Times Square, New York City.
A girl is forcibly swept off her feet and kissed by a stranger.
The image is recognized worldwide as “The photo that ended the Second World War“
Collective euphoria? Or pardonable sexual assault? I say ‘pardonable’ since you can see even the other women in the image smiling.
(Pic courtesy: Life Magazine)
On the morning of Aug. 15, 1945, 21-year-old Greta Zimmer reported to work as a dental assistant and nurse on Lexington Ave, New York City. While, across Europe, the guns had already fallen silent three months earlier, the war in the Pacific had been raging on, the Japanese – with their stupid do-or-die sense of honor refusing to call it quits.
All morning, Greta had been hearing rumors that the Japanese had finally surrendered after being hammered by two really big bombs everybody was calling Little Boy and Fat Man.
And then the announcement came over the radio and businesses across New York (in fact all over America and the world) downed their shutters and countless men and women spilled into the streets in a giddy and chaotic release – a cathartic revelry that gave vent to the pent-up anxieties, fears, sorrows of not only the six years of brutal warfare but also the bottled up anger of the previous three decades of economic meltdown that came to be known in history books as the Great Depression.
Greta Zimmer’s joy was tempered by her past – she had landed in America as a Jewish refugee who escaped Austria in the nick of time in 1938, leaving her parents behind. As of that euphoric day in the photo, she hadn’t heard from them and presumed they didn’t survive.
Nevertheless, everyone was streaming out of the offices, restaurants, cinemas and cafes into the streets and Greta too got swept away down the stairs, onto the 6th Avenue with the crowd. Without even bothering to change from her nurse’s uniform to her street clothes, Greta took off and for an hour, simply wandered aimlessly west toward Time Square, which was – as it is even now – the go to place for spontaneous celebrations.
Outside, it was a brilliantly sunny day.
At the very moment when Greta Zimmer was wandering into Time Square, 21-year old US Navy Ensign, George Mendosa, was inside a cinema with his date, Rita, watching a war movie with Robert Mitchum in it. All of a sudden the show was halted and the lights came on and over the theater’s PA system came the announcement that the war with Japan had ended and so had the Second World War. Those inside the theater, George and Rita included, sprang up and rushed out into the street.
They couldn’t find a bar that wasn’t jam-packed, so the couple decided to simply blend into the crowds that meandered around Time Square, strangers hugging and shaking hands and soaking up the magic of the historic moment. George had been enjoying the last few days of his shore leave and now he was overjoyed that he wouldn’t be redeployed in the Pacific.
If you were a woman on Broadway or Times Square that day, chances were good that you too would be scooped up and kissed by random strangers and most likely you wouldn’t mind it even a bit. Still, Greta Zimmer was shocked when she suddenly found herself jostled and then before she could gather her wits, grabbed and kissed by a brawny young man in a sailor’s uniform – George Mendosa.
The same setting, but this is another frame the same photographer took seconds later, the angle slightly different this time, exposing the smiling girl behind the kissing sailor, George Mendosa’s right arm.
The girl was the sailor’s date, Rita and she wasn’t ruffled one bit that George would scoop nurse Greta Zimmer up and give her a huge sloppy kiss. Rita couldn’t help grinning herself. So euphoric was the moment that it had swept aside any jealousy or resentment that might have otherwise crept in her.
I am sure the feeling among most women in America that day must have been one of gratitude, like they owed the men in uniform a debt. Letting themselves be grabbed and kissed (aka sexually assaulted) was seen by them as a gesture of that appreciation perhaps.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the two kissers, noted Life Magazine photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt, had captured the moment. The photo was published a week later but it was a year before both, Greta Zimmer and George Mendonsa, became aware about “the photo that ended the Second World War” and of their newfound status as icons.
The sailor kissing nurse photo has since spread around the world, as an iconic representation of the power of collective euphoria. I recall feeling that feeling once, in 1983, when India won the cricket World Cup. The whole city of Pune had gathered on the bridge across the Mula Mutha River, Lakdi Pul. Girls were letting themselves be squeezed and cuddled openly by total strangers. Of course, straight-laced as I am, I found all that open rub-a-dub inappropriate.
Historic moments seem to bring out the basest bacchanalian instincts in us humans, regardless of gender. I am sure that would hold for any impending events of historic proportions…….
Just suppose an asteroid, the size of ten city blocks, is a week away from wiping out all life on earth and any hope that it would pass us by has evaporated. I am certain you would be able to walk out up to that intern you usually chat politely with at the water fountain in the office and make love to her then and there, wouldn’t you? I would.
Rita and George later married and stayed that way until 2012, when George passed on, at 90. Greta meanwhile lived to be 92, passing away in September 2016. I am not sure if she married and had a family. But folks who knew both are unanimous that they lived happy and healthy lives.
Take it easy, don’t get carried away thinking that the moral of the story is – ‘grab and kiss any random woman and you’ll live a happy and healthy life’. It works only if there’s been a World War and your side won or a very large piece of rock is about to hit the earth. Other times you’ll end up with a slap with a flip-flop slipper across your cheek or a knee in the nuts. And a jail cell for the night.