vj day sailor kiss orig nws_00001408.jpg
Getty Images
vj day sailor kiss orig nws_00001408.jpg
Now playing
02:52
'Kissing Sailor' relives this famous moment
THE BACHELORETTE - Fan favorite Becca Kufrin captured America's heart when she found herself at the center of one of the most gut-wrenching Bachelor breakups of all time. Now the Minnesota girl next door returns for a second shot at love and gets to hand out the roses, searching for her happily-ever-after in the 14th edition of ABC's hit series "The Bachelorette," premiering MONDAY, MAY 28 (8:00-10:01 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. (ABC/Craig Sjodin)
COLTON
Craig Sjodin/ABC
THE BACHELORETTE - Fan favorite Becca Kufrin captured America's heart when she found herself at the center of one of the most gut-wrenching Bachelor breakups of all time. Now the Minnesota girl next door returns for a second shot at love and gets to hand out the roses, searching for her happily-ever-after in the 14th edition of ABC's hit series "The Bachelorette," premiering MONDAY, MAY 28 (8:00-10:01 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. (ABC/Craig Sjodin) COLTON
Now playing
01:24
Former 'Bachelor' star says he is gay
USCG Southeast
Now playing
00:56
The Coast Guard is sending a warning with this video
Getty Images/FOX
Now playing
01:55
Hank Azaria feels need to apologize over 'Simpsons' Apu
Jeopardy Productions, Inc.
Now playing
01:02
Aaron Rodgers' Green Bay Packers question stumps 'Jeopardy!' contestants
Kalen Allen/ Food Network
Now playing
02:11
Popcorn salad recipe brings the internet to its knees
Tyfanee Fortuna
Now playing
02:22
Shelter places '13 lb rage machine' up for adoption
"Saturday Night Live" / NBC
Now playing
01:47
'SNL' sees Minnesota news anchors take on the Derek Chauvin trial
Shaquille O'Neal engagement ring mxp vpx _00000930.png
FAIR USE / Shaqfu_radio
Shaquille O'Neal engagement ring mxp vpx _00000930.png
Now playing
00:39
Shaq explains why he paid off customer's engagement ring
Getty Images
Now playing
02:18
This airplane-shaped bag is selling for more than some actual planes
Camerota Berman both
CNN
Camerota Berman both
Now playing
02:33
CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota gets surprise tribute from co-anchor
ABC/Jeopardy Productions. Inc.
Now playing
01:27
Aaron Rodgers laughs off hilarious answer on 'Jeopardy!'
Twitter/@slashkevin & ABC7
Now playing
01:17
Fans demand rule change for 'Wheel of Fortune'
Now playing
00:49
Deer crashes into a moving school bus and lands on a student
Now playing
01:04
Grandpa Monster is revealed on 'The Masked Singer'
ViralHog
Now playing
02:05
Mama bear's struggle with cubs looks hilariously familiar
(CNN) —  

George Mendonsa, who maintained for decades that he was the sailor in an iconic 1945 Times Square photo, dubbed “The Kiss,” that came to symbolize the end of World War II, has died, his family says. He was 95.

The veteran died early Sunday in Newport, Rhode Island, just two days before his 96th birthday, daughter Sharon Molleur told CNN. He will be buried at St. Columba Cemetery in his hometown of Middletown, Rhode Island, she said.

“When I look at that photograph, I just think of my dad’s service, and how happy he was that it was all over,” Molleur said.

On August 14, 1945, a sailor kisses an unsuspecting woman in New York's Times Square.
Victor Jorgensen/U.S. Navy/AP
On August 14, 1945, a sailor kisses an unsuspecting woman in New York's Times Square.

Though Mendonsa never persuaded Life magazine, which first published Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photo, that he was the man in the picture, several sources over the years – including the authors of “The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II” – have concluded the smooching seaman is Mendonsa. The authors cited facial recognition technology and high-tech forensic reconstructions.

In a 2015 interview, Mendonsa told CNN that he never failed to convince anyone of the fact.

“And when I get through showing you the photos … if you don’t admit that, I’d say you’re a phony bastard,” he told a reporter who visited his Middletown home.

’We’re all drinking and raising hell’

The picture, which has sparked numerous homages as well as admonitions from those who say it represents an unwanted sexual advance, was truly a product of its time.

It was taken August 14, 1945, shortly after news of Japan’s surrender – aka Victory Over Japan Day or V-J Day – spread through New York’s streets, a prelude to World War II’s imminent end. Even the caption Life placed under the photo, known alternatively as “V-J Day in Times Square,” speaks to the sexism tolerated in newsrooms during the era.

Carl Muscarello and Edith Shain, who also claimed to be in the photo, re-created their moment in 2005.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Carl Muscarello and Edith Shain, who also claimed to be in the photo, re-created their moment in 2005.

“In the middle of New York’s Times Square a white-clad girl clutches her purse and skirt as an uninhibited sailor plants his lips squarely on hers,” the caption says, describing the 21-year-old woman who, decades later, would be identified as Greta Friedman.

Mendonsa was on leave after a stint in the Pacific, he told CNN in 2015, and was on a first date with Rita Petry, who was related to his younger sister’s new husband.

While taking in a matinee, a crowd outside Radio City Music Hall began pounding on the theater doors, shouting, “The war is over!” – a cry that resonated through the building.

Mendonsa and Petry walked outside to find thousands of revelers in the streets. They stopped at a bar.

“The booze was flying, and I popped quite a few,” he recalled. “We’re all drinking and raising hell.”

After leaving the bar, they found themselves in Times Square.

“So we get into Times Square and the war ends and I see the nurse,” he remembers. “I had a few drinks, and it was just plain instinct, I guess. I just grabbed her.”

George Mendonsa, then 89, holds the iconic photograph at his Rhode Island home in 2012.
Patrick Raycraft/Hartford Courant/MCT/Getty Images
George Mendonsa, then 89, holds the iconic photograph at his Rhode Island home in 2012.

It was actually a dental assistant. As Petry, with whom he would spend more than 70 years in marriage, looked on, Mendonsa planted one on the woman in white.

“I was in the background, grinning like a mutt,” Petry told CNN in a 2005 interview. “It didn’t matter to me.”

’It wasn’t that much of a kiss’

Mendonsa, 22 at the time, said he was overwhelmed with emotion upon hearing news of Japan’s surrender – “For Chrissake, the war is over!” he remembered thinking – and he grabbed Friedman, who he mistook for a nurse, because he’d seen the nurses in action during the war and was appreciative of their work to save and heal his fellow troops.

It’s a sentiment his daughter recalls hearing from her father.

“They ran out of the theater and began celebrating. Everyone was kissing everyone,” Molleur said Monday. “He was so thankful for all the nurses that had helped all the wounded soldiers.”

02:42 - Source: CNN
70 years later, the 'Kissing Sailor' tells all

Friedman never saw the photo until the 1960s, and she recognized her hair, clothing and figure, she told the Veterans History Project in 2005.

“Suddenly, I was grabbed by a sailor,” she recalled. “It wasn’t that much of a kiss. It was more of a jubilant act that he didn’t have to go back.”

The sailor was “very strong,” she told the Veterans History Project. The smooch wasn’t romantic, she said. It was more that the war was over, she said, and people were so thankful.

“He was just holding me tight. I’m not sure about the kiss,” she said. “It was just somebody celebrating.”

Friedman passed away in 2016 in Richmond, Virginia. She was 92. Gone, too, is Eisenstaedt, the photographer, who died in 1995 at age 96.

“People tell me that when I’m in heaven,” Eisenstaedt once said, “they will remember this picture.”

CNN’s Ray Sanchez, Aaron Cooper and Amanda Jackson contributed to this report.