Sep 12

‘Nurse’ in Iconic WWII Kiss Photo Dies

Monday, September 12, 2016 11:46 AM


(courtesy of Greta Friedman)

(courtesy of Greta Friedman)

Greta Zimmer Friedman, the woman in one of history’s most memorable photographs, passed away on 8 September at age 92 after suffering a number of ailments, according to her family. On 14 August 1945, she was a dental assistant who had wandered into Time Square when news broke of the Japanese surrender. Famed photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photo of Zimmer being kissed by a stranger, Petty Officer First Class George Mendonsa, indelibly captured the celebratory mood in New York City and throughout the country.

Many have claimed to be the sailor and the “nurse” in the photograph, but the most thorough study of the impromptu embrace–Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi’s The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II (Naval Institute Press, 2012)–established that the two were Mendonsa and Zimmer.


What follows is a condensed excerpt from the book published in the August 2012 issue of Naval History:

Tuesday, August 14, 1945, started off for Greta Zimmer in the same manner as did most weekdays during that year. Hurrying to get ready for work, she showered, dressed, and pinned her hair up tightly to keep her long locks from covering her ears and neck. Before leaving her Manhattan apartment she grabbed a quick bite to eat, reached for her multicolored, small purse, and rushed out the door. When running late, Greta walked briskly toward the subway station to catch a train that could get her to work on time.

Her destination was the 33rd and Lexington subway stop, approximately three blocks from Dr. J. L. Berke’s dentist office. Greta had worked as a dental assistant at the Manhattan office for several months. While she hoped to someday design theater sets and pursue other vocations in the arts, work as a dental assistant bought her some independence and took her mind off a prolonged war.

When Greta arrived at the office on the morning of August 14, she changed into her working uniform. If it were not for her place of employment, she could have been easily mistaken for a nurse. Her white dress, white stockings, white shoes, and white cap did not distinguish her from thousands of other caregivers in New York.

While Greta performed her dental assistant duties that Tuesday morning, many patients burst into the office short of breath and beaming. Excitedly, they informed the staff and patients that the war with Japan had ended. Most patients and workers believed them. Greta wasn’t so sure. She wanted to trust their reports, but the war had rained more than a fair share of misery upon Greta. Her defenses remained high. She opted to delay a celebratory mindset that could prove painfully premature.

During the later morning hours, patients continued to enter the dentists’ office with more optimistic news. While Greta tried to ignore the positive developments, the temptation to flow with the prevailing winds challenged her reserve. As the reports became more definitive and promising, Greta found herself listening, contemplating, and growing eager.

When the two dentists returned from their lunches after 1:00 pm, Greta quickly finished the business before her. Soon after, she grabbed her small hand purse with the colorful pattern, took off her white dental assistant cap (as was customary before going out in public), and set out during her lunch break for Times Square. There the Times news zipper utilized lit and moving type to report the latest news. She wanted to know for herself if the claims that had been tossed about over the past several hours were misleading hearsay, or if, on this day, the reports would finally be true.

When Greta arrived at Times Square, a holiday atmosphere was taking hold. While the celebration was subdued compared to what would follow later that day, Greta sensed a vibrant energy in the air. Suited businessmen, well-dressed women, and uniformed soldiers and sailors entered the pandemonium from all directions. Some ran with no determined direction. Others walked with purpose. Some remained stationary, as if waiting for something big to happen. Greta paid no one particular person much attention.

Besides the iconic image captured by Alfred Eisenstaedt, other photos of the kiss were snapped. Lieutenant Victor Jorgensen, U.S. Navy, snapped this one. (U.S. Navy)

Besides the iconic image captured by Alfred Eisenstaedt, other photos of the kiss were snapped. Lieutenant Victor Jorgensen, U.S. Navy, took this one. (U.S. Navy)

Greta Zimmer stood motionless in Times Square near a replica of the Statue of Liberty and a model of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima. To Greta’s left was Childs restaurant, one of several in New York, including this establishment at 7th Avenue and 49th Street. But Greta did not come to Times Square to stare at statues or belly up to bars. She wanted to read the Times zipper and learn if Japan really had surrendered to the United States.

With the 44th Street sign and the Astor Hotel to her back, she looked up at the tall triangular building that divided one street into two. The lit message running around the Times Building read, “VJ, VJ, VJ, VJ . . .” Greta gazed at the moving type without blinking. A faint smile widened her lips and narrowed her eyes. She took in the moment fully and thought, The war is over. It’s really over.

Though Greta had arrived in Times Square by herself, she was not alone. While she continued to watch the motioning “VJ” message, hundreds of people moved around her. Greta paid little attention to the swelling mass of humanity. But they were about to take notice of her, and never forget what they saw. Within a few seconds she became Times Square’s nucleus. Everybody orbited around her, with one exception. He was drawn to her.

Fresh from the revelry at a Childs on 49th, George Mendonsa and his new girlfriend, Rita Petry, made their way down Times Square toward the 42nd Street subway station. Rita fell behind George by a few steps. Meanwhile, Eisenstaedt persisted in his hunt for the photo. After traveling a block or so up Times Square, he took notice of a fast moving sailor who he thought he saw grabbing a woman and kissing her. That sailor was heading quickly south down Broadway and 7th Avenue. Wondering what he might do next, Eisenstaedt changed direction and raced ahead of the darting sailor. To avoid bumping into people in the crowded street, he had to look away from the sailor he was trying to track. He struggled to regain his focus on the Navy man wearing the formal Navy blue uniform. As he did so, Greta looked away from the Times zipper and started to turn to her right. George crossed the intersection of 44th and 7th Avenue, lengthening the space between him and Rita. The photographer, the sailor, and the dental assistant were on a collision course.

With a quickening pace that matched the surrounding scene’s rising pulse, the sailor who served his country aboard The Sullivans zeroed in on a woman whom he assumed to be a nurse. The liquor running through his veins transfixed his glassy stare. He remembered a war scene when he had rescued maimed sailors from a burning ship in a vast ocean of water. Afterward, gentle nurses, angels in white, tended to the injured men. From the bridge of The Sullivans he watched them perform miracles. Their selfless service reassured him that one day the war would end. Peace would reign, again. That day had arrived.

George steamed forward several more feet. His girlfriend was now farther behind. He focused on Greta, the “nurse.” She remained unaware of his advance. That served his purpose well. He sought no permission for what he was about to do. He just knew that she looked like those nurses who saved lives during the war. Their care and nurturing had provided a short and precious reprieve from kamikaze-filled skies. But that nightmare had ended. And there she stood. Before him. With background noises barely registering, he rushed toward her as if in a vacuum.

Though George halted his steps just before running into Greta, his upper torso’s momentum swept over her. The motion’s force bent Greta backward and to her right. As he overtook Greta’s slender frame, his right hand cupped her slim waist. He pulled her inward toward his lean and muscular body. Her initial attempt to physically separate her person from the intruder proved a futile exertion against the dark-uniformed man’s strong hold. With her right arm pinned between their two bodies, she instinctively brought her left arm and clenched fist upward in defense. The effort was unnecessary. He never intended to hurt her.

As their lips locked, his left arm supported her neck. His left hand, turned backward and away from her face, offered the singular gesture of restraint, caution or doubt. The struck pose created an oddly appealing mixture of brutish force, caring embrace, and awkward hesitation. He didn’t let go. As he continued to lean forward, she lowered her right arm and gave over to her pursuer—but only for three or four seconds. He tried to hold her closer, wanting the moment to last longer. And longer still. But they parted, the space between them and the moment shared ever widening, releasing the heat born from their embrace into the New York summer afternoon.

The encounter, brief and impromptu, transpired beyond the participants’ governance. Even George, the initiator, commanded little more resolve than a floating twig in a rushing river of fate. He just had to kiss her. He didn’t know why.