VA Secretary Intervenes After Top Officer Orders Iconic World War II Kiss Photo Removed for Being ‘Non-Consensual’

by Braxton Taylor

A recent memo from the Department of Veterans Affairs to its regional offices directed all copies of the iconic World War II photo of a sailor kissing a woman in Times Square on V-J Day to be removed from agency facilities because it depicts a “non-consensual act.”

RimaAnn Nelson, the VA’s assistant secretary of health for operations, sent the Feb. 29 memo calling for the prompt removal of the photo — capturing a historic moment of public jubilation after Japan surrendered in 1945 — saying it was “inconsistent with the VA’s no-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment and assault.”

But on Tuesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough intervened, saying the photograph can remain. “Let me be clear: This image is not banned from VA facilities — and we will keep it in VA facilities,” he wrote on the social media platform X.

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Nelson wrote in the memo that the placement of the photo in VA facilities was originally meant to commemorate the end of World War II and the return of American troops, but that perspectives on historical events “evolve.”

“To foster a more trauma-informed environment that promotes the psychological safety of our employees and the veterans we serve, photographs depicting the ‘V-J Day in Times Square’ should be removed from all Veterans Health Administration facilities,” she wrote in the memo.

McDonough’s social media post officially rescinded the order.

The couple was snapped by a number of photographers, including photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt and U.S. Navy photographer Victor Jorgensen. The photo cited in the memo was Eisenstadt’s; McDonough used Jorgensen’s for his post.

Shortly after his post on X, House Veterans Affairs Committee Republicans praised McDonough’s action but wondered why the policy was even created.

“Good. And we still have serious questions about who at VA thought potentially banning this photo would be a good idea in the first place,” @HouseVetAffairs posted on X.

A copy of the memo first appeared on the account @EndWokeness on X.

The photograph in question was taken on Aug. 14, 1945, in New York City by Eisenstaedt, a Life magazine photojournalist. Eisenstaedt never identified the sailor or the woman, who is wearing what appears to be a nurse’s uniform, in the photo.

Many people have claimed to be the pictured couple, but in 1980, Life asked former Navy quartermaster George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman to recreate the moment, believing them to be the original pair.

In a 2005 interview for the Veterans History Project, Friedman, who worked as a dental assistant at the time, had gone to Times Square to confirm the news that the war had ended. She said she was grabbed by a sailor.

“It wasn’t that much of a kiss; it was more of a jubilant act that he didn’t have to go back. I found out later he was so happy that he did not have to go back to the Pacific … and the reason he grabbed someone dressed like a nurse was that he just felt very grateful to nurses who took care of the wounded,” Friedman said.

“It wasn’t a romantic event,” she added, “it was a ‘thank God the war is over.'”

Another couple, Edith Shain and Carl Muscarello, claimed to be the couple and were pictured in Times Square in 2005, but a book published last year by the U.S. Naval Institute Press, “The Kissing Sailor,” concluded that the real couple was Mendonsa and Friedman.

In her memo, Nelson said “debates on consent and the appropriateness of celebrating such images” contributed to the decision.

“Employees have expressed discomfort with the display of this photograph, suggesting that its presence could be construed as a tacit endorsement of the inappropriate behavior it depicts,” Nelson wrote.

VA officials did not respond to questions about the memo, its approval by any higher-ups, the decision that led to its creation or the number of facilities that display the photo.

“VA will NOT be banning this photo from VA facilities,” VA officials said in a response to questions.

Attempts to reach Nelson were not successful.

In the past several years, the VA has worked to make its facilities more welcoming to all veterans, to include efforts to improve benefits delivery and health care for female veterans and changing its motto to be gender neutral.

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