It’s pretty likely that you’ve already seen this picture, and you’ve also probably heard a brief history. Japan’s surrender was announced, all of New York and America went crazy, a sailor grabbed the closest nurse and planted one on her, and they happily went their separate ways.
I’m about to ruin all of that.
In the summer of 1945, George Mendonsa (22) met Rita Petry (20) at a family barbecue. George had just returned from the Philippines, where he and his ship had been through some tough battles. Rita was just what he needed. “She was beautiful. I think I fell in love with her the first time I saw her,” George said in an interview with the NY Post. Rita felt a little differently.“I really liked him, but I didn’t know I was the future wife,” Rita said. “I guess I thought he looked nice or something.”
A few weeks later, George took Rita on a date to see “A Bell for Adano” at Radio City Music Hall. During the movie, all of a sudden there was banging on the doors. They turned the lights on and announced Japan had surrendered. George and Rita ran out of the movie theater and straight to the nearest bar. The bartenders had lined up glasses along the bar, continuously filling them as more and more people gathered to celebrate. George admitted to having one too many drinks before heading to Times Square with Rita.
As they crossed Seventh Avenue, George spotted a woman in a nurse’s uniform, and memories from the war flooded back to him. Three months earlier, George had been on the USS The Sullivan and watched as the neighboring USS Bunker Hill was bombed by two Japanese kamikaze planes. George helped drag both the survivors and the dead from the water, and he remembered watching in awe as the nurses took over and saved as many lives as they could. George grabbed the nurse in Times Square, spun her around, and kissed her out of gratitude. Rita was standing right behind them. You can actually see her head peeking out right above George’s shoulder, but you can see her more clearly behind George’s elbow in one of the outtakes:
You’ll also notice Rita is smiling. “A lot of people want to know what I was thinking,” she told New York Post. “It was a happy day; I was grinning like an idiot. The kiss really didn’t bother me at all. If I had been engaged, maybe.” As fast as he had grabbed her, George broke away from the nurse and drunkenly stumbled off to the subway with Rita. George and Rita have been married for 66 years.
The only person bothered by the kiss was the nurse… mostly because she wasn’t actually a nurse. Greta Zimmer, a dental assistant, was born in Austria. While she was happy that the war was over, she was very concerned about her parents, who were still in Austria. She never told anyone about the kiss until years later. Though George doesn’t remember the kiss itself, Greta said she’ll never forget it.
None of them knew they had been photographed, even when the picture was printed in Life magazine. That’s probably because the picture was on page 27. In magazine language, that means it really wasn’t considered important. The picture became popular 35 years later when the search for the identities of the sailor and nurse began. That was the first time any of them saw the picture. Rita recognized herself in the background of the photo, though George originally disagreed and said it couldn’t be her. Greta knew it was her outfit and hairstyle, and her husband pointed out the curve of her left thumb. “You know, when you get very tense, your arm stiffens up and your thumb sticks out just like that,” he told her.
George and Rita have two copies of the photograph hanging in their home, but Rita insists it doesn’t bother her. The two have never even discussed the kiss, so the photos are hung with Rita’s approval. “She’s the boss!” George said. “And after all, I’m still kissing Rita.”
(Just because I thought it was cool to see this, here’s a version of the picture with color restoration.)