Column: World War II statue should go

ROYAL OAK, MICH. - The uniformed sailor and the nurse he's kissing loom haphazardly over Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak, sandwiched between a bus shelter and a light pole at Thirteen Mile. The statue was installed in June, ostensibly to raise money for Royal Oak's World War II memorial. A temporary installation, this winter it will decamp for some other town.

It can't happen fast enough.

To find charm or nostalgia in this statue, or the iconic 1945 photograph that inspired it, requires you to deny the facts of that moment: That Greta Zimmer and George Mendonsa were strangers, that he grabbed her and kissed her without her consent.

It requires that you hear only Mendonsa's story, and deny Zimmer's.

The moment Mendonsa kissed Zimmer wasn't romantic. It shouldn't evoke sentimental feelings. And it doesn't honor veterans -- like my father or my brother-in-law -- most of whom, I suspect, would knock the block off any guy who inflicted an unwanted advance on an unsuspecting woman.

Why are we still talking about this? It's true that things were different in 1945. But this is 2016, and we've come a long way. In theory, because a willingness in some quarters to deny what this statue depicts suggests we've got a ways yet to go.

For decades after the photo was published, that part of the story was lost. The identities of the pair were in doubt, and multiple people claiming to be either the sailor or the nurse had come forward. But by 1980, Zimmer and Mendonsa were in touch with Life Magazine, and Zimmer has been telling her side of the story since at least 2005.

And her account makes it clear that neither romance nor celebration had anything to do with this moment. At least not for her.

Greta Zimmer was in New York's Times Square on Aug. 14, 1945, when the U.S. declared victory over Japan, marking the de facto end of World War II. The Austrian immigrant was watching a Times Square news ticker, worrying about her parents, at whose urging she'd left her homeland six years before. Zimmer and her sisters were among the last to make it out, she told the New York Post in 2012, and she hadn't heard from her parents since. She wasn't sure if she'd ever see them again, or if they were even alive.

So that's more or less what Greta Zimmer was doing when George Mendonsa arrived on the scene. What was Mendonsa thinking? He doesn't quite remember, because he was pretty drunk. He was out on a first date with Rita Petry, the woman who'd later become his wife. The pair were at a movie when the news broke, but joined the crowds streaming into the streets. By the time Mendonsa saw Zimmer, dressed in what seemed to be a nurse's uniform, they'd hit several bars, and all he could think about was how great the nurses he'd served with in the Pacific were.

So Mendonsa walked up to Zimmer, and without saying a word, grabbed her -- quite firmly, as evident in both the picture and the statue -- bent her backward and kissed her as Petry looked on. Petry has said repeatedly that she wasn't fussed about it. Mendonsa obviously doesn't think he did anything wrong -- in interviews, he's staunchly defended that it's him in the picture, and the notion that admiration might not be best expressed via unwanted intimate contact seems something he's not even capable of grasping.

But Zimmer? Although she has said she doesn't consider the non-consensual act assault, in interviews she's been quite frank that she was not an active participant: "I was grabbed," Zimmer told the New York Post in 2012. "That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me."

"I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight," she told the Veterans History Project in 2005. "I'm not sure about the kiss." Of Mendonsa, she says, "It was just somebody celebrating. It wasn't a romantic event. It was just an event of 'Thank god the war is over.'"

Zimmer went home, and didn't tell anyone what had happened. And for what it's worth, she seems to have had a pretty outstanding life: She studied at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, briefly working in the toy industry as a doll clothing designer. She did summer theatre, and that's where she met her husband. The pair moved to Maryland in 1956, and Zimmer (Friedman, by then) earned a college degree while raising her kids. An artist, in 2005, she'd been working as a book restorer for a decade or so. She exchanges Christmas cards with Mendonsa and his wife.

In 1985, Life Magazine asked Zimmer and Mendonsa if they'd recreate the kiss in Times Square. Zimmer demurred. "It wasn't my choice to be kissed..." she told the Veterans History Project. "The guy just came over and grabbed! I told him I didn't want to redo that pose."

Maybe we should listen to her.

(2016 © Detroit Free Press)


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