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By Erik Ortiz
George Mendonsa, a World War II veteran whose claim of being a sailor kissing a nurse in an iconic image was verified using facial recognition technology, died early Sunday, his daughter said. He was 95.
Mendonsa was living in an assisted living facility in Middletown, Rhode Island, and had been suffering from severe congestive heart failure, daughter Sharon Molleur told NBC News. He would have turned 96 on Tuesday, she added.
Mendonsa, a retired fisherman, had maintained for years that he was the sailor locking lips in a picture taken on Aug. 14, 1945, by Alfred Eisenstaedt and published in Life magazine as a scene from “V-J Day in Times Square.” On that day, Americans crowded the streets to celebrate the Japanese surrender to the Allies and the end of the war.
The photo has become one of the most enduring images of the 20th century. But when it was published in Life, there was no caption confirming the identities of the pair.
Over the decades, other sailors asserted that they were the mystery man in the photo, including a Texas veteran who used a police forensic artist in Houston to lay claim to the identity in 2007.
Mendonsa, however, didn’t budge. He said besides remembering the exact moment of the kiss, physical indicators such as the man’s large hands and the scar on the brow was evidence it was him.
To get to the heart of Mendonsa’s claim, Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi, authors of the 2012 book “The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II,” looked at facial recognition technology used by experts from the Naval War College and also conducted interviews to help rule out the bogus declarations.
Mendonsa told Verria that he was on leave in Manhattan when the end of the war was announced, and he was so swept up in the moment that when he saw a young nurse he felt compelled to kiss her.
Neither Mendonsa nor the nurse — whose identity was similarly unknown, but was later confirmed to be Greta Zimmer Friedman, of Virginia — knew at the time that the random kiss was captured for posterity. Friedman died in 2016 at age 92.
Molleur said her father never gave up his claim to being in the photo, and lived proudly with the legacy that has lived on in giant statues and recreations.
“He was very proud of his service and the picture and what it stood for,” Molleur said. “Always, for many, many years later, it was an important part of his life.”