Couple is together in this timeless pic – but it’s not her he’s smooching!
- Last Updated: 1:22 PM, June 17, 2012
- Posted: 12:37 AM, June 17, 2012
As first dates go, Rita Petry thought this one was pretty great: a beautiful summer afternoon in the city, a matinee at Radio City Music Hall, drinks after, followed by a passionate, soon-to-be-iconic kiss.
Well, maybe not the kiss: Her handsome young suitor, it turns out, planted that on another woman.
Such is the incredible story behind one of the most romantic and enduring photos of the 20th century — and one of our most compelling mysteries.
Since Aug. 14, 1945, the identities of the smooching sailor and the nurse in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s Times Square V-J Day photograph have never been determined — until the publication, last week, of the book “The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II.”
There’s another person in the frame, one nobody even knew to look for, who makes the image that much more poignant: Rita Petry, the future wife of that sailor, George Mendonsa.
“I really liked him, but I didn’t know I was the future wife,” Rita tells The Post. “I guess I thought he looked nice or something.”
To this day, Rita insists that the kiss never bothered her and that the photo, while “nice,” hasn’t changed her life one bit. But much like the photograph itself, nothing is as it seems. “In all these years,” Rita says, “George has never kissed me like that.”
In August 1945, George Mendonsa was 22 years old, a Navy quartermaster on leave from the Pacific theater. He’d dropped out of school at 16 and worked with his dad, a commercial fisherman, in Rhode Island, enlisting in the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor: “Every kid my age wanted to get even with the Japanese.”
George didn’t like to talk about what he had seen, or his anxiety about what was coming, which everyone knew was the invasion of Japan. “I had just come back from the Philippines,” George says. “My ship had seen a lot of action. We were sent back to the States until the Army could get strong enough [to attack].”
So instead, he focused on his date with the pretty girl he’d met a few weeks before at a barbecue at his family’s house in Rhode Island; she was related to his new brother-in-law. Her name was Rita. She was just 20 years old and lived with her parents in Queens.
“She was beautiful,” George says. “I think I fell in love with her the first time I saw her.”
The morning of the 14th, George and Rita took the train into Midtown. He was nervous, and he wore his formal Navy uniform — the one he’d just had specially tailored at home in Rhode Island — and carried the chevron badge he hadn’t had time to affix.