She Looked Like a Nurse
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.
As she proceeded into the square she moved by several recognizable landmarks: the 42nd Street subway stairwell, a replica of the Statue of Liberty, and a large statue of Joe Rosenthal’s famous picture from a few months earlier. After walking a few paces beyond the 25-foot model of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima, Greta spun around and looked in the direction of the Times Building. She focused her sight just above the third-floor windows where the scrolling lighted letters spelled out the latest headlines. Greta read the racing and succinctly worded message quickly. Now she knew the truth.
The Last Day of Leave
On the last day of his leave, Petty Officer First Class George Mendonsa paid no attention to the day’s newspaper headlines and worried little about his Japanese enemy. After almost two years in World War II’s Pacific theater, his mindset was that the war would unfold independent of his blessing or curse. On the morning of August 14, 1945, his thoughts focused primarily on Rita Petry, an attractive Long Island girl he’d met a few weeks earlier in Rhode Island.
George woke up that Tuesday morning alone in a bedroom at the Petry family’s Long Island home. After breakfast with Rita’s family, he leafed through The New York Times looking for show times in New York’s theaters. He and his new girlfriend decided to take in a matinee at Radio City Music Hall. They thought the 1:05 pm showing of A Bell for Adano would give them plenty of time to make it back to Long Island by early evening. George was scheduled to depart for San Francisco that night. In a few days he expected to board The Sullivans and prepare for what he hoped would be the last battles of World War II. He knew an invasion of the Japanese mainland was imminent. While he did not welcome the looming chain of events, he thought finishing off the Japanese in their homeland would be a fitting bookend to a war that had commenced almost four years earlier with the empire’s surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor. But all that was in the future. He still had one day left to enjoy in New York.
Preparing for that day, George wore a formal blue Navy uniform that he’d had tailor-made while on leave in Newport. Rita liked how well fitted the new uniform appeared, but she’d also noticed that “he didn’t look like a usual sailor. He didn’t have those things [rates] on his shoulder.” She’d offered to sew on the chevron, but George had insisted he would take care of the matter with a crossbow hand-stitch he had perfected affixing rates on uniforms on board The Sullivans. He never got around to it, so, in the event the shore patrol inquired as to the whereabouts of his rating badge, George made sure to carry the chevron on his person when he and Rita set out for the city.
When they arrived in Manhattan at approximately noon, the city already buzzed with rumors of Japan’s anticipated surrender. However, neither Rita nor George listened much to people’s conversations. Intent on getting to the theater for the 1:05 movie, they made their way from the subway directly to Radio City Music Hall.
For all their rushing, George and Rita never saw the climax of A Bell for Adano, the movie they had come to see. After a few scenes of the film had played on the large screen, a theater employee interrupted the show by pounding on the entrance door and announcing loudly that World War II had ended. Radio City Music Hall patrons simultaneously leaped to their feet with a thunderous applause. Though President Truman had not yet received Japan’s official surrender, and the White House’s official announcement of Japan’s capitulation was still hours away, few raised the slightest objection to the premature declaration.
Seconds after the theater attendant’s announcement, George, Rita, and most other moviegoers poured out of Radio City Music Hall into a bustling 50th Street and 6th Avenue. As they merged into the frenzied scene, they fed off the contagious excitement that surrounded them. People yelled out news of victory and peace. They smiled and laughed. They jumped up and down with no thought of proper decorum. As if caught in a magnetic field, the historic celebration moved toward Times Square. People from other sections of the city were funneled to the same crossroads where they had gathered for celebrations in the past.
At the corner of 7th Avenue and 49th Street, George and Rita dropped into Childs restaurant for celebratory libations. As in other watering holes in New York, people walked, skipped and ran up to the jam-packed counter to tip a glass or two (or significantly more) to the war that they thought had finally ended. The scene at Childs looked much like that on 7th Avenue. Order and etiquette had been cast away. Rather than placing orders for a specific mug of beer or a favorite glass of wine, patrons forced their way toward the bar and reached out an arm to grab one of the shot glasses of liquor that lined the counter. A generous bartender continuously poured the contents of hard liquor bottles into waiting glasses. George grabbed whatever the server dispensed and did not ask what it was he drank. He knew the desired result would be the same whether the contributor was Jack Daniel’s, Jameson, or Old Grand-Dad. Even Rita gave over to the reckless abandon. After several minutes and the consumption of too many drinks, George and his date made their way out of the packed bar.
Emotions and alcohol-based fuel propelled them out into Times Square where victorious World War II celebrants continued to mass. George thought, My God, Times Square is going wild. And at that point, so was George. He felt uncharacteristically blissful and jubilant. As George moved briskly toward the 42nd Street subway station, the sailor from The Sullivans outpaced his girlfriend. For the moment, no one could corral George. And no one tried—not even Rita. The realization of a triumphant war created more vigor than his large frame could hold. He needed to release the energy. Rita did her best to keep up. At most points she trailed him by only a few feet. Although she enjoyed the folic through Times Square, she wondered if George would ever stop for a breather.
In Search of the Picture
As the spirited celebration of Japan’s surrender grew, reporters from the Associated Press, The New York Times, the New York Daily News, and other well-known publications descended on Times Square to record the spontaneous merriment that was enveloping the world’s most important crossroads. Photographers added more bodies to a burgeoning impromptu gala. One of them represented Life magazine.
On August 14, 1945, the magazine sought pictures that differed from most others printed earlier in the war. On this day, Life wanted its viewers to know what the end of the war felt like. The editors didn’t know with any degree of certainty what incarnation that feeling might take, but they left it to their photographers to show them—just like they had with other events over the publication’s nine-year history. Those unsupervised approaches had rarely led to disappointment in the past, and Life’s editors trusted their photographers to deliver again today.
The magazine’s trust in its photographers was especially complete when Alfred Eisenstaedt was on assignment. He had photographed the people and personalities of World War II, some prior to the declaration of war and others even before Life existed. As a German Jew in the 1930s, he had chronicled the developing storm, including a picture of Benito Mussolini’s first meeting with Adolf Hitler in Venice, on June 13, 1934. In another shoot he’d photographed an Ethiopian soldier’s bare cracked feet on the eve of Fascist Italy’s attack in 1935.
After the outbreak of war between Japan and the United States, Eisenstaedt focused on the American home front. In 1942 he photographed a six-member Missouri draft board classifying a young farmer as 2-C, indicating draft deferment because of his occupation’s importance to the nation. For another series in 1945, he visited Washington and photographed freshman senators performing comical monologues and musical numbers to entertain Capitol reporters. During World War II, Eisenstaedt showed the world what war looked like on the U.S. mainland.
On the day World War II ended, Eisenstaedt entered Times Square dressed in a tan suit, a white shirt with a lined tie, tan saddle shoes, and a Leica camera hanging from his neck. Despite his distinctive ensemble, he traveled stealthily amongst the kaleidoscope of moving parts looking for the picture. He made sure not to call attention to himself. He was on the hunt. He knew there was a picture in the making. Kinetic energy filled the square. Eisenstaedt wished for others to feel it, too. To create that sense, Eisenstaedt’s photo needed a tactile element. It was a tall order for the five-foot, four-inch photographer. He relished the challenge.
At some point after 1:00 pm, Eisenstaedt took a picture of several women celebrating in front of a theater across the street from the 42nd Street subway station stairwell. The picture showed ladies throwing pieces of paper into the air, creating a mini-ticker-tape parade. While the photo had its charm, it was not the defining picture Eisenstaedt was searching for that day.
Shortly after closing the shutter on that scene, he turned to his left and looked up Broadway and 7th Avenue to where 43rd Street connected to Times Square’s main artery. As Eisenstaedt continued to search for a photograph that would forever define the moment at hand, he peered around and beneath, but probably not over, the sea of humanity. News of the war’s end had primed America’s meeting place for a one-in-a-million kind of picture. A prospect would present itself soon. Eisenstaedt knew that. So he looked and waited.
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.
For that moment, George had thought Times Square’s streets belonged to him. They did not. Alfred Eisenstaedt owned them. When he was on assignment, nothing worth capturing on film escaped his purview. Before George and Greta parted, Eisenstaedt spun around, aimed his Leica and clicked the camera’s shutter release closed four times. One of those clicks produced V-J Day, 1945, Times Square. That photograph became his career’s most famous, Life magazine’s most reproduced, and one of history’s most popular. The image of a sailor kissing a nurse on the day World War II ended kept company with Joe Rosenthal’s photo of the flag raising at Iwo Jima. That photo proudly exemplified what a hard-fought victory looks like. This photo savored what a long-sought peace feels like.
Alfred Eisenstaedt was not the only photographer to take notice of George and Greta. Navy Lieutenant Victor Jorgensen, standing to Eisenstaedt’s right, fired off one shot of the entwined couple at the precise moment the Life photographer took his second picture of four. Though Jorgensen’s photo did not captivate audiences to the same degree that Eisenstaedt’s second photograph did, Kissing the War Goodbye drew many admirers as well.
And then it was over. Shortly after the taking of V-J Day, 1945, Times Square, Greta returned to the dental office and told everyone what was happening on the streets. Dr. Berke had her cancel the rest of the day’s appointments and closed the office. Afterward, as Greta made her way home, another sailor kissed her, this time politely on the cheek. For this kiss Greta no longer wore her dental assistant uniform and no photographers took her picture. And as far she could tell, she had not been photographed at any point in time during that day. She did not learn otherwise until years later, when she saw Eisenstaedt’s photograph of a Times Square couple kissing in a book entitled The Eyes of Eisenstaedt.
George did not realize that he had been photographed, either. When George turned from the act he’d instigated, he smiled at Rita and offered little explanation for what had transpired. As hard as it is to believe, she made no serious objection. George’s actions fell within the acceptable norms of August 14, 1945, but not any other day. Actually, neither George nor Rita thought much of the episode and proceeded to Rita’s parents’ home via the 42nd Street subway train. Later that evening, the Petrys transported George to LaGuardia Airport for a flight to San Francisco that left at approximately midnight. Neither he nor Rita discovered Eisenstaedt’s V-J Day, 1945, Times Square until 1980.