Alfred Eisenstadt’s photograph of a sailor and a nurse kissing in Times Square is an icon of V-J Day, August 14, 1945, the final end of World War II.

Alfred Eisenstadt’s photograph of a sailor and a nurse kissing in Times Square on V-J Day, August 14, 1945

Despite the photo’s fame, the identities of the man and woman pictured have been a mystery. But a few clues uncovered in recent years have narrowed the pool of possible subjects to two people.

Rumors of the Japanese surrender passed by word-of-mouth across the country in the afternoon of August 14, a Tuesday. People poured out of their homes, shops, and offices and into the streets for the largest spontaneous celebration in American history. Times Square, the busiest pedestrian hub in the world, was the epicenter of the revelry. Over two million people gathered in the bowtie-shaped intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue at West 45th Street in Manhattan to await official confirmation of the news to blaze across the New York Times’ ticker.

Eisenstadt was just one of the photographers to capture the scene at Times Square that afternoon. Lieutenant Victor Jorgensen with the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit was also on hand. The two men converged on the same couple, a sailor and nurse, embraced in a kiss, and snapped photos from slightly different angles at the same time.

Eisenstadt explained the shot:

I was walking through the crowds on V-J Day, looking for pictures. I noticed a sailor coming my way. He was grabbing every female he could find and kissing them all — young girls and old ladies alike. Then I noticed the nurse, standing in that enormous crowd. I focused on her, and just as I’d hoped, the sailor came along, grabbed the nurse, and bent down to kiss her. Now if this girl hadn’t been a nurse, if she’d been dressed in dark clothes, I wouldn’t have had a picture. The contrast between her white dress and the sailor’s dark uniform gives the photograph its extra impact.

Sailor and a nurse kissing in Times Square on V-J Day, August 14, 1945Full length and framed by the complex intersection, Eisenstadt’s version of the scene, which was later published in Life, is the superior image. Jorgensen’s, however, is in the public domain and therefore is more frequently reproduced. The Navy lieutenant’s photo appeared in the New York Times in August 15.

Since that day, dozens of men have claimed to be the sailor, but only a handful of women stepped have forward as the nurse. According to the most authoritative study of the subject, Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi’s The Kissing Sailor (2012), forensic analysis eliminates all but two claimants: George Mendonsa, a Navy quartermaster on leave from the Pacific and Greta Zimmer Friedman, a dental assistant (not a nurse) from Queens.

Mendonsa, who died in 2019 just shy of 96 years old, told the story this way. On the afternoon of August 14, he was on a date at the theater with a young woman named Rita. In the middle of the movie, the theater manager came on stage and announced the war was over. George and Rita fled the theater and hit the bars, before getting separated in the rolling crowd. George says he was overcome with gratitude when he saw a nurse in the street. He flashed back to his time on the USS The Sullivans (DD-537) when he witnessed a kamikaze attack on the USS Bunker Hill during the invasion of Okinawa. He watched from The Sullivans’ rail as a swarm of Navy nurses boarded the Bunker Hill to care for the wounded. On August 14, he saw a nurse in Times Square and kissed her as a way of saying thank you.

Navy quartermaster George Mendonsa, the sailor in the iconic photograph during V-J Day    Navy veteran George Mendonsa

Greta remembered it differently. “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed,” she said of the #MeToo moment. “The guy just came over and kissed or grabbed.”

Great’s dentist boss had closed up his office off Times Square as news of the Japanese surrender spread on the afternoon of August 14. Greta stepped into the swirling crowd and was kissed. George never knew she wasn’t a nurse.

Greta Zimmer Friedman, the nurse in the iconic photograph during V-J Day  Greta Zimmer Friedman passport with Nazi Germany stamp on it

He also never knew her traumatic past. She was a Jewish immigrant from Vienna, having fled Nazi persecution in 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II. Her parents had stayed behind in Austria and would die in the Holocaust. She never saw the photos of herself in the New York Times or in Life magazine.

It was only decades later, in the 1960s, while leafing through a retrospective volume on the war when she saw Eisenstadt’s photo and exclaimed, “That’s me!”

Sailor kissing a nurse statue defaced with spray paintHistory, however, has a way of never staying settled. Just when we thought the case of the Times Square Kiss was closed, three physicists at Texas State University began to raise new questions about the photograph. Actually, they sought to answer just one question that had never been determined: what time did the Kiss occur?

The professors studied vintage maps, aerial photos, and architectural blueprints before constructing a scale model of Times Square, circa 1945. They even rigged a moving sun to pass over the model so they could match the lighting and shadows on the many photographs taken by Eisenstadt and Jorgensen that day. After four years of research, the scientists determined that the shadows in Eisenstadt’s photo could only have been cast by a sun “at azimuth 270 degrees (exactly due west) and at an altitude of +22.7 degrees.” That is, the photo was taken at exactly 5:51 p.m. 

Both George and Greta claimed the kiss was much earlier in the afternoon. Perhaps their memories were clouded. Or, perhaps the kissers are still a mystery, after all.