The most destructive war in history ended this day in 1945, with the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan.
It was morning on the East Coast. President Harry Truman had not yet received the formal surrender. The White House official announcement was still hours away, but rumors had been flying since the early morning hours.
Born and raised in Austria, Greta Zimmer was 16 in 1939. Seeing the war bearing down on them, Greta’s parents sent her and her two sisters to America, not knowing if they would ever see them again. Six years later she was a dental assistant, working at the Manhattan office of Dr. J. L. Berke.
Greta’s lunch break came just after 1:00 that day. Patients had been coming into the office all morning with rumors that the war was over. She set out for Times Square, knowing that the lit and moving type on the Times news zipper would give her the latest news.
Petty Officer 1st Class George Mendonsa was on his last day of shore leave, spending the day with his new girlfriend, Rita Petry. They had heard the rumors too, but right now they were enjoying their last day together. The war could wait until tomorrow.
The couple went to a movie at Radio City Music Hall, but the film was interrupted by a theater employee who turned on the lights, announcing that the war was over. Leaving the theater, the couple joined the tide of humanity moving toward Times Square. The pair stopped at the Childs Restaurant on 7th Ave & 49th, where bartenders were pouring anything they could get hands on into waiting glasses. Revelers were scooping them up as fast as the glasses were filled.
Mendonsa’s alcohol-powered walk/run from the restaurant left Rita trailing behind, but neither one seemed to mind. Times Square was going wild.
The sailor from the USS Sullivans had seen bloodshed. He’d been there on May 11, as kamikaze planes smashed into the USS Bunker Hill. Explosions and fires killed 346 sailors that day. 43 of their bodies would never be found. Mendonsa had helped to pull the survivors, some of them hideously burned, out of the water. He had watched while Navy nurses tended to the injured and the dying.
When the sailor spotted Greta Zimmer, the dental assistant was dressed the same way. To him, she must have seemed like one of those white-clad angels of mercy from those earlier months.
Reporters from the AP, NY Times, NY Daily News and others descended on Times Square to record the spontaneous celebration.
As a German Jew in the 1930s, Alfred Eisenstaedt had photographed the coming storm. He had photographed Benito Mussolini’s first meeting with Adolf Hitler in Venice in 1934. Now he and his Leica Illa rangefinder camera worked for Life Magazine, heading to Times Square in search of “The Picture”.
The lit message running around the Times Building read, “VJ, VJ, VJ, VJ” as George Mendonsa grabbed a stranger and kissed her. Two seconds later the moment was gone, but Eisenstaedt and his camera had been in the right place at the right time.
The image of the sailor kissing the nurse would become as famous as Joe Rosenthal’s photo of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, but not until years later.
The German made camera which took the iconic image recently went to auction at the Westlicht auction house in Vienna, where it was expected to sell for $30,000. The winning bid was almost $150,000.
After the war, Greta Zimmer learned that both of her parents had died in the camps. She later married and made her home in Frederick, Maryland. Greta Zimmer Friedman never returned to Austria, and passed away last September, at the age of 92.
George Mendonsa and Rita Petry later married. George never saw the famous photograph until 1980. At first he wasn’t sure he recognized himself. Today, framed copies of it hang on the wall of their Rhode Island home.
This year, the couple celebrates their 68th wedding anniversary. Rita says she wasn’t angry that her husband kissed another woman on their first date. She points out that she can been seen grinning in the background of the famous picture. She will admit, however, ‘In all these years, George has never kissed me like that.’