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THE TIMES SQUARE KISS - AN AMERICAN MYSTERY

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

August 14th 1945. The Japanese surrender, World War 2 comes to an end and America erupts into the wildest of celebrations. The whole nation takes to the streets as the realization hits that their boys, fighting overseas, are now safe. After years of worry, fear and heartache, that day in August was the day America blew the lid off the pressure cooker.

In the giddy chaos in Times Square, New York, a young US sailor grabs a nurse in white uniform, and kisses her squarely on the lips. Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captures that precise moment. And it becomes history. It becomes one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century; perfectly capturing the sense of unbridled euphoria that gripped the entire nation that day. Our sons are coming home. Life can begin again.

I've known that photograph all my life. Always wondered who the sailor was, who the nurse was. Eisenstaedt didn't get their names, but in the London Evening Standard, 28th August 1987, I read that US Navy veteran, George Mendonca, who claims to be the sailor, is suing Time Life Publishing for using his image without permission.

Mendonca's story is extraordinary. It's magical, packed with vivid detail. I become fascinated. Here's George himself:


"We went to Radio City Music Hall. There was pounding on the doors from outside on the street. They put the lights on and stopped the show and said, ‘The war is over, and the Japanese have surrendered. Everyone rushed out to celebrate. Rita and I got bombed in a bar called Child's. The bartenders had lined up glasses all along the bar and just kept pouring. I popped quite a few drinks. Then we walked a couple of blocks to Times Square. Another girl walked by, a nurse. 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. I grabbed the nurse because I saw what the nurses did on the hospital ships out there in the Pacific."


But as it turns out, Mendonca was one of eleven men claiming to be that sailor, albeit one with a witness; his girlfriend and future wife Rita Petry, seen grinning in the background in Eisenstaedt's photo. Rita testifies that her George is that sailor.

Enter star witness. Photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt: "In Times Square on V.J. Day I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight. Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, didn't make a difference. I was running ahead of him with my Leica looking back over my shoulder but none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse. If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture. If the sailor had worn a white uniform, the same. I took exactly four pictures. It was done within a few seconds. Only one is right, on account of the balance. In the others the emphasis is wrong — the sailor on the left side is either too small or too tall. People tell me that when I am in heaven they will remember this picture."

Here was a meticulous man, an acute observer of detail, a silent watcher who chose his subjects carefully, methodically. He analysed, weighed up the possibilities, waited for the right moment. And when that moment arrived, he clicked the shutter. His testimony? Let's call it the Gospel.


So judging by the Gospel, was Mendonca my man? He was my kinda guy. A war hero, who only two months earlier, while serving onboard the USS The Sullivans destroyer in the Pacific, had participated in the rescue of hundreds of horrifically injured men from its shark infested waters, after two Japanese Kamikaze pilots flew their planes into the USS Bunker Hill, killing nearly 400 sailors and airmen and wounding over 260.


Mendonca, as did every Allied serviceman and woman in that war, deserves our praise and thanks.


Apart from Mendonca, all but one of the ten other sailors' claims were discounted. That one remaining claim was verified in 2007, by Houston Police Department's forensic artist, Lois Gibson. Eighteen year old Glenn McDuffie, who was serving onboard the Liberty Ship, Alexander Lillington, happened to be in Times Square that day.


Glenn gave several interviews. Here's a couple of excerpts:


"I was on a subway train on VJ Day, heading to Brooklyn to see my girlfriend Ardith Bloomfield. At Times Square, this woman ran up to me and said, 'Sailor, I'm so happy for you!' I asked her why? She said the war was over. It meant my brother, prisoner in a Japanese POW camp, would be coming home. I was so happy. I ran out in the street. And then I saw that nurse. She saw me hollering and with a big smile on my face. I just went right to her and kissed her. I heard someone running and stopping right in front of us. I raised my head up, and it was a photographer. I tried to get my hand out of the way so I wouldn’t block her face, and I kissed her just long enough for him to take the picture. We never spoke a word. Afterward, I just went on the subway across the street and went to Brooklyn."


"When I got off the subway I got to the top of the stairs and the lady up there said, 'Sailor, I'm so happy for you.' I asked her why and she told me the war was over and I could go home. I ran into the street jumping and hollering. That nurse was out there and she turned around and put her arms out and that's when I kissed her. Then I heard someone running and I lifted my head and it was that photographer."


The nurse 'turned around and put her arms out''? Not according to Nursie, she didn't. Greta Friedman was 21 years old, a Jewish refugee from Austria, who'd escaped the Nazis, but was to lose both her parents and much of her extended family in the Holocaust. She was a dental assistant on Lexington Avenue and had gone to Times Square in her lunch break... for she too had heard the good news.

Here, let Greta tell you herself: "I went straight to Time's Square where I saw, on the lighted billboard that goes around the building, 'V-J Day, V-J Day!' Suddenly, I was grabbed by a sailor. That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me. He was just holding me tight. I'm not sure about the kiss... it was just somebody celebrating. It wasn't a romantic event. It was just an event of 'thank god the war is over."


Look at that photo again. Check out Greta's body language. No way has she opened her arms to anyone. She's been grabbed out of the blue, almost lifted off her feet and kissed. She clutches her purse tightly. Her left hand holds down her skirt defensively. No way did she welcome a dashing young sailor into her open arms. That, by the conventions of today, by the way we are expected to behave today, is sexual assault. Absolutely no doubt about it... but... be wary of judging the actions of others 80 years ago, in an extraordinarily turbulent time few of us will ever live through, much less comprehend.

Or to paraphrase historical novelist, Hilary Mantel: "The essence of true historical perspective is not to pass judgement from our lofty perch in the 21st Century."


We need to be so careful how we pass judgement on an act from 80 years ago; far removed from today and the agenda of those who would, without hesitation, pass the most damning of judgements, while ignoring of the fact that these men had lived through hell. They had witnessed blood, death and destruction. They had risked their lives, sacrificed their lives to ensure the freedoms we take for granted today. 55 million people died in that war. 55 million. A figure worth bearing in mind before anyone passes judgement on what was then seen - in the heady madness of Times Square that afternoon - as a celebration of a horrific war coming to an end.


And in case you're still not convinced, check out this photo, taken that very same afternoon in Times Sq.

Look at that poor sailor being mauled by those women! I was so deeply offended by this image, I ended up in Intensive Care at my local hospital. They said I'd probably not survive and put me on Life Support. I mean, that's what being offended does to people these days, doesn't it?


But Greta? She was incredibly cool about the whole thing: "I can't think of anybody who considered that as an assault. It was a happy event. There is just no way that there was anything bad about it. It was all good news, the best news we'd had for a number of years."


In fact 'Kissing the Sailor / the Soldier / the Airman was encouraged by media photographers and their editors throughout World War 2. It was viewed as a positive, uplifting image, a great morale booster. Lois Gibson even refers to Glenn raising his arm, so as not to block Greta's face in the photo, as 'chivalrous'. Eh, that's pushing it, Lois...


In 1980, Life Magazine ran an article featuring all those who'd claimed to be the sailor or the nurse. It also got George and Greta together in Times Square. By all accounts it was an awkward 'reunion'. Alfred Eisenstadt photographed the occasion.


OK, so Greta is definitely the nurse. But who's the sailor? George? Big man, John Wayne persona. I could easily see him as the swaggering, drunken sailor. But would a guy, however happy and drunk, start grabbing and kissing every woman in sight, according to the Gospel, while his girlfriend, on their first date together, tags happily along, thinking to herself, 'Wow! I gotta marry this dude!'? George, by his own admission, was plastered drunk. He probably did kiss a nurse, yet once claimed he was so drunk, he couldn't remember kissing anyone. So where does that leave him? Still a war hero to me.


Christmas 2015, I phone the big man. We chat for a while, then I say, "So tell me George, are you really the sailor who kissed that nurse?"

"Well, no one's yet convinced me I ain't," he booms down the phone. I loved him for that.


Now I know Lois Gibson claims Glenn is the 'forensic match', but his story? Never bought it. Not for an instant. It bothered me, because as sure as he might have been the sailor, his story's a load of crap. It's claimed he passed ten lie detector tests, but did anyone ever question him about the nurse 'turning around, holding out her arms out' when it's clear from the photo, she did no such thing? Or him 'kissing every woman in sight', according to the Gospel, before he finally reaches Greta? Or him exiting 'the Subway across the street and seeing the pretty nurse' when 42nd Street Subway Station is three blocks south from where the photo was taken? Seriously people, what questions did they actually ask the man? "OK Glenn, this one's a toughie. Now, what did you have for breakfast? Take your time. Think carefully now... Eggs is the right answer! Congratulations! You are the sailor!" Time to look at the photo again...

See those two sailors on the left? Grinning like Cheshire cats, they are. Turns out they and Glenn are buddies. Close buddies, as in, 'Ahoy there me hearties!' Sailor boy in the dark uniform is Jack Holmes from Pittsburg, who served on...? Have a guess... You got it! The Alexander Lillington. Same boat as Glenn's. My, what a coincidence you are thinking. And the boy in white? Bob Little from Buffalo, New York. Who also served on? Correct! So little Glennie was not alone in Times Square that day. He didn't leap out of a hole in the ground, into the welcoming arms of a pretty nurse.


Know what I think? I think... No... I know... Glenn, Jack and Bob went on the lash when the good news broke. They docked, they rocked, they partaaayed like every other serviceman in New York that day. They got plastered, got up to high jinks and for a bet, for a laugh, for a dare, our Glenn, pissed as a rat, and egged on by Jack and Bob, starts grabbing and kissing every woman in sight. Which is when Alfred clocks Glenn, clicks the shutter. That iconic photo now takes on a whole new meaning, does it not?


Of course Glenn's testimony refutes that version of events. Let's not beat about the bush here. Glenn lied about the Kiss. Lied his wee socks off. He paints a right Fairytale of New York; the devoted boyfriend, who, on his way to see his new girl, leaps out of the Subway, a-jumpin' and a-hollerin' like some crazed Cowboy, gets a 'Phwoarr! Givvus a kiss sailor boy!' from a pretty nurse, happily obliges, then scuttles back down the Subway like a little mole, leaving his two shipmates, who, of all the Times Squares in all the world, just happen to be standing a few feet from him and just happen to get included in one of the most famous photographs of all time.


So why did Glenn change his story? Simple. He got embarrassed by what he'd done. Perhaps even ashamed he'd gone on a bender and started grabbing women left, right and centre. Waking up the next morning, head like Mount Rushmore, thinking, 'Oh God, did I really do that?' Not the sort of thing you'd want your children to know about, eh?


So when in 2007, our Glenn gets hailed as 'the real sailor', he'd been a long time grown up. He'd married, had kids; a respectable family man, who didn't want his family or the world to know about his drunken exploits 60 odd years before. So he badly needed a good story, a 'nice' story in place of the real story. A wholesome, folksy, Jimmy Stewarty, "Aw shucks Harriet, I brung you some flowers" kinda story. So he invents one. Invents that, 'Well I was just on my way to see my dear little blossom of a girlfriend, when suddenly...'


Glenn Mc Duffie. Gotta love him. I prefer the real Glenn to the pretendy, pious boyfriend he created. And another thing. How come so many US Navy veterans claimed to be that sailor? And two other women besides Greta, claimed to be the nurse? Well, a whole lotta kissing went on in Times Square that day.


There was certainly a whole lotta drinking. Probably a good few punches thrown too. Happens when the forces go drinking together.

A whole lotta fuzzy, blurry heads the next morning. A lotta mixed up facts. Over to you Greta:


"We established that many ladies were kissed by sailors that day in celebration of the war ending. These other ladies, and sailors may all have been in Time's Square on V-J Day, and kissed... but the photo that Albert Eisenstaedt took was of Greta Friedman and George Mendonca. I looked again at the LIFE magazine with the photos of the various men who claimed to be the sailor. Maybe all these people were at Times Square kissing pretty ladies?"


I love Greta. I love her calm, quiet dignity. Her aloofness from the event, while being inextricably bound within it. And Glenn? And George? Love 'em both. Both men deserve credit, gratitude, admiration. As does every Allied serviceman and woman who risked their lives during the War.


So who's the sailor? George? Glen? Strong evidence for either, but in the final analysis, does it really matter? To me, they are two war heroes whose lives glided through one another on that mad August afternoon. They may even have bumped shoulders in that crazy, happy crowd.


No, in the end, it doesn't matter. Best leave it as an unsolved American mystery, for mystery is far more fascinating than fact. Wouldn't you agree?


So there you have it people. The Times Square Kiss. An enduring American mystery. One gloriously happy event on the day World War 2 came to an end.


This has been Paul Bowen, Irish musician... and on this occasion, Irish detective.


© 2023 Paul Bowen

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2 Comments


Brilliant piece of writing and detective work. Thank you Paul

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thestarjets
thestarjets
May 25, 2023
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Ah thanks Susan ❤️

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