That's My Friend George!

September 12, 1995|By GWINN OWENS

There has to be some mischievous sprite at work. Otherwise, how could coincidences come so rapidly, one upon another? They are all involved with V-J Day and the widespread reproduction of Alfred Eisenstaedt's most famous photograph for Life magazine, a happy sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square. It symbolized for Americans the euphoria with the victorious end of the sorrow and destruction of a long war.

But who was the sailor? In 1980, on the 35th anniversary of the end of the war, Life reprinted the picture and asked the sailor to come forth. Predictably, a whole brigade came forth and editors discovered they had opened a can of worms. They never identified the sailor, leaving a host of claimants contending for the honor. (After all, there were probably a lot of sailors kissing a lot of nurses that day in Times Square.)

Other than the fact that I was also a sailor in 1945, the photograph didn't symbolize much to me. I was still on a Pacific island where there was no one to kiss. Only 50 years later did all these coincidences suddenly coalesce and make that photograph a matter of immediate personal concern.

Coincidence number one was that I was vacationing in Rhode Island in August and therefore was reading the Providence Journal instead of The Sun. Had I not been on my annual oceanside visit to Little Compton, I would never have seen the front-page story and photograph identifying -- to the Journal's satisfaction -- the sailor as George Mendonsa, now a professional fisherman living in Newport.

The second coincidence was a one-in-two-million shot. My goodness, I knew George Mendonsa. He was my unforgettable colleague at quartermaster school in Newport back in 1943 -- unforgettable because he was a huge, muscular man, large enough to frighten anyone who got in his way, but gifted with an affable, unthreatening personality. The son of Portuguese immigrants, he had been a fisherman then as he is today.

So struck was I with this that I checked his address in the local phone book and sat right down and wrote him a letter. I suggested he come and visit us at Little Compton, just a short hop from Middletown, the Newport suburb where he lives.

Twenty-four hours later I was sitting in the living room reading when there was a knock on the door.

''George,'' I shouted, as if we had last met yesterday instead of 52 years ago. He had changed very little, still brawny and handsome, standing well over 6 feet tall. His wife Rita was with him and, as it turned out, provided the key to George's claim of being the famous kissing sailor.

George didn't remember me -- there were probably 40 or 50 in the quartermaster class -- but we remembered the same

experiences. It became apparent that the famous Eisenstaedt photograph had become somewhat of an obsession. He was that sailor, he insisted, but Life never identified him as such, and when other claimants were publicly celebrated it rankled him. He wants nothing except a confirmation that he is one of the two subjects in one of the world's most famous photographs.

We made friends quickly. George and Rita invited me and my wife Joan to their Middletown house a few days later. In the interim I thought: Why not ask Eisenstaedt? The very next day I opened the paper to the third coincidence. Eisenstaedt, age 96, had died. Once again the story of his famous picture was rehashed nationwide. At least one news account said the sailor and the nurse he was kissing had been positively identified and had a reunion on a television program. But that sailor wasn't George Mendonsa.

The Mendonsas live in an attractive Newport suburb in a large, comfortable house, the fruit of George's 50-plus years as a fisherman. (At 72, he still rises at 4 a.m. five days a week to pull in his catch.) The house is filled with mementos of his onerous battle service on The Sullivans, the destroyer named for the five Sullivan brothers killed in the explosion of the cruiser Juneau early in the war. But in the front hall, framed, is the kissing picture.

Mr. Mendonsa was persistent. He called on Richard Benson, a photographer and photographic technician so prestigious as to warrant a 23-page profile in The New Yorker in 1990.

Mr. Benson studied the picture, enlarging portions of it, and comparing it with the living Mendonsa and other photos. In addition to many convincing similarities, the key was a growth or wen on Mr. Mendonsa's left arm. It clearly shows in the picture. Mr. Benson's conclusion left little room for doubt. ''It is my opinion, based on a reasonable degree of certainty, that George Mendonsa is the sailor in the famous Eisenstaedt picture.''

Earlier this summer ''The Crusaders,'' a nationally syndicated television program originating in Los Angeles, conducted its own investigation of the various claimants. It reached the same conclusion.

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