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Is ‘The Kiss’ photo — featuring RI sailor — against VA policy? Leaked memo causes stir

The Veterans Affairs secretary has reversed a leaked memo that aimed to ban VA displays of the iconic “V-J Day in Times Square” photograph of when the end of World War II was announced.

Secretary  acted hours after a copy of a memo from a VA assistant undersecretary requesting the photo’s removal from all VA health facilities was shared on social media. The memo had said the photo “depicts a non-consensual act” and is inconsistent with the department’s sexual harassment policy.

The photo was taken by Alfred Eisenstadt for Life magazine and became one of the most iconic images of the end of the war.

McDonough on Tuesday tweeted out a copy of the image, which appeared in Life magazine, adding, “Let me be clear: This image is not banned from VA facilities — and we will keep it in VA facilities.”

What’s the fuss all about?

For more than 70 years, who served aboard the USS The Sullivans in the Pacific Theater, maintained that he was the sailor in the photo, but he was never able to convince Life magazine. Facial recognition technology and experts in photography and forensic anthropology later ruled out all the other possible sailors. Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi unraveled the mystery in their book, “The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that ended World War II,” published in 2012.

When the Japanese surrendered at the end of World War II, Mendonsa and Rita Petry (whom he later married) were on their first date at Radio City Music Hall watching a movie.

A ruckus coming from outside the building overshadowed the film, according to Mendonsa. “We could hear pounding on the doors. They stopped the show. Turned on all the lights. And announced that the war was over,” he said in a 2013 interview.

Mendonsa and his date ended up on the street in Times Square where he said Eisenstaedt photographed him.

In this Aug. 14, 1945 photo provided by the U.S. Navy, a sailor and a woman kiss in New York’s Times Square, as people celebrate the end of World War II. The ecstatic sailor shown kissing a woman in Times Square celebrating the end of World War II has died. George Mendonsa was 95. It was years after the photo was taken that Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman, a dental assistant in a nurse’s uniform, were confirmed to be the couple.

Why is the image controversial?

Mendonsa didn’t know the woman he kissed. He thought she was a nurse. Turns out the woman, Greta Zimmer Friedman, was a dental assistant and Austrian refugee who made it to New York in 1939 (both of her parents died in a concentration camp during the war).

Friedman told the Library of Congress in 2005 that “it wasn’t a romantic event. It was just an event of thank God the war is over kind of thing.” She added in an oral history of the photo: “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and kissed or grabbed.”

 in 2016 at age 92.  in 2019 at age 95.

Copies of the memo racked up millions of views on social media, quickly becoming a political lightning rod.

In an opinion piece for The Providence Journal, explained, “It’s what everybody was doing on August 14, 1945. Everybody was kissing and hugging. As soon as the kiss was over, they went their separate ways.” To Mendonsa, Verria reasoned, Friedman represented the nurses on his ship who worked valiantly to save sailors.

And, he added, Mendonsa’s date can even be seen in the background of one of the photos.

Should RI rename Victory Day?

What’s the upshot?

Looks like the photo will continue to be displayed.

“The VA is not going to be banning this photo,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday. “I can definitely say that the memo was not sanctioned, and so it’s not something that we were even aware of.”

With Associated Press, Providence Journal and Herald News reports.