It’s rare when a single photograph defines an historic event.
But one of those photographs is “The Kiss.”
It’s from Aug. 14, 1945, the day Japan surrendered to end World War II, when a sailor and nurse locked lips in Times Square.
Until just recently, their identities remained a mystery, but with the 67th anniversary of VJ Day coming up Tuesday, the time seemed right for CBS News to reunite them.
The photo is one of the most famous from the 20th century — a moment filled with such spontaneous euphoria it seemed to last forever.
“It was the moment. You come back from the Pacific, and finally, the war ends,” reflects 89-year-old George Mendonsa, who says he’s the sailor in the photograph that would come to symbolize the end of the war. The sailor, in uniform, is seen with Greta Friedman, a nurse, in her white uniform.
As the perfect strangers embraced and kissed, world famous photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt snapped four pictures, taking only ten seconds to do so.
“I did not see him approaching, and before I know it, I was in this vice grip!” Greta says.
How long was the kiss? “Not long,” George recalls.
Greta was a dental assistant on break.
George, a first class sailor in the Navy, was on a date with another woman when he heard the news at Radio City Music Hall.
“They stopped the show and they said, ‘The war is over. The Japanese have surrendered,”‘ George says.
He and his date then went to a nearby bar, celebrating that he wouldn’t have to return to combat.
“The excitement of the war being over, plus I had a few drinks,” George explains. ” … So when I saw the nurse, I grabbed her, and I kissed her.”
Greta says she’s “sure” he saw the photo when it was published in Life magazine, and “of course,” she recognized herself.
“You don’t forget this guy grabbing you!” she remarked.
George, on the other hand, says he didn’t know the picture had been taken.
They went their separate ways, not formally meeting again until 1980, when Life magazine asked the previously unknown pair to step forward.
George’s friend noticed the picture in the magazine.
“He says, ‘I know it’s you,”‘ George remembers. “I said, ‘You’re crazy!’ This was 1980, 35 years after the war ended. … So he brought the magazine over to the house and, the minute I looked at it, I said, ‘Damn. That IS me!”‘
George says that was the first time he saw the picture.
But George and Greta weren’t the only ones claiming to be the two caught by the camera. For more than 30 years, others claimed to be the ones in the photo.
And for just as long, George has fought to set the record straight.
Now, he has an ally: Rhode Island high school history teacher-turned-author Lawrence Verria.
He co-wrote a new book, “The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II,” and says the evidence rules out everyone but the retired fisherman from Middletown, R.I.
“I started my research in 2007,” Verria says, adding this is “a story about our nation and World War II. It’s a story about a kiss. It’s a story about a place. It’s a story about a publication. But at the end, it’s a story about two national treasures who, for 60-some years, never got the due that was theirs.”
George says, “The best proof there is, is my date. Her face is seen over the sailor’s right shoulder.”
His date, Rita Petrie, can be seen in the background, smiling from ear-to-ear.
She says, “Either I was dopey or something, but it didn’t bother me!” Rita said with a laugh about George kissing another woman the first week they were dating.
It must not have: She’s been married to George for the last 66 years.
And, says Rita, women still approach George. “It’ll come up that he’s ‘The Kissing Sailor.’ So the kissing sailor has to think he has to kiss everybody. So he does!”
People write George all the time now, asking for autographs, and offering words of encouragement.
He described a recent letter, saying the writer “states something like, ‘It must be something great to be involved in a photo that means the end of World War II.’ Well, I’m proud of that.”
As is a nation that’s still mesmerized by his timeless kiss.