The Kissing Sailor

We believe the saga behind how we came to write the forthcoming Naval Institute book, The Kissing Sailor, is a story unto itself, really a “story within a story” that has enriched the experience of writing the book and also, we believe, has made this a vastly better book than it otherwise might have been. You can pick up your copy of  The Kissing Sailor at Amazon.com

In much the same way as the principals involved in this most famous photograph – Alfred Eisenstaedt, George Mendonsa, and Greta Zimmer Friedman – were drawn to that location, at that time, by forces in many ways outside control to make that photograph happen, the factors that brought us together to write this book were truly remarkable.

And like the links in a chain, if one of these events did not happen, there would be no book, this story might have remained forever untold, and this historical record would have remained unfinished.  Larry has been the prime mover in making this book happen during this over decade-and-a-half period so we’ll begin in his voice.

“What a wonderful detective story about a kissing sailor and a beautiful nurse— the most famous couple celebrating the end of WWII. Famous but anonymous—until now. I loved it.”

— TOM BROKAW author of The Time of Our Lives and The Greatest Generation

Larry’s voice: While I do not recall my first viewing of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photograph, V-J Day, 1945, in Times Square, every random spotting of his picture drew my attention. As a young man, I guess I wanted to be the kissing sailor. I probably assumed the picture had something to do with sex, maybe romance, and certainly macho behavior. In truth, none of those descriptions portrayed the moment accurately.

Like many, for years I wondered about the identity of the sailor and nurse. I assumed the end of World War II sparked the kiss, but wondered what else precipitated the occasion. I wanted to learn the participants’ names, their origins, how they arrived in Times Square at that particular moment and what awaited them in the future seconds, days, and years after the photographed instance. Even with so many questions unanswered, somehow I just knew that the assertive sailor and the nurse he held had an amazing story to tell.

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s many former World War II sailors claimed a part in the famous photo. They all made convincing pitches. Most had an abundance of proof supporting their contentions. Determining whose claims were most accurate seemed impossible. In the coming years the campaigns for recognition turned contentious. And the battling had just begun.

My first connection to that ongoing debate, though far removed, began in late January 1994.  While teaching a lesson about the end of World War II, I projected a slide of a sailor and nurse kissing. “This famous picture from LIFE Magazine …” I explained, “epitomizes the end of World War II like no other.” As soon as I finished my treatment of the black and white photo a student from the back of the classroom added some color to the lesson.

“I know that guy,” Anthony Restivo announced from an undersized chair that he balanced on its two hind legs. He delivered his claim loudly and with an air of certainty. The class of mostly eleventh graders broke into laughter as they spun around to look in Anthony’s direction. They relied on him for comic relief. He rarely disappointed. On this day, he exceeded their expectations. He knew the anonymous kissing sailor. In fact, Anthony claimed, he had breakfast every Saturday morning in Newport with the now 73 year-old former sailor. He clarified, “Yah, Mr. Verria, he’s a fisherman now, and sort of a local hero.” I had never heard of him. While Anthony always stretched the truth, on this day he seemed to overreach and came down with a ridiculously farfetched contention. Even his classmates did not believe him. But regardless, the interruption had served its purpose. We all had a good laugh.

The following summer I had cause to be in Newport. During my late morning visit I came upon a diner called the Handy Lunch. Newport residents frequented the restaurant. Inside of the Handy Lunch’s large front window leaned three black framed 8” by 10” pictures. One of the pictures was of the sailor and nurse kissing in Times Square on August 14, 1945. After few seconds staring at that photo, I started to connect dots; Newport … breakfast … Saturday mornings … local hero … Anthony. I went inside and inquired about the picture.  I spoke with a Handy Lunch’s waitress who was busily preparing for the day’s lunch crowd. She told me that the man in the photo worked on the docks, not far from the diner. I met him a few minutes later. We made plans to talk more on another day.

Two weeks later I interviewed the fisherman in his Middletown, Rhode Island home, in a room that resembled a World War II museum. Papers, pictures, plaques, and models from the 1940’s surrounded us. The collection clearly played a supporting role in a life story.

As a World War II sailor he had fought the Japanese Imperial Navy but never referred to them as such. Instead, he referred to the sailors and pilots of the once enemy empire as “Japs.” More than hatred or disrespect, I sensed that a mixture of World War II vernacular and years-long habit accounted for the term he used. One experience from that war, he assured, prompted a later action in Times Square that Eisenstaedt caught on film. When explaining the connection between those two vastly different events, his voice cracked and his eyes welled.

He did not learn about “his” photograph, the one Eisenstaedt took on the day World War II ended, until years after LIFE published it. But as soon as he saw the V-J Day photo, he identified the physical evidence in the picture that solidified his claim to be the kissing sailor. After sharing the evidence in support of his argument, he pontificated about his efforts to be recognized as the kissing sailor in the famous Times Square scene. He raised his voice and bewailed those in positions to formally recognize him in that photo but who had chosen to do otherwise. As he did so, he clenched his fist and pounded his monstrous right hand and massive forearm on a chair’s padded armrest.

During his three hour presentation he held nothing back and harbored no reserve to draw from at our meeting’s end. He was convincing, powerful, and larger than life. But was he the kissing sailor in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s V-J Day, 1945 photograph? I could not say.

Before I left on that August 1995 afternoon, George signed a photo of Eisenstaedt’s famous photo. The inscription read, “To Larry, Home Sweet Home! George Mendonsa.” That signed photograph hung in my study for the next seventeen years. I looked at it often, and wondered. I wanted to determine the truth and learn of the real story behind the photo. I promised myself I would. And then over ten years passed. Conjecture continued its reign.

In March 2007, I learned that George Mendonsa had a heart attack and almost died. It occurred to me that he would have left this world without the recognition he sought, and maybe deserved. That possibility bothered me. Twelve years had elapsed since my interview with the Rhode Island fisherman who claimed to be the kissing sailor. During that time he continued to wage a war for recognition. I had watched, from a distance.

George’s brush with mortality bothered me. No longer could I merely look on. I had to know what really happened in Times Square on August 14, 1945. While in 2007 time remained an ally, I understood the nature of the pact. It was temporary.

Over the next three years I interviewed every major candidate for the kissing sailor and nurse, read scores of articles, reviewed numerous televised and broadcasted segments, and conferred with experts who claimed to positively identify the kissing sailor. During my research the years since a photographer’s camera spied an expressive embrace vanished. The photographed frozen instance thawed and resumed motion. Individuals relegated to a minor role took on more purpose. In some strange way I felt I had a part in the photo, too – but my limited function involved recording what had happened, and nothing more. The assignment thrilled me.

Once I determined the kissing sailor’s and nurse’s identity, I weaved in the proof with a non-fiction storyline. I sent my idea and sample chapters to numerous agents and small publishers. The feedback was not encouraging. Most, I am convinced, never gave the work a serious look. Some told me that they did not represent that kind of a book. One agent wanted the book to read like mystery novel. Others thought the story would be better as an article than a book. My frustration grew. So did my persistence.

In 2003, several years prior to my second interview with Mendonsa, George Galdorisi, a Navy man and author, met Rhode Island’s claimant kissing sailor and immediately picked up on his sincerity, as well as the persuasiveness of his case. Before the two Navy men parted, Mendonsa signed the famous V-J Day photo for Galdorisi, which the younger sailor hung in his office from that point forward. And the years passed. During that time Galdorisi took notice of other claimant kissing sailors’ publicized arguments. None of their cases impressed him like George Mendonsa’s had. He wondered why media treatments consigned Mendonsa’s claim to an inferior ranking to those of other kissing sailor aspirants. In 2009 Galdorisi learned of a study to determine the kissing sailor’s identity. He grew curious, and heard a calling. He knew he could help. Early in 2010 George Galdorisi and I talked – a lot. We saw the case similarly, and heeded the softening click of opportunity’s clock. My mission became our pursuit.

George’s voice: As Larry indicates above, I came to this undertaking later than he did – but with no less passion.  What intrigues me is how this book was such a “near thing,” that is, had events not come together in the way they did, there would be no book and you wouldn’t be reading this missive now.

When I met George Mendonsa in 2003, as Larry describes above, I was taken by his story, but that is as far as it went.  Perhaps a bit more, first, on how I came to meet George Mendonsa.  On that evening in 2003 I was in Newport on business and had dinner at the home of a good Navy friend, retired Navy Captain Jerry O’Donnell.  After dinner, Jerry said, “I want you to meet my next-door neighbor.”  I was a bit jet-lagged having just flown to Newport from San Diego the day before and almost demurred, but as Jerry is a close friend I said, “sure” and went ahead and walked with him the few feet to George’s home next door where I met George and his wife Rita.  As Larry notes, above, I was hooked.

But for years, literally, nothing happened.  Then, in 2009, Jerry called me and described Larry’s quest to prove the kissing sailor’s identity.  Had I not met George Mendonsa six year’s previously I most likely would have told Jerry I really didn’t have time to talk with Larry.   But, because I had met George and Rita six years previously I was “invested” in the story and asked Jerry to put Larry and me in touch with each other.  We did, and after a two year journey this manuscript is the result.

But importantly, had I not met George Mendonsa, through Jerry, on my own, independent of Larry, I would never have linked up with my Rhode Island co-author.  When he called me I would most likely listened to his story, wished him good luck, and that would have been the end of it.  That chance meeting with George Mendonsa in 2003 was a vital, indispensible, “link in chain,” that enabled this book to be written.  Call it fate.  Call it kismet.  Call it anything you like.  But without our mutual friendship with Jerry – as well as his persistence – this book would never have happened.  My passion for writing also includes fiction and I’m blessed to have written two published two novels.  In my humble opinion this “story within a story” almost reads like a novel – and you can’t make this stuff up.

In both Larry and George’s voice: The search for the kissing sailor is not our exclusive undertaking. Some of the findings fall short of breaking news. What we add to the discussion, while considerable, always existed for consideration. Well over a half-century ago a photographer and his Leica camera made plainly visible almost everything needed to make a positive identification of the kissing sailor. All one had to do is look. Really look. Not just watch.

The kissing sailor and white dressed woman in Eisenstaedt’s V-J Day, 1945, in Times Square still walk amongst us. And while the scene they created appears so familiar to most, we know far too little. Against all the odds, and with fate’s forces at their back, two strangers traversed a triumphant world’s most popular square on the day that history’s most destructive war ended. Without rehearsal or intent, they communicated what the climax of a victorious war felt like. The particulars of that saga inspire the human spirit. Proof of their part in that iconic photo persuades the inquisitive. Treatment of their claims upsets the fair-minded. Forces well beyond their control have denied them their due far too long. Their story, most worthy of the celebrated image, begs telling.

 

1 comment

  • Gail Dahlberg August 16, 2018

    If you are looking for another mystery regarding this famous kiss…I believe that there is a possibility that my mother may be in that photo as the young girl viewed over his shoulder. She will turn 90 on August 5,2019, just days before the momentous anniversary of that historic day. She and her best friend, a girl who would eventually become my godmother, hopped the subway from Greenpoint when they heard the rumors that the end of the war was to be declared. Please feel free to contact me at this email address.

Post a Reply