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Interview with George Mendonsa [9/3/2005]

Patricia Redmond:

This is the Veterans History Project. Today is September the 3rd, 2005, and this is the beginning of an interview with George Mendonsa, M-e-n-d-o-n-s-a, who lives at [address redacted]. Mr. Mendonsa was born [birth date redacted], and is 82 years old. My name is Patricia T. Redmond. I am a member of the Frederick Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution representing Maryland State DAR. This interview is being conducted via the telephone from my home in Maryland. Good morning, Mr. Mendonsa.

George Mendonsa:

Hello.

Patricia Redmond:

I'd like to ask you, first off, what shall I call you?

George Mendonsa:

Well, you can go by my first name of George, good enough.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Fine. Now, just for the record, George, what war were you in and what was your branch of service?

George Mendonsa:

I was in World War II in the United States Navy.

Patricia Redmond:

And how old were you?

George Mendonsa:

When I went in, I was 19 years old in 1942.

Patricia Redmond:

And tell me, did you enlist or were you drafted?

George Mendonsa:

No, I enlisted. My father was a fisherman, and my brothers and I, we were raised as fishermen, and the draft board could never take anybody that produced food like fish or farmers. So I gave up my deferment, and I enlisted.

Patricia Redmond:

And why did you do that if you didn't have to?

George Mendonsa:

Well, I think my age group all had the same feeling that we wanted to get even.

Patricia Redmond:

To get even. Okay. Now, I'm going to ask you about your experience during the war, but first we have a very interesting event that happened during that time, and actually it happened on V-J Day, August the 14th, 1945, in Times Square in New York City.

George Mendonsa:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

And I'm sure that many have seen the photo of The Kissing Sailor which was taken by the photographer by LIFE Magazine, Alfred Eisenstaedt.

George Mendonsa:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

And the identities of this famous couple just has been in question all these years, for 60 years now, and LIFE never identified this couple. Now, you've sent me a lot of proof, really hard evidence, that you are indeed this sailor. And this proof, of course, will be included with the interview when it's submitted to the Library of Congress. George, will you tell us about that day?

George Mendonsa:

Well, when I come home -- the ship, we came back to San Francisco, and I was given 30 days plus eight days travel time. So I arrived in Newport, Rhode Island on leave somewhere around the 10th of July of '45. While at home my youngest sister had gotten married, and I met my brother-in-law for the first time. Well, after a few days, he informs me that his mother and father are coming from New York to visit him. So I met the mother and father when they arrived here, and they brought their niece with them. Well, when I saw the niece, she was 21 years old, a beautiful blonde, so I showed her around Newport for a week. Well, after a week, she went back to New York. So the last couple of days of my leave I made arrangements to fly out of New York, and I spent a few days with her in New York. So my last night in New York, we were at Radio City Music Hall when they stopped the show and they said the war was over. So her and I went down into Times Square, and Times Square was wild. So I went into Child's Bar, and I popped a few drinks, and then when it was time for me to fly out that night, we headed back to her parents' home on Long Island. So when we're walking down in Times Square, I saw the nurse. Between the excitement of the whole works and probably a few drinks, but most importantly it was the uniform she had. If that girl did not have a nurse's uniform on, I honestly believe that I never would have grabbed her. And what it goes back to is in the Pacific we operated with all the aircraft carriers, and the Bunker Hill got hit with a couple of suicide dive bombers, and she was all aflames. And we happened to get near the Bunker Hill, and there was a lot of men trapped in the fires, and they were jumping overboard knowing that we could pick them up. Well, anyway, we picked up a lot of men, hundreds of men, and later in the day we met with the hospital ship, the Bountiful was the name of the hospital ship, and we were transferring the wounded onto the hospital ship, and I was watching how the nurses were taking care of the wounded as we were sending them over. And I believe from that day on I had a soft spot for nurses, and when I saw that nurse in Times Square many months later, that it was the uniform that did it. I believe if that girl did not have a nurse's uniform on, that I never would have grabbed her.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Is that the end of your story because I have some questions for you.

George Mendonsa:

No, that's not. I was just finishing my reason for being in New York.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Continue. I'm sorry.

George Mendonsa:

No, I was just explaining my reason for being in New York.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Good. And this was -- this was the evening of --

George Mendonsa:

August the 14th, 1945.

Patricia Redmond:

Do you remember about what time it was?

George Mendonsa:

Well, we saw the Rockettes, so there must have been an afternoon show that we were watching. So I'd say it was late in the afternoon, maybe early evening.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Okay, continue please.

George Mendonsa:

So that night is the night I flew back to San Francisco. And today that girl that I was with, a lot of people ask how come you were on a date and you grabbed a nurse? Well, that was my reason for grabbing the nurse. Well, the girl I was with, today she's my wife.

Patricia Redmond:

So she probably didn't get too upset when you kissed the nurse.

George Mendonsa:

No, no, didn't bother her. It all happened, the excitement of the war ended and probably a few drinks. No, she -- it didn't phase her a bit. As a matter of fact, she didn't even know the picture was taken, neither did I, I didn't know that the picture was taken. I didn't know for 20 years that the picture existed.

Patricia Redmond:

Now, back to when you did kiss the nurse, did you say anything to her?

George Mendonsa:

I don't think so. I don't believe I said anything. It happened. She went her way and I went mine. Plus, I was with a date.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. What did you say to Rita?

George Mendonsa:

Probably nothing. It would have been a lot worse if I had pulled that scene if she wasn't with me, then I'd have some explaining.

Patricia Redmond:

I see. So Rita witnessed the kiss.

George Mendonsa:

That's correct.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay.

George Mendonsa:

Also, she can be positively identified in the photos.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Did you see any other sailors kissing nurses at the time?

George Mendonsa:

Oh, yeah. Everybody was excited. Everybody was in a great mood. There was -- there was nothing wrong with kissing people. It was all done in good clean honest fun.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Now, you just had met Rita just that last month.

George Mendonsa:

Well, I knew her about a week when she was here in Newport.

Patricia Redmond:

I see.

George Mendonsa:

And a couple of days that I met with her in New York.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. So she really didn't have any claims on you yet, did she?

George Mendonsa:

No.

Patricia Redmond:

So that was probably okay with her that you were celebrating.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah. Well, nobody knew it was going to happen, so we didn't discuss it, I guess.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Did you kiss any other nurses that day?

George Mendonsa:

No, none.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Just the one. And who do you think it was that you kissed? You didn't find out until later, but who do you say it is now?

George Mendonsa:

Well, I say it could be Greta Friedman, and the reason I say it, when I went to the Time-Life Building in 1980 when LIFE asked for the sailor to come forward and identify himself, I went there, and while I was there on the 25th floor, the gang that was working there, probably 25 or 30 people, they asked me who I thought was the nurse, and I said to them, Well, you people won't identify me and you're asking me to identify the nurse. And I says, Well, out of the four or five girls that claim to be the nurse, they were all very short, and I stand 6 foot 2, and Greta was the only girl out of that group that would match my height when you compare it to the famous photo.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. So you think that Greta Friedman is the nurse?

George Mendonsa:

Yes, I do. I've met Greta a few times, and knowing her personally, I honestly believe that Greta would not get involved to try to claim something like this if it wasn't true.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Well, you know that I interviewed Greta Friedman last week.

George Mendonsa:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. So I have her story also, and that will go to the Library of Congress with this, with your story.

George Mendonsa:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

Can you tell me a little bit more about the re-creation of the -- of the photo in Times Square in 1980?

George Mendonsa:

Well, in 1980 LIFE called me up and asked if I'd consent to an interview. This was after I had been there and I got no satisfaction. As a matter of fact, I walked out of the Life Building very disappointed, and I told them so. Well, anyway, they asked if I'd consent to an interview to come back to Times Square to meet the nurse. And I says, Of course I'll come back there. And they told me that the interview would be done by Peter Kunhardt who at the time was the son of the managing editor, Philip Kunhardt, of LIFE. Well, Peter came here with his camera crew, they were here at my house here in Newport, they went out on my fishing boat, they interviewed me for a whole day, and then they asked me to come back to Times Square to meet the nurse, and the girl that they selected was Greta.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay.

George Mendonsa:

So they told me -- they put me in the hotel, and they sent the limousine for me, and they dropped me off down in Times Square. And they told me that they'd have Greta standing in the middle of Times Square, and that I was to walk up to her, introduce myself, and start talking, and they would start filming. So when I walked across Times Square and I saw the camera crew there, and young Peter Kunhardt was pointing her out to me because I didn't know who Greta was, so when I walked up to her, I said something like, Well, it's finally nice to finally meet you after all these years. So I kissed her, which I knew they expected me to do. And they gave me a photo afterwards that in the background they had the Time Building set up so it would be in the photo, and then on the Time Building it read, "It had to be you." And I've got this photo.

Patricia Redmond:

Yes.

George Mendonsa:

But then they won't admit I'm the guy, but they certainly set that up, and it was done by the managing editor and his son, Peter.

Patricia Redmond:

I see. But it was not Mr. Eisenstaedt that took the picture?

George Mendonsa:

That day, no.

Patricia Redmond:

In 1980. When in 1980 was it, do you recall, what month?

George Mendonsa:

No. Well, I guess it was in the summer month.

Patricia Redmond:

Summer, okay.

George Mendonsa:

I met Mr. Eisenstaedt was also there that day for the interview.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. And he didn't identify either of you or did he?

George Mendonsa:

No. But Greta did tell me that he said to her that I was the guy. Greta mentioned that to me that Eisenstaedt did say to her that I was the sailor.

Patricia Redmond:

Good. But he didn't say that to you.

George Mendonsa:

No, no.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Now, I do have information about another couple that LIFE Magazine has also photographed and identified -- well, not identified but said, you know, their names and identified them with The Kissing Sailor photo: Carl Muscarello and Edith Shane.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah, I know.

Patricia Redmond:

Do you want to say anything about that? Because it was about the same time frame, 1980, that they took pictures of them together.

George Mendonsa:

Well, in 1980 when the publicity all started, the only person that was on the news or heard anything about the picture was Edith Shane and me, no one else was involved at that time.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay.

George Mendonsa:

So I got on the telephone, and I called Edith Shane up in California, and Eisenstaedt had a photo exhibit on out there, and Edith Shane went to the exhibit, and she ran up to Eisenstaedt and she said, I am the girl in that photo. And Eisenstaedt turned around to the people that he had there at the exhibit, and he introduced her as the nurse in the photo. Of course, at that time he didn't realize or had any knowledge about the -- how this picture was going to wind up years and years afterwards. But when he said -- when he introduced her as the nurse, he had no idea who she was or any proof.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. I do have in my hand, and you probably have seen this, a picture that was in the Post Standard, Syracuse, New York on Tuesday, the 29th of July, 1980. And it's a picture of Alfred Eisenstaedt, and he's kissing Edith Shane in the picture.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

So this --

George Mendonsa:

I haven't seen this one.

Patricia Redmond:

-- this must be the incident you're talking about. I will send you a copy of that picture just for your files, I'm sure. So Carl Muscarello who's a New York detective retired.

George Mendonsa:

Yup.

Patricia Redmond:

There's pictures of him, and I also have in my collection. I've been doing research, as you can see. You don't think he has any credibility then?

George Mendonsa:

No. Years and years afterwards, Muscarello didn't come into this at the beginning, he come in along later when he knew that LIFE would not identify the sailor. So when I heard about Muscarello, that same tape that I sent you, I sent it to him.

Patricia Redmond:

I see.

George Mendonsa:

And he sent me a letter back saying something like, Well, you know in my heart that I believe I'm the guy or something like that. But he's never gone into the photo and pulled anything physical or any proof of identification.

Patricia Redmond:

I see. I know I've heard that at least 20 men have claimed to be the sailor and three women.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah, yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

And that was in the LIFE Magazine article I guess in 1980.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

And it had everybody's pictures, including yours.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Do you have that article?

George Mendonsa:

I have the magazine.

Patricia Redmond:

You have the magazine, okay.

George Mendonsa:

So somewhere around, I guess it was around '87 when I wasn't getting any satisfaction out of LIFE, the magazine come out where LIFE is selling the photo for $1,600, and there was other photos, a total of five photos that LIFE was selling.

Patricia Redmond:

I see.

George Mendonsa:

And it said anyone interested in these photos to call Martha Smith at LIFE, and you can order any of the photos. So I called Martha Smith up, and I says, I see you have these photos available to the public. And she says, Well, which one are you interested in? And I told her, I'm in the V-J Day sailor photo. The photo of the two Kennedy brothers, they were selling for $600. Jackie Robinson, the ball player, they were asking $600. And then the V-J Day sailor photo, they were asking $1,600. So I called Martha Smith, and I told her I was interested in the V-J Day photo. And she says, Well, that's $1,600. So I says, Well, the only problem I have is I don't want Eisenstaedt's signature. You get the sailor's autograph on that photo, and you can name your price. She says, Well, LIFE has never identified the sailor. But I says, I know you people know who the sailor is. So you can name your price, get the sailor's autograph, and I said, The sailor is the guy that made that picture. So anyway, after a while she was giving me a line of baloney and I'm giving her a line of baloney, and after a while I said to her, I says, LIFE might have the right to use this photo, but I believe what they're doing is illegal. I don't believe they have the right to sell this photo. So I've been talking to a lawyer friend of mine for years, and at this point the people around Newport are calling me up and telling me LIFE is selling the photo. And so I called up some of my relatives and friends to go out and buy LIFE. And a lot of them called me back and they said, we can't find where LIFE is selling the photo. So I felt, well, they must have bought the wrong magazine. So they brought the magazines over here to my house, and I looked at it, and it's the same magazine. They issued a magazine earlier that month where they're selling the photos, and when I told them what they was doing was illegal, the magazine that come out for the rest of the month they pulled page 82. So I've got the two magazines that were issued in the same month, they're 99.9 percent identical except for the one page that they pulled. So that's when I told my lawyer, let's go after them. And I told my lawyer that there was four photos taken, maybe we could get possession of the four photos. So through the court I got possession of those four photos. And I gave them to the top photo expert in the United States, Richard Benson, he's the dean of Arts, professor of photography at Yale, and I told him what to look for in the photos, the size of my hand, the tattoo on my arm, the girl's face over my shoulder, my chevrons hanging from my hip. And finally one day Benson called me in and he says, I want to look at your left arm. And I says, Well, there's nothing on the left arm. I said, The right arm is the one in the photo. He says, Well, I found something in the photos, that I hadn't brought to his attention. And, sure enough, I showed him my arm. He says, There it is. He found a growth on my left arm that I hadn't even mentioned to him. So I've got -- I sent you a copy of that document that he signed.

Patricia Redmond:

Yes.

George Mendonsa:

Well, that explains it.

Patricia Redmond:

And there's also the sworn testimony of Rita, your wife now, of how many years? 60?

George Mendonsa:

59 years.

Patricia Redmond:

59 years. And she swears that she was there, and she saw you kiss the nurse.

George Mendonsa:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

And there's some other hard evidence. I have the -- What else did you do? The analysis and synthesis of the sailor in the ID set, 3D kit.

George Mendonsa:

They call it 3D facial recognition. They're developing a camera for airports to identify people, and this camera supposedly is going to be capable of taking 4,000 photos a minute. So anyway, I went up to their lab, and they put me in this dome, and inside of this dome there was hundreds of flash bulbs and hundreds of little cameras, and these little -- when those flash bulbs all go on and the little cameras go on, they take hundreds and hundreds of pictures of my face. And then through computers they claim that your skull never changes. So they took my young skull back then from the photo, through computers, and they hung my old flesh of today on my young skull, and they could take measurements. And they're developing this camera for the airports. Now, this camera when it takes all these faces going through on a plane, and it also takes their fingerprints, and somehow or other if the fingerprints don't match the face, that person can be pulled off the plane. So anyway, when they heard that LIFE can't identify me, Mitsubishi took this on as a way of proving how good they are. So but they won't come out in plain English because they don't want lawsuits. But they've twisted my face all around. It's absolutely something, unbelievable what they can do. So they're doing Rita's face also.

Patricia Redmond:

Oh, good. Well, her face is pretty obvious in the blown-up pictures --

George Mendonsa:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

-- and compared to the pictures of her at that age.

George Mendonsa:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

It does look pretty much like her. You must admit that too.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

Now, we have some other proof. The program that you sent me from the Naval War College Museum, August the 3rd, 2005.

George Mendonsa:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

Tell us about that.

George Mendonsa:

Well, I have a new neighbor moved in here about four or five years ago next door to me, he's a retired Navy captain, and of course now he has a civilian job over at the War College here in Newport. So naturally him and I become good friends, and he knows -- he knows all about the sailor photo, he knows all about me, he's seen all the evidence. So he took all that information back with him to the War College, and the War College got interested in this. So they're the ones that contacted Mitsubishi and the 3D facial recognition people. So, of course, my neighbor being a Navy man is well aware of, you know, the Navy dress, the Navy regulations. He knew everything what to look for and what to go by.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. And then they had a special ceremony though just last month.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah. Well, that ceremony in New York, I guess they were putting up a statue.

Patricia Redmond:

No. I'm talking about the program that you sent me. They had a -- they had a program in which you answered questions and such with the -- with the V-J Day sailor, August the 3rd of this year.

George Mendonsa:

That must have been a magazine article that come out.

Patricia Redmond:

No. This is a program of an event by the U.S. Naval War College.

George Mendonsa:

Oh, oh, oh.

Patricia Redmond:

That was in Newport, Rhode Island.

George Mendonsa:

Yup.

Patricia Redmond:

August the 3rd.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah. Well, they did -- they invited me over to the War College as a speaker to speak about the sailor picture, and the people there asked questions. So that's what that was about.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. That's another pretty good proof here.

George Mendonsa:

As a matter of fact, just after that meeting at the War College, I was invited aboard the Admiral's -- what they call the Admiral's Barge, my wife and I and some of his guests. We were riding around the Narragansett Bay here. So I've been riding around with the admiral.

Patricia Redmond:

That sounds good. Very good. Now, there's also the stamp. Can you tell us about the stamp that came out?

George Mendonsa:

Well, in '95 which was the 50th Anniversary of the end of the war, Postmaster General Marvin Runyon dedicated I guess you'd say that photo as a stamp, and when he saw the proof I had, Marvin Runyon presented me with the first issue of that stamp, and I've got it. And I got a telephone call from a stamp collector and asked me if I had the stamp. And I said, Yeah, I've got it. And he says, Well, you should autograph it. And I says, Well, why? He says, Because there's only you and Calvin Coolidge were the only two people that were ever alive and presented with a stamp. So if Calvin Coolidge never autographed his stamp, I could have the only stamp in history that was ever autographed. And even the President of the United States today if they wanted to dedicate a stamp in his honor, he's got to be dead something like ten years before he can get a stamp.

Patricia Redmond:

That is pretty amazing. Are you going to autograph it?

George Mendonsa:

Yeah, I already have.

Patricia Redmond:

Great. Okay. Now, back to the picture of the kiss, I have read that an autographed copy of the photo, autographed by Eisenstaedt, sells now for $10,000. Have you heard that?

George Mendonsa:

Well, I was in the Navy with a guy who now lives in California, he's an insurance man, and we've been in touch with one another. Well, he got a call, he called me on it, that one of his clients called him up and said, I just bought a valuable piece of property. He says, I want you to draw up an insurance policy on it. So he says, Well, how much did you pay for it? He says, Well, I paid $35,000 for it. He says, Well, what did you buy? He said, Well, I bought the V-J Day Times Square sailor photo. And he says, You paid $35,000? So my friend, the insurance man, says, Well, have it appraised. He says, Send me the appraisal, he says, and I'll draw you up an insurance policy. So I've heard that someone has paid $35,000 for it.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. I'm just turning over my tape here. Well, that's quite a lot of money.

George Mendonsa:

I know. And my friend told him, he said, You should have spoke to me first. He says, I could have got you the photo for nothing.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Speaking of photos, I do have -- I do have several others I wanted to ask you about. There's a picture of you and Greta standing together facing the camera so your faces are shown, and she's holding a camera. Now, this is the one that was taken on the 35th anniversary.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

That would have been 1980.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah, August of '80.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. So that was August of '80.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah. That's the first time I met Greta.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. And you're still in touch today though, aren't you?

George Mendonsa:

Oh, yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

Yes. She's a very nice lady. I enjoyed talking to her also.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

Now, the next photo I have, you have, it's a few years later, it's George and Rita Mendonsa, and it was taken in the front door of Time and Life Building. When was this picture taken? This is when you were back in New York. I guess you went back for a reenactment again.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah, well.

Patricia Redmond:

This was the 60 years, celebrating 60 years. So this would have been a recent photo. Radio City Music Hall is in the background.

George Mendonsa:

Well, I don't think that was recently. I think that was a few years, probably somewhere around '90. I got a telephone call from Germany, and it was a German television network --

Patricia Redmond:

Oh.

George Mendonsa:

-- asking me if I'd consent to an interview. And I said, Of course, but I said, I'm not going to Germany. So they says, Well, we're coming to the United States to interview Eisenstaedt, and we'd like to interview you at the same time. And so I says, Okay. So we went to New York, Rita and I, and we met with the German television network, and I have a tape of that. If you want that tape, I can send it to you. They dubbed my voice in German.

Patricia Redmond:

Oh, that's interesting.

George Mendonsa:

And they showed it all through Europe. So that picture there, the interviewer went into the Life Building and told them that they were interviewing George Mendonsa out on their front steps, that if they wanted to come out and get involved in the interview, they could. So LIFE told the interviewer they were not interested. So the interviewer come out and told me that. Then he went back in and says, Well, is it okay if George comes in, and you can interview him in here? And they said, No. So they wouldn't even let me in the building.

Patricia Redmond:

Now, just to clarify things, LIFE Magazine is now Time-Life Magazine?

George Mendonsa:

I guess LIFE, I don't think they make LIFE anymore. I think they just have Time.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. All right. You do wonder why they -- why they won't admit that with all this positive proof that you are indeed The Kissing Sailor.

George Mendonsa:

Well, years ago when they first started identifying the sailor, I didn't have this much proof either. So, you know, I've accumulated a lot of positive evidence more or less in the last five or ten years.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay, I see. Now, are you aware that at the same time Mr. Eisenstaedt was taking your picture, a photographer from Associated Press took the same picture?

George Mendonsa:

No, I didn't know that.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. I have in my hand, it was published in the Frederick News-Post on Tuesday, August the 9th, 2005, just last month, and this came out about the same time that the article about Greta Friedman came out, and I looked at the picture and it says Associated Press. And it says in the explanation, "This photograph was taken by an Associated Press photographer from slightly to the right of photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt whose LIFE Magazine cover shot of this same kiss has become world famous."

George Mendonsa:

Well, I believe that because I always felt that Eisenstaedt took four, and I've got the four, but there's been drifting around another photo --

Patricia Redmond:

Yes.

George Mendonsa:

-- that I say is not Eisenstaedt's photo. I've been saying this for years. I said there's a phony photo being passed around through the public.

Patricia Redmond:

Yes. Well, actually the photo also has the same sailor that was in the picture that Mr. Eisenstaedt took, and I will send you a copy. I have the -- actually you can get on the Internet when you look up Alfred Eisenstaedt, you can get -- you can see the film strip that he took, the frames, there are actually five frames, but you are in four of them.

George Mendonsa:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

These are probably what you're referring to. And then the other picture that I see in front of me now with the Associated Press, it is a little bit slightly to the right of the photo.

George Mendonsa:

Top of the sailor's head.

Patricia Redmond:

Yes. But I think that this photo by the Associated Press is also one that you see a lot of times instead of Mr. Eisenstaedt's photo.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah, that's true. I've seen that picture lots of times, and I can just look at it, and I keep saying this is a reproduction or a phony photo. I've been saying that for years.

Patricia Redmond:

Well, it isn't phony, it's the same couple.

George Mendonsa:

Well, what I thought was someone was distorting Eisenstaedt's photo so they could use it commercially.

Patricia Redmond:

I see. Well, I'm not sure who the Associated Press was. Of course, it doesn't say who the photographer is. It's rather interesting to know that both this photographer, two photographers took a picture of you and the nurse kissing. Interesting to know also that Greta was not a nurse but she was a dental assistant.

George Mendonsa:

Yes, that's what she says.

Patricia Redmond:

But she still had on the white uniform, so she did look like a nurse.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. I think that that's pretty good proof. I think you've given us some very hard evidence that you indeed are The Kissing Sailor.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah. When the German TV network came over and they were at my house here, and I asked them, I says, You people over there in Germany, you call me up, you know my name, you know my address, you know my phone number and, I says, LIFE has never admitted I'm the guy. I says, Where did you get all the information on me to get in touch with me? And they says, Well, we're coming to the United States to interview Eisenstaedt, and they had told Eisenstaedt they also would like to meet the sailor, to interview the sailor. Well, they claim that Eisenstaedt is the guy that gave them all my information.

Patricia Redmond:

Oh, I see. Okay.

George Mendonsa:

And Greta told me that Eisenstaedt said to her that I was the sailor.

Patricia Redmond:

Say that again.

George Mendonsa:

Greta told me that Eisenstaedt said to her that I was the sailor.

Patricia Redmond:

All right. Let me just ask you a couple questions again. I know you've already answered these, but when was it that you went to Radio City on that day? You went to the afternoon program you say?

George Mendonsa:

Well, had to be late afternoon because after the show was over, then the celebration down into Times Square. Then I remember it wasn't too long afterwards it got dark, and we went back out to my future in-laws' house out on Long Island, and they took me to the plane, and I was off to California. And I flew out of New York, I don't know, I suppose it must have been around midnight. So I believe that that activity down in Times Square must have happened late in the afternoon.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. And did you tell your in-laws anything about the kiss?

George Mendonsa:

No, I didn't say nothing about it because I thought it was nothing.

Patricia Redmond:

I see. I see. And again, Rita did not see anybody taking pictures?

George Mendonsa:

No, she didn't see anybody.

Patricia Redmond:

Even though she's in the picture and two photographers were taking the same picture.

George Mendonsa:

That's what it sounds like. I didn't know if there was one or two.

Patricia Redmond:

I see. And I think that -- I think that probably you and Greta are right in saying that there were many sailors kissing many nurses when they were celebrating in Times Square on that V-J Day, and so maybe everybody that makes a claim really were kissed or did kiss somebody.

George Mendonsa:

Well, I think the problem today is that these guys that still claim to be the sailor, I guess that Muscarello is the only guy that I know that still claims to be the sailor. I think way back in those years no one knew that this thing was going to lead to such a controversy, and a lot of guys did say that they were the sailor. And of course, after they bragged about it to their families and kids, well now they can't get out of it.

Patricia Redmond:

I see.

George Mendonsa:

I know I'd hate to be in a position of telling my kids that I was lying all these years.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Do you have anything else you want to talk about in this respect before we move on to your -- to your career?

George Mendonsa:

No. I guess that about covers everything.

Patricia Redmond:

That covers it very well I think. Okay. Can we talk about when you were a sailor?

George Mendonsa:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

Before V-J Day. Now, you were 19 you say when you enlisted, and you enlisted in 1942?

George Mendonsa:

Yeah. Like I said before, I was a fisherman, and fishermen and farmers were exempt from going into the service. The draft board couldn't touch fishermen and farmers. So I could have stayed out of the war my whole life. But I was 19 and, of course, like I said before, my age group wanted to get even.

Patricia Redmond:

And who were you getting even with?

George Mendonsa:

The Japanese.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. This was after Pearl Harbor was bombed, of course.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah. Of course, Pearl Harbor was in '41. I'm talking '42.

Patricia Redmond:

Right. Now, why did you join the Navy and not the Army?

George Mendonsa:

Well, I was born and raised a fisherman. My father was a fisherman since 1910. So my brothers and I, if I went to explain how we were raised on the water, you wouldn't believe it. My brothers and I were raised just like ducks, no different, and of course there's no way that I would have went into the Army.

Patricia Redmond:

That does make sense.

George Mendonsa:

And I had another brother that was in the Navy also.

Patricia Redmond:

But he wasn't on the same ship you were on?

George Mendonsa:

No. My brother, he was -- Well, anyway, the Juneau is an antiaircraft cruiser, and my brother was on the same one which was identical to the Juneau. Well, anyway, my brother was in that battle down at Guadalcanal when the Juneau got hit, and the five Sullivan brothers were on the Juneau. Well, the Juneau exploded, and she disappeared in seconds, and there were 715 men on her. And after the sinking, there was about 100 men on the surface of the water, and a few days later they picked up ten men out of 715, and the five Sullivan brothers were lost. My brother was in that battle with the Juneau. But anyway --

Patricia Redmond:

What is your brother's name just for the record?

George Mendonsa:

Manuel.

Patricia Redmond:

Will you spell that? M-a-n-u-e-l?

George Mendonsa:

M-a-n-u-e-l.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay.

George Mendonsa:

He was in the Navy before the war, he was in peacetime.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay.

George Mendonsa:

But anyway, there was a destroyer being built in San Francisco, and when the Sullivan brothers all got lost, President Roosevelt ordered the name of that destroyer changed, changed from the Putnam to the Sullivans, and she was pretty well along being constructed. So anyway, I was assigned to the Sullivans after I went through service school and boot camp, and I waited for the Sullivans to get completed, and we went to the Pacific in early '43. So we spent '43, '44, and '45 out there in the Pacific. I think I sent you a chart of the Pacific, didn't I?

Patricia Redmond:

You did, yes. I'm going to ask you about that. Go ahead.

George Mendonsa:

So anyway, they changed the name over to the Sullivans of this new destroyer, and I was assigned to her, and that was the only ship in the history of the United States Navy that had a plural name.

Patricia Redmond:

That had a what name?

George Mendonsa:

Plural.

Patricia Redmond:

A plural, okay.

George Mendonsa:

The Sullivans was the name of her.

Patricia Redmond:

I see. Well, there aren't too many ships named after sailors, are there, either?

George Mendonsa:

Oh, yeah, there's some then, not anymore. But they built the new Sullivans ship two years ago, they've got a new one, and the new one was up in Boston, and an old shipmate friend of mine from the old Sullivans ship, we got on the new one and we was on it for two weeks. We sailed out here in the Atlantic Ocean for two weeks on it.

Patricia Redmond:

Oh, how wonderful.

George Mendonsa:

So that was great.

Patricia Redmond:

So it's still in active duty today, the new one is.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

And the old one, what happened to the old Sullivans?

George Mendonsa:

The old one, she's up in Buffalo, New York, she's a tourist attraction up there.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay.

George Mendonsa:

As a matter of fact, we've had a few reunions on it, the old crew.

Patricia Redmond:

I think you sent me a picture of one of the reunions. I've got three men here, and you said, Two of my old shipmates.

George Mendonsa:

Are they trying to kiss me?

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. What's the name of these two men, can you recall that?

George Mendonsa:

Yeah, one is John Stock and the other fellow is Lou Paris. John Stock is the insurance man from Berkeley, California. And Lou Paris, he comes from Boston. I see him every few months.

Patricia Redmond:

And they do believe that you were The Kissing Sailor?

George Mendonsa:

Oh, yeah. I proved it to them. I haven't found a person yet that I can't convince.

Patricia Redmond:

Aha. Well, you certainly have convinced me.

George Mendonsa:

One of these days I'm going to get in touch with LIFE Magazine, that ought to be interesting.

Patricia Redmond:

Yes. Now, were you in any battles during World War II?

George Mendonsa:

Yeah, we was in -- We operated with the aircraft carriers, of course that was the big force, and we covered the Marshall Islands, the Caroline Islands, Iwo Jima, Chichi Jima, Palau, Ulithi, Leyte Gulf, Lingayen Gulf, Okinawa, French Indochina, Kobe, Japan, Nagoya. We covered the whole Pacific. And New Guinea also.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Do you have anything in the way of the battles that you want to tell us about?

George Mendonsa:

Well, for one thing I rate, the ship does, I rate 11 major battle stars.

Patricia Redmond:

Wow.

George Mendonsa:

And I haven't found a person yet that can match that.

Patricia Redmond:

Wow, that's pretty impressive. Now, were you injured during any of these battles?

George Mendonsa:

No, no. As a matter of fact, we only lost one man, his name was Johnson, one man got killed.

Patricia Redmond:

In all those 11 battles?

George Mendonsa:

Yup. Well, in a way we were lucky, the destroyers, you know, our main purpose was to protect the aircraft carriers. And of course, the Japanese, their target was the aircraft carriers, so they very seldom picked on a destroyer. They wanted to get the carriers.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. And did you see any of the kamikaze?

George Mendonsa:

Oh, yeah, we saw plenty of them. We saw -- we had 16 aircraft carriers in our force which is unbelievable, and out of those 16 carriers, I'd say every single one of them got hit with suicide dive bombers one time or another. As a matter of fact, the two worst hits out there was the Bunker Hill, we was with her, that's the one we picked up all the men, and another battle was the Franklin when she got hit. It was about a thousand men got killed that day on the Franklin.

Patricia Redmond:

By the Japanese.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

What was your job on the Sullivans, what did you do?

George Mendonsa:

I was a first class quartermaster which meant I was the senior man below officer rank in the navigation department. I did most of the navigation on the ship. And my battle station, I was the helmsman, I steered the ship during any battle.

Patricia Redmond:

You came by that naturally because --

George Mendonsa:

I was a fisherman.

Patricia Redmond:

-- you were a fisherman. And how long were you -- how long were you then in the Navy?

George Mendonsa:

Four years.

Patricia Redmond:

And is there anything else you want to tell us about during that time?

George Mendonsa:

Well...

Patricia Redmond:

I have a picture of you, you're a very handsome looking sailor here.

George Mendonsa:

Oh, thank you.

Patricia Redmond:

And this was in 1945.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah. The colored picture?

Patricia Redmond:

Yes.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah, that was taken just months after the V-J Day photo.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. That's wonderful. Are you sure you want to include this? This is a real photo, it's not a copy.

George Mendonsa:

That's the real photo.

Patricia Redmond:

That's great. Now, tell us about you sent me this map of -- this was all your travels, wasn't it?

George Mendonsa:

Yes, the Sullivans travels of the Pacific. Now, if you look real close, you can see little flare-ups.

Patricia Redmond:

Aha.

George Mendonsa:

Well, those flare-ups, that meant every time that we got under attack by the Japanese.

Patricia Redmond:

Wow. And this is a picture of the Sullivans --

George Mendonsa:

Brothers.

Patricia Redmond:

Oh, the brothers.

George Mendonsa:

The five brothers.

Patricia Redmond:

Oh, that's wonderful. Wow.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah, we was the first time that Iwo Jima was hit, we went up there to destroy the airfields and knock out all the Japanese planes. We was there the 4th of July 1944, and we had Iwo Jima all aflames because we had a big powerful force. And we -- that day my ship, the Sullivans, we shot down five planes.

Patricia Redmond:

Those were the planes that would be the kamikaze?

George Mendonsa:

Yes. But then the invasion of Japan -- not Japan -- of Iwo Jima happened the following February, the 19th.

Patricia Redmond:

That would be 1945?

George Mendonsa:

Yup.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay.

George Mendonsa:

So we was there about eight months before the actual invasion just trying to knock out all the Japanese guns and planes and all that stuff so to make the invasion a success. So February the 19th, the day of the invasion, was my birthday.

Patricia Redmond:

And you weren't there in that invasion though, you had come and gone?

George Mendonsa:

Yeah, but we come back for the invasion. We were there -- like any time there was an invasion, our battle force, we'd go up to the next scheduled invasion, and we'd be up there maybe about two weeks clobbering the place so that when the invasion come off and the Army went ashore, we'd try to get rid of all the resistance that the Army might meet. So we was there for the invasion.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. It sounds like you had a rather exciting career before the V-J Day.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah, I guess so. We had a good time.

Patricia Redmond:

Do you feel you got even?

George Mendonsa:

Well, I think the whole crew on that ship felt like we did avenge the death of those five brothers.

Patricia Redmond:

Were you there when the Peace Treaty was signed? No, you weren't there, of course, because you were in New York City by then.

George Mendonsa:

We come home.

Patricia Redmond:

How did you -- how did you manage that?

George Mendonsa:

Well, the war was still on in late June of '45, and we had just taken Okinawa, and I believe that the next step in the American strategy would be the invasion of Japan. That was about the only thing left for us to do. So ships that had been out there for months, of course the Jap Navy had been wiped out, the Jap Air Force had been wiped out, so we felt that it was going to take about six months to get the American Army out there strong enough to invade Japan. So a lot of the ships, like us that were out there for quite a while, we were ordered back to the States. So I got back in San Francisco July 9th or 10th of '45, then shortly afterwards the atomic bomb was dropped, and we were home. We was in the States. Then, of course, I was in Times Square when the war ended. So we was all happy then because our orders were then to take the ship down to San Diego and put her in mothballs, and that was the end of our war.

Patricia Redmond:

So no wonder you were kissing nurses in Times Square. And so when did you get discharged then from the Navy?

George Mendonsa:

I got discharged January 6th of '46.

Patricia Redmond:

And that was four years?

George Mendonsa:

Yup.

Patricia Redmond:

And I need to ask you, what did you do after that and what have you been doing for the rest of your life?

George Mendonsa:

Catching fish.

Patricia Redmond:

Catching fish. Tell us about that.

George Mendonsa:

Well, my father, he was a fisherman, he started in 1910, and there was four boys in the family. I was number three down the line, one younger. Well, after the war my brothers and I, we decided we're going to go fishing for ourselves. My father was the captain, but he didn't own the outfit he worked for. But to start with, there's a little island here on the south side of Newport, and this little island is about three-quarters of an acre in size, and on this island there was a little shack, smaller than my kitchen here. And the fishing crew lived in this shack, six men and the old man and the crew, and my mother was the cook for the fishing crew on this island. And my two brothers were born on that island, and they took a midwife by rowboat out to deliver my two brothers. And on the island there was no water and no electricity, and that's where my brothers were born, and that's how we were raised. My older brother, my older sister, when they went to school every morning, they went by rowboat. They rowed from the island, then they walked about a mile to the school, but they started out by rowboat.

Patricia Redmond:

So this would have been in the early 1920s?

George Mendonsa:

Yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay.

George Mendonsa:

So after the war we decided we're going to fish for ourselves and, well, to tell you the truth, me and my brothers, we rewrote the book on fishing.

Patricia Redmond:

Now, your brother that was in the Navy, he returned also?

George Mendonsa:

Yeah, yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. And what do you mean "We rewrote the book on fishing"?

George Mendonsa:

Well, we caught more fish that will ever be equaled again by anybody.

Patricia Redmond:

The Maria Mendonsa?

George Mendonsa:

That's a boat named after my mother.

Patricia Redmond:

Is that your boat now or that was one of the boats you used in the fleet?

George Mendonsa:

No, I was the captain of that boat for about 40 years. My brothers have all gone now, they've all died. I'm the last of the boys. And so we decided to sell everything. We sold the waterfront property, we sold all the fishing equipment, and the people that bought half of our equipment asked me if I'd go fishing with them for a year. So I agreed to go with them.

Patricia Redmond:

Now, when is this?

George Mendonsa:

'96.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay.

George Mendonsa:

So I agreed to go with them for a year. Well, I put eight years with them. This is the first year I never went fishing.

Patricia Redmond:

So you have officially retired now?

George Mendonsa:

Something like that.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. This picture that I have of you with the Maria Mendonsa, when was that taken?

George Mendonsa:

That was taken about two or three years ago.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. So that would have been 2000 -- that would have been after you sold the -- you sold the ship, the boat?

George Mendonsa:

That's when I'm working for the new owners.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. And you're pretty -- you're pretty -- it's pretty well-known up there in Rhode Island that you are The Kissing Sailor, is that right?

George Mendonsa:

Oh, yeah. Everybody. It's hanging in all the restaurants there.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay.

George Mendonsa:

A lot of the older girls like to come up to me and kiss me.

Patricia Redmond:

Oh, really?

George Mendonsa:

Yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

And you don't mind that, huh?

George Mendonsa:

No, no.

Patricia Redmond:

What about Rita, does she mind that?

George Mendonsa:

She doesn't say anything. She laughs.

Patricia Redmond:

Now --

George Mendonsa:

All she does, she tells people that I don't kiss her like that.

Patricia Redmond:

Oh, she tells people that, huh?

George Mendonsa:

Yeah. Did you see the tape?

Patricia Redmond:

I did, yes, I saw the tape. Yes, that was a wonderful tape, and that will be sent also to the Library of Congress. Let's get back to Rita for a minute. You were married then October the 7th, 1946?

George Mendonsa:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

And you've been married for nearly 59 years now?

George Mendonsa:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

So you must have made an impression, whether you were kissing her or the nurse.

George Mendonsa:

I turned all my charm on her. She was a beautiful girl. I turned on all my charm. I must have dazzled her.

Patricia Redmond:

You're talking about Rita now, right?

George Mendonsa:

Yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Well, according to these pictures, she's still a beautiful girl.

George Mendonsa:

Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, when the war ended and I got out of the service and I brought her back here to Newport from New York with me, it was all over Newport, You see the babe that Mendonsa guy brought back here?

Patricia Redmond:

Do you -- let's see. You do keep in touch with your buddies from the war?

George Mendonsa:

Yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

You have reunions every so often?

George Mendonsa:

Every couple of years.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. And did you join any military -- any organizations like the Veterans Association or the Veterans American Legion or anything?

George Mendonsa:

No, no.

Patricia Redmond:

You were just too busy fishing.

George Mendonsa:

Too busy fishing, and we had our own group from the ship that we had reunions though. You know, we could meet with our old shipmates, so we didn't get involved with say more or less strange servicemen, strangers.

Patricia Redmond:

I see. Do you have any advice for the youth of today?

George Mendonsa:

Well, I'll tell you, the Sullivans was probably the most famous ship that come out of World War II, not because of their war record because there was a lot of ships that accomplished more in battle than she did, but she did her share. And because of her name being named after those five brothers, I think our crew were more loyal to one another and had a tighter tie to that ship than most servicemen.

Patricia Redmond:

Do you think that our young people today should be drafted?

George Mendonsa:

No, I don't think so. I think -- I think that -- well, for one thing, like when they first started drafting in World War II and, of course, that was before Pearl Harbor, so America was not involved in the war, but this country was starting to draft men because of the trouble that was going on in Europe. So the first age group that they started to draft were guys like in their lower thirties, and the reason they drafted those guys was they didn't want to interfere with the younger kids and their education. So it would interfere with the young guy's life if they started drafting the younger group.

Patricia Redmond:

But don't you think that the discipline that one learns in the military is good for the youth of today?

George Mendonsa:

Oh, yeah, it would be good, but we had a lot of crazy guys in the service then too.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Do you consider yourself patriotic?

George Mendonsa:

Oh, yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

All right. Do you have any other last words or anything that you want to tell us on tape?

George Mendonsa:

No. I think we've about covered everything.

Patricia Redmond:

Well, I want to thank you. This is a wonderful story, and I truly believe that you've cleared up the question of who The Kissing Sailor was.

George Mendonsa:

Well, you know, it's easy to shoot your mouth off and brag about things, but if I tried to prove to anybody that I'm the sailor, I want the photos in front of me, and I can show what's in the photos, what's on my arms, stuff that grew on me, not something that's coming out of my mouth.

Patricia Redmond:

Well, all this evidence is hard proof and will be in the Library of Congress, and whomever wants to look at it can look at it and make their decisions on their own.

George Mendonsa:

Well, I think one of these days I'm going to come down and see the World War II Memorial, and I'll stop by to see you people.

Patricia Redmond:

I would love to meet you in person. Please let me know when you come down.

George Mendonsa:

Yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

And I thank you ever so much. This is a wonderful interview.

George Mendonsa:

Well, thank you. [Interview concluded]

 
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