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Remembering the iconic V-J Day kissing photograph

70 years ago this weekend, the Japanese government announced the unconditional surrender of its armed forces to the Allied Nations, bringing a formal end to the Second World War
70 years ago this weekend, the Japanese gover... 05:29

Britain's Queen Elizabeth joined the celebrations in London Saturday in observance of the 70th anniversary of V-J Day. That was the day in 1945 when Japan announced it was surrendering to the Allies, ending World War II.

In the U.S., V-J Day is officially observed on Sept. 2, the day Japan actually signed its unconditional surrender. But the anniversary was marked Friday in New York as couples gathered in Times Square at a 25-foot statue of a sailor kissing a nurse, based on the iconic photograph taken all those years ago.

CBS News' Michelle Miller spoke with the original couple in 2012, who told her all about that kiss.

It is one of the most famous pictures of the 20th century, the moment Americans learned of a Japanese surrender.

George Mendonsa said he's the sailor in the photograph that would come to symbolize the end of World War II and Greta Friedman the "nurse" in white.

"It was the moment that you come back from the Pacific, and finally the war ends," Mendonsa said.

"I did not see him approaching, and before I know it I was in this vice grip," Friedman said.

But Mendonsa said he didn't kiss her for long.

As the perfect strangers locked lips, world famous photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt snapped four pictures in just 10 seconds. CBS News reunited George and Greta three years ago at the spot of their kiss for just the second time since that day in 1945.

"The excitement of the war bein' over, plus I had a few drinks," Mendonsa said. "So when I saw the nurse I grabbed her, and I kissed her."

George did not know the picture had been taken, but Greta recognized herself.

Greta was a dental assistant on break, heading to Times Square to verify rumors of the war's end. George, a first class sailor in the Navy, was on a date with another woman.

They went their separate ways, not formally meeting again until 1980, when Life magazine asked the previously unknown pair to come forward. George's friend noticed the picture in the magazine.

George saw the picture for the first time in 1980, 35 years after the war ended.

But they weren't the only ones claiming credit. For more than 30 years, others claimed to be the ones in the photo. And for just as long, George has fought to set the record straight.

He found an ally in Lawrence Verria, a Rhode Island history teacher turned author. In his 2012 book, "The Kissing Sailor," Verria argues the evidence rules out everyone but the retired fisherman from Middletown, Rhode Island.

"It's a story about our nation and World War II," Verria said. "It's a story about a kiss. It's a story about a place. It's a story about a publication. But at the end it's a story about two national treasures, who for 60-some years never got the due that was theirs."

"The best proof there is is my date," Mendonsa said. "Her face is seen over the sailor's right shoulder."

In fact, his date, Rita Petrie, can be seen in the background, smiling from ear to ear.

The kiss must not have bothered Rita. She's been married to George for the last 69 years.

She said women still come up to George. "It'll come up that he's the kissing sailor," Petrie said. "So the kissing sailor has to think he's got to kiss everybody, so he does. Everybody gets his kiss."

People still write to George, asking for autographs and offering words of encouragement. He described a letter with CBS News.

"He states something like, 'It must be something great to be involved in a photo that means the end of World War II,'" Mendonsa said. "Well I'm proud of that."

And so is a nation that 70 years later is still mesmerized by that timeless kiss.

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