Victory! Americans Everywhere Celebrated the End of World War II in 1945

(Today’s post is from Jim Worsham, editor of Prologue magazine, the quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration, and is based on a longer article in the Summer 2015 issue.)

President Harry Truman reads the Japanese message agreeing to unconditional surrender on August 14, 1945. (Harry Truman Library)

President Harry Truman reads the Japanese message agreeing to unconditional surrender on August 14, 1945. (Harry Truman Library)

President Harry S. Truman watched the clock closely, wanting to abide by the agreement to make the historic announcement at the same time as our Allies in London and Moscow.

At exactly 7 p.m. Eastern War Time on August 14, 1945, Truman revealed Japan’s response to the Allied demand for unconditional surrender.

The announcement the world was waiting for came just a few days after atomic bombs fell on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the opening shots in the nuclear era.

The emperor of Japan, the statement read, had agreed to unconditional surrender to the Allies. The President then appointed Gen. Douglas MacArthur supreme commander in Japan and the Pacific and who would officially accept Japan’s surrender September 2, 1945.

American servicemen and women gather in front of “Rainbow Corner” Red Cross club in Paris to celebrate the conditional surrender of the Japanese on August 15, 1945. (111-SC-210241)

American servicemen and women gather in front of “Rainbow Corner” Red Cross club in Paris to celebrate the conditional surrender of the Japanese on August 15, 1945. (111-SC-210241)

 

New Yorkers in Little Italy celebrated the Japanese surrender on August 14, 1945. (208-N-43468; National Archives Identifier 535794)

New Yorkers in Little Italy celebrate the Japanese surrender on August 14, 1945. (208-N-43468; National Archives Identifier 535794)

The euphoria that erupted May 8 when Truman announced the Germans had surrendered unconditionally, ending the war in Europe, erupted again. Now, it was much more full throated than before.

The Second World War—the deadliest and most destructive war in history, referred to by generations as simply “The War”—was officially over. The official day of celebration would be September 2, when the Japanese signed the surrender documents aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Ships loaded with war-weary veterans of the European theater headed for Japan could turn back. The high casualties predicted for an invasion of the Japanese mainland would not happen.

Children who had never seen their fathers or uncles or big brothers would soon see them coming home in uniforms with dufflebags on their shoulders. The rationing of everything from gasoline to food would come to an end. No more blackouts. No more round-the-clock watching for enemy planes or submarines.

Gaunt Allied prisoners of war, waving flags of the United States, Great Britain, and Holland at Aomori camp near Yokohama, Japan, cheer rescuers from the U.S. Navy on August 29, 1945. (80-G-490444; National Archives Identifier 520992)

Gaunt Allied prisoners of war, waving flags of the United States, Great Britain, and Holland at Aomori camp near Yokohama, Japan, cheer rescuers from the U.S. Navy on August 29, 1945. (80-G-490444; National Archives Identifier 520992)

When the war was over, some 60 million to 80 million people, depending on which data are used, had died in battle, because of starvation or disease, or as victims of crimes against humanity. It was about 3 percent of the world’s population then.

The roster of war dead included about 420,000 Americans—in Europe, North Africa, the Pacific, and elsewhere. The American toll amounted to about three-tenths of one percent of the United States’ population, but the war took its toll from nearly every American city, town, village, and rural area.

Within minutes of Truman’s announcement on August 14, people began celebrating—spontaneously, enthusiastically—in many ways.

Two million people squeezed into New York City’s Times Square, always a measure of public excitement, in a celebration that went on for several days. Paper rained down on them, conga lines snaked around, and people kissed anybody in sight.

The Chicago Tribune reported that a man climbed a ladder to light an 18-foot-tall solid wax victory candle that had taken three months to make. In downtown Chicago, a half-million people crowded into the Loop, singing and dancing down the main streets.

Amid the celebrations and homecomings, however, was apprehension of what was to come. The abrupt end to the war had also ushered in the nuclear age, with all its possibilities and fears that the next war would be even more deadly than the one we just won.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur signs as Supreme Allied Commander during formal surrender ceremonies on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Behind him are American Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainright and British Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival, both of whom were held as prisoners of war by the Japanese. (80-G-348366; National Archives Identifier 520694)

Gen. Douglas MacArthur signs as Supreme Allied Commander during formal surrender ceremonies on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Behind him are American Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainright and British Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival, both of whom were held as prisoners of war by the Japanese. (80-G-348366; National Archives Identifier 520694)

America’s great industrial sector had converted to bombers, tanks, and rifles for the war. Now, it would reconvert to automobiles, household appliances, and a new kind of appliance people heard about that would change their lives—television.

As soldiers and sailors put away their uniforms, they married and started families (their children would become known as “baby boomers”). The GI Bill would help them buy a home and get a college degree, something previously obtainable only by the upper classes.

Labor unrest resulted from returning GIs looking for jobs and unions demanding higher wages. And fighting and killing were over. For now.

 

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