Imagine the moment in which the news of the end of World War II broke. On August 14, 1945 (August 15 in Japan), just about anyone who had proximity to a broadcast stopped all activity and became glued to their radios.
Listeners in Japan even heard Emperor Hirohito’s voice for the very first time as he detailed his country’s surrender to the United States and its Allies. He had never spoken to the public before, and his speech was in an archaic, aristocratic dialect that most of his constituents did not understand. In Japan the Emperor had a godlike status to his people— invisible yet omniscient. That he now appeared before them was stunning in both political and cultural terms. By insisting on surrender, the speech effectively quelled any attempts at last-ditch resistance.
In the United States, President Harry S. Truman delivered a news broadcast from the White House: “This is the day we have been waiting for since Pearl Harbor. This is the day when Fascism finally dies, as we always knew it would.” His announcement of the surrender set off street celebrations from coast to coast. The delirium people felt from Truman’s words is best captivated by the famous kiss between a sailor and a woman in Times Square, photographed for Life magazine by Alfred Eisenstaedt.
On September 2, aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri, General Douglas MacArthur, along with along with the Japanese foreign minister, Mamoru Shigemitsu, and the chief of staff of the Japanese army, Yoshijiro Umezu, signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender. President Truman later declared that day the official Victory in Japan Day.
The end of World War II had finally come—only weeks after the use of the atomic bomb, which, on August 6 and August 8, was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. More than 70,000 people lost their lives in Hiroshima and more than 40,000 died in Nagasaki. Although the morality and necessity of using the atomic bombs would be debated in years to come, at the time and with little foreknowledge of what was to come, they were seen as a military necessity.
While joy reigned across America, soldiers, sailors, and airmen generally felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Norwood Thomas, of Norfolk, Virginia, is a veteran who fought with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. He was in Europe when he heard the news about the victory in Japan. As part of the elite group of combat-experienced paratroopers, he was preparing to go to the Pacific Theater with his buddies. Many of them felt that they were facing certain death. When he heard about Japan’s unconditional surrender, Thomas experienced a kind of adrenaline crash. He told me, “There was just a feeling of relief. When we heard about V-J Day, we knew all the guys were going home instead of being buried in Japan.”
Frank Whitmarsh, of Litchfield, Connecticut, fought with the 289th Infantry Regiment, 75th Infantry Division. He often thinks about his war experience and recently composed a poem about his best friend dying from a shell blast during the Battle of the Bulge, right before his eyes. Thomas and Whitmarsh know war death, and they know, better than most, how events leading to V-J Day most likely saved their lives. The news was elating and dizzying; and yet, simultaneously, sober and surreal. After the cascade of events in August and September, war was officially over, and soldiers started the long trek home.
- Kate Lemay, Historian, National Portrait Gallery