph captured a moment of pure joy: a sailor and a nurse spontaneously kissing in Times Square, New York, on the day when Japan's surrender ended the bloodiest war in history.

The woman who was nearly swept off her white high heels on August 14 1945, unwittingly creating one of the 20th century's most enduring images, was Greta Zimmer Friedman, then a dental assistant in New York.

But her identity, and the circumstances in which she was embraced by the sailor, became a source of controversy 60 years later, when Friedman said in an interview in 2005 that she had not consented to the kiss, but had been "grabbed" by the sailor. The revelation led to accusations of sexism on the part of the sailor, with some even calling the stolen kiss an example of "rape culture".

Her family have now sought to end the controversy, after her death at the age of 92 was announced yesterday. The first contested question - whether Friedman really was the woman in the VJ Day photograph - was settled in her favour as recently as 2012.

For decades, mystery surrounded the identity of the couple whose moment of passion came to epitomise the hour when the Second World War ended. Alfred Eisenstaedt, the photographer who took the shot, never knew the names of the sailor and the nurse. As it happens, neither of the subjects noticed when their picture appeared in Life magazine a few weeks later. It was only in 2012, with the publication of The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II, that the nurse and sailor were definitively named as Greta Friedman and George Mendonsa.

Both of their lives had been profoundly shaped by the catastrophe that had just ended when their chance encounter occurred in Times Square. Mr Mendonsa was serving on USS The Sullivans, a Fletcher-class destroyer that would, but for Japan's surrender, have joined the war in the Pacific.

Friedman had arrived in America only seven years earlier as a 14-year-old refugee from Nazi persecution in her native Austria. Her parents stayed behind in a Europe that was soon to suffer the murderous depredations of Hitler. Friedman later discovered that her mother and father had both perished in the Holocaust.

But it was Friedman's description of what happened on VJ Day that aroused the second controversy. "It wasn't my choice to be kissed," she said in an interview in 2005. "The guy just came over and grabbed!"

Censorious critics ignored the vital context - that the incident had occurred on a day when history's worst catastrophe came to an end and millions of young people, including Friedman and Mendonsa, discovered they would live rather than die. One blogger described the kiss as an example of "rape culture", arguing that it amounted to sexual assault.

But Friedman never bore a grudge against Mendonsa. After announcing Friedman's death, her son, Joshua, sought to end the arguments once and for all. "My mom always had an appreciation for a feminist viewpoint, and understood the premise that you don't have a right to be intimate with a stranger on the street," he said. "She didn't assign any bad motives to George in that circumstance, that situation, that time."

And the world still has a living link to that photograph, that situation and that time: George Mendonsa, formerly a sailor in the US Navy, is now a 93-year-old retired fisherman in Rhode Island.

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