V-J Day: The Greatest Celebration

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The celebrations on V-E Day, May 8, 1945, were spontaneous and joyful, yet everyone knew the victory over Hitler gave the world only partial peace: the war in the Pacific continued with increased savagery. The bitter fighting raging on Okinawa at the moment of Allied victory in Europe foreshadowed the larger carnage expected with the invasion of Japan. Then Japan suffered the atomic bombs at Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, with Russia’s declaration of war in between. Following the second bomb President Truman again called for Japan to accept the Allies’ unconditional surrender demand embodied in the Potsdam Declaration. Most Japanese leaders knew that the time had come for surrender, but they held out one condition: retention of the Emperor. Accordingly, peace feelers went out to the Allies through the official Japanese news agency Domei.

United States monitoring stations picked up Domei’s broadcast at 7:35 a.m. EWT (Eastern War Time) on Friday, August 10. Although radio announcers stressed that Domei’s broadcast did not signal the war’s end, celebrations began in many places. In New York crowds of people headed for Times Square, where V-E Day had been celebrated with great delirium. Showers of paper fell from a few skyscrapers, but most sober-minded people waited for official word. In the words of one young sailor, “I’ll be right home, Mom — I hope.”

Anticipation mounted as people listened to the radio or called their local newspaper for the latest word. The New York Times announced that the revolving news sign on the Times Tower at the crossroads of Broadway and Forty-second Street would remain on continuously during the wait. Many people lingered below the famous sign; they knew the biggest celebration of all would be right where they stood in Times Square. A sailor from Rutland, Vermont, deliberately mised his train home, “To hell with the train. I want to see victory day in Times Square.”

The waiting gave cities across the country time to announce their plans. Hartford, Connecticut, was typical: three minutes of sirens, factory whistles, and church bells; the closing of all stores, the opening of all churches, and the alerting of all fire and police. Pittsburgh’s mayor urged people to celebrate a thanksgiving not a riot. Every town and city expected crowds larger than those for V-E Day.

On Saturday, August 11, Washington replied to the Japanese condition: The Emperor could remain, but he must submit himself to the orders of the Supreme Allied Commander. The wait continued.

On Sunday, August 12, at 9:34 p.m. EWT, as had happened before both V-E Day and the World War I Armistice in 1918, the obligatory false announcement appeared on the United Press news service wire: WASHINGTON — JAPAN ACCEPTS SURRENDER TERMS OF THE ALLIES. Knowing the flash was false, United Press immediately sent to all editors — “Hold that flash.” The warning was too late; the erroneous message set off more premature celebrations in many cities. In Canada’s capital of Ottawa, officials inadvertently gave credence to the false report by releasing Prime Minister W. L. Mackenzie King’s pre-recorded victory message. Back in New York City, the police took several hours to clear a Times Square crowd of 100,000. Meanwhile, on that same Sunday evening, President Truman repeated the Allied threat of complete destruction unless Japan surrendered.

Monday morning people went back to another day of war. The day had barely slipped away when, at 1:49 a.m., August 14, the flash came in from Domei — Japan accepted the terms. Although official acceptance took at least twelve hours to pass through neutral nations, many people awake at that hour and people in earlier time zones began to celebrate. By early Tuesday morning the entire nation had the aura of a giant New Year’s Eve party: everyone awaited the stroke of midnight — the President’s official announcement.

Back in Times Square expectant crowds gathered. The crowds grew larger during lunch, shrank in the afternoon, then swelled as people left work. In between the laughter and smiles apprehenshion grew. Why was it taking so long? Was this another false alarm? All eyes darted nervously toward the Times Tower news sign. Then at 7:03 p.m. the ball finally dropped: OFFICIAL — TRUMAN ANNOUNCES JAPANESE SURENDER. The crowd in the Times Square area, ten times a full house at Yankee Stadium, exploded with a joyous roar that rolled across the great city like a giant shock wave overwhelming all other sound.

Victory and peace arrived with less noise but just as much passion all across the nation and the world: In San Francisco thousands of extra police, MPs, and shore patrolmen deployed within minutes of the President’s announcement with orders to “let the people do anything within reason, and keep property damage down.” Unfortunately the effort failed; the bay city’s celebration proved one of the rowdiest — overturned street cars, defaced statues, and thousands injured. Across the Pacific, a soldier on Guam knew the end had come when he heard that the officer’s club would remain open till one o’clock. “Nothing” he said, “but the end of the war would make our officer’s club open up after hours.” A G.I. private in Paris told a U.S. Navy nurse (an officer) that the war’s end made him want to kiss all American girls. She said, “Well, what are you waiting for, soldier?” In London, Winston Churchill, like a proud father, lit a new cigar and said, “At last the job is finished.” In Washington, soldiers formed a human ring around the White House gates as the crowd repeatedly shouted, “We want Harry.” President Truman finally came out and acknowledged them, saying, “This is a great day for democracy.”

Back in Times Square, the crowd of 750,000 at 7:30 p.m. swelled to 2 million by 10 p.m. Eight thousand people per minute, a half-million every hour poured into the area between Fortieth and Fifty-second streets, bounded by Sixth and Eighth avenues. The New York Times reported the crowd so tightly packed between Forty-third and Forty-fifth streets that “Individual movement was virtually impossible; one moved not in the crowd but with it.”

From millions in Times Square to the hundreds in main streets everywhere, people rushed out to savor the moment. Friends, relatives, and total strangers sang, danced, and embraced one another; they had worked, fought, sacrificed, and suffered together, now the finish was for all to share in joyous camaraderie. The next day the ticker tape in New York, like some freak August snow storm, was five inches deep. That evening another crowd of over a million tried to restart the party, but the joy of the moment could not be recaptured.

We must hope that a celebration like V-J Day never happens again; only the end of history’s greatest tragedy could evoke the greatest celebration.