When Japan’s surrender was announced on Aug. 14, 1945, George Mendonsa grabbed his date, ran out of a Rockettes performance at Radio City Music Hall and headed for a nearby bar in Times Square.
He was a Navy quartermaster on leave, dressed in uniform, and after downing a few drinks began walking the streets, where he spotted a young woman in a white nurse’s outfit. Buzzing with joy, now jolted by a memory of the nurses who cared for his wounded comrades at sea, he put his arms around the woman, tipped her back and kissed her.
By most accounts, a photographer took notice. Wielding a Leica camera and looking for pictures, Alfred Eisenstaedt captured what became one of the most memorable images of the 20th century, a work of photojournalism that has since vaulted to the realm of art.
Formally known as “V-J Day in Times Square” and more commonly called “The Kiss,” the image was published two weeks later in Life magazine, and ranks alongside Gustav Klimt’s gold-leaf painting “The Kiss” and Auguste Rodin’s marble sculpture of the same name as one of the most famous depictions of a kiss in history.
Although Eisenstaedt never got the names of the man and woman at the center of his photo, Mr. Mendonsa was widely believed to be the image’s “kissing sailor,” a claim that he buttressed by pointing toward a tattoo on his right arm, a growth on his left, analysis by facial-recognition software and sworn testimony from his wife.
He was 95 when he died Feb. 17, two days before his birthday, at an assisted-living facility in Newport, R.I. Mr. Mendonsa suffered from congestive heart failure and had suffered a fall and seizure, said his friend Jerry O’Donnell. The death was also confirmed by Lawrence Verria, who co-wrote “The Kissing Sailor,” a 2012 investigation of the Eisenstaedt photo.
After running as a full-page spread in Life magazine, “The Kiss” was reproduced on posters and inspired a 25-foot sculpture titled “Unconditional Surrender.” But the identity of its subjects has spurred ongoing debate, as dozens of sailors and nurses have seen themselves in the image and sought to seize a place in history.
For years, the woman in white was thought to be Edith Shain, a nurse working at Doctors Hospital in Manhattan. She once recalled that Eisenstaedt flew to her home in 1979 for a Life magazine story about the photograph. “He looked at my legs,” she said, “and said I was the one.”
Yet Shain, who died in 2010, was found to have a far different height, physique and hairstyle than the woman in the photo, according to “The Kissing Sailor,” which Verria co-wrote with naval aviator George Galdorisi. The authors concluded that the photograph showed Greta Zimmer Friedman, an Austrian-born Holocaust refugee who worked as a dental assistant but wore the white uniform of a nurse.
“I know it happened to me,” Friedman told the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project in 2005. “It’s exactly my figure, and what I wore, and my hairdo, especially.”
Drawing on four frames of “The Kiss” taken by Eisenstaedt, as well as a similar image taken by Navy photographer Victor Jorgensen, Verria and Galdorisi also argued that it was Mr. Mendonsa who was kissing Friedman.
In an interview, Verria said he had “no doubt whatsoever” that Mr. Mendonsa stood at the center of the image. “It would be a cruel quirk from the gods at this point if it wasn’t him,” he added. “Everything points to Mendonsa. The markings on his body, on his face — everything lines up perfectly.”
Among the evidence was a bump or cyst on Mr. Mendonsa’s left arm, visible in one of the Eisenstaedt frames and uncovered by Richard Benson, a photographer and instructor at Yale University. Norman Sauer, a forensic anthropologist at Michigan State University, spent three months searching for inconsistencies between Mr. Mendonsa and the man pictured in “The Kiss,” Verria said. He found none.
In recent years, “The Kiss” has undergone a reappraisal of sorts, with some viewers interpreting the picture as a document of sexual assault. “It wasn’t a romantic event,” Friedman said in the 2005 oral history. Although the moment was undeniably one of celebration, she added, “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and kissed or grabbed.”
Mr. Mendonsa often described the kiss as an out-of-character moment, a visceral reaction to the flash of a white uniform. The nurse’s outfit, he said, brought him back to his days as helmsman of the Sullivans, a destroyer named for five brothers who were killed when their ship was sunk in the Battle of Guadalcanal.
In May 1945, he navigated the Sullivans alongside the burning hulk of the Bunker Hill, an aircraft carrier that had been struck by two kamikazes. Sailors had jumped overboard to escape the flames, he said in a Veterans History Project interview, and hundreds were picked up by the Sullivans before being transferred to a hospital ship.
“I was watching how the nurses were taking care of the wounded as we were sending them over,” he said. “And I believe from that day on I had a soft spot for nurses. . . . I believe if that girl did not have a nurse’s uniform on, that I never would have grabbed her.”
George Anthony Mendonsa was born in Newport on Feb. 19, 1923, and raised on a nearby island without water or electricity. Both parents emigrated from Portugal; his father fished for squid, scup, bass and tuna, and from an early age enlisted George and his three brothers in his fishing expeditions.
Mr. Mendonsa enlisted in the Navy in 1942, and within a year he was cruising the Pacific on the Sullivans, participating in battles such as the invasion of Iwo Jima. In July 1945 he received one month’s leave and traveled home to Newport, where his youngest sister had just been married. When his new in-laws arrived in town with a niece, Rita Petry, Mr. Mendonsa planned a trip to visit her in New York; when he ran out of the Rockettes performance to celebrate the end of World War II, she ran with him.
His kiss with the “nurse,” Petry said, never bothered her. They married one year later, and Rita Mendonsa later identified the top of her head in the Eisenstaedt photo, partly visible above Mr. Mendonsa’s right shoulder.
In addition to his wife of 72 years, survivors include two children, Sharon Molleur and Ron Mendonsa; a sister; three grandsons; and four great-grandchildren.
After being discharged from the Navy in January 1946, Mr. Mendonsa returned to fishing, and according to Verria continued traveling out to sea well into his 80s. For several years he waged a legal battle against Life magazine, seeking recognition as the kissing sailor; he ultimately withdrew the case in the 1980s. By then, he had struck up a friendship with Friedman, and exchanged Christmas cards each year.
In Newport, he said he was often kissed by “the older girls” in homage to “The Kiss”; usually, his wife just laughed or cracked a joke. “In all these years,” she said, “George has never kissed me like that.”