Thursday, August 14, 2003


The Washington Times

V-J Day memories
By Stroube Smith
Published August 14, 2003

The day Japan gave up in World War II, Aug. 14, 1945, was exactly a week before I was to celebrate my 11th birthday. Up until President Truman's announcement at 7 p.m. Eastern time, I had really thought the war was going to last long enough for me to become a GI and achieve various heroic deeds of derring-do. Of such things are adolescent dreams and delusions made.

There is some confusion over when we should say this cataclysmic conflict ended. The AP Stylebook says Aug. 15, the day Japanese Emperor Hirohito broadcast the news to his people. Because of that notation, that is the date most often used by newspapers. Others insist on Sept. 2, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur presided over the formal surrender signing aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

To me, though, it will always be that evening of Aug. 14 and the wild celebrations Truman's announcement set off on South Lee Street in Alexandria, in the rest of the city and across the nation. It is also the day the killing, for the most part, came to an end.

I suppose it is impossible to really convey the giddy relief that swept the country. It was not just the ending of the war, as costly and devastating as that had been. For a decade and a half, since the beginning of the Depression, Americans had been struggling through grim, harsh days when sheer survival could be an iffy proposition.

With the announcement Japan had had enough, the end of years of strain snapped something loose in the country's soul, and the delirium that marked the end was truly feverish. People poured out of their homes or whatever public place they were in, laughing and shouting, hugging and kissing.

As the din mounted, a church bell began ringing, and one by one all the bells of the city added their voices to the bedlam. Somehow, a few people even got their hands on fireworks to light up the sky.
Leaving my mother, who was crying with relief over the survival of my soldier brother, my father and I walked to a newsstand on King Street and bought extras of at least three Washington daily newspapers. Along the way, I got to view alcoholic celebrations for the first time. Among the people we ran across was our family doctor, a squeaky prim and sober man, and he was as carried away as anyone.

While we walked, we listened to the radios elaborating on the news. In those days before air conditioning in private homes, I could walk across town on warm days and not miss any of my favorite radio shows — Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Fibber McGee. As you can tell, I tried to keep a light heart.

How to count the cost? Dollars and cents are too cheap a way to calculate. According to my almanac, more than 16.3 million Americans served in uniform. Battle deaths totaled more than 292,000, with 115,000 deaths from other causes. The wounded came to almost 673,000. The total casualties for the United States came to well more than 1 million.
The 1930 Census set the U.S. population at 132 million; as the figures show, the human cost was dreadful. By comparison, the 2000 Census figure was 281 million. It would take much more than 2 million casualties to be the equal proportionally for today's United States.

And the United States came off comparatively lightly among the major combatants. Japan was hit by two atomic bombs that effectively erased two major cities. Tokyo was fire-bombed, leaving acres of the city a wasteland. Germany was equally leveled by bombing and massive artillery barrages from both west and east. Italy did not get off much more lightly.

Of our Allies, the Soviet Union often used the lives of its troops to make up for the equipment and technology it did not have, and its casualties were practically beyond belief. Britain and its empire entered the war in Europe at its very beginning, years before the United States, and was bled each and every year that the fighting went on. France, though defeated, managed an army of liberation. China was brutalized by the Japanese acting both as a combatant and as an occupying force.

All these countries, Allies and Axis both, suffered civilian casualties that in many cases are impossible to calculate. And beyond those numbers loom the millions consumed by the Holocaust.

I'm afraid that on that Aug. 14 not many of us had much thought for the suffering of all those other peoples. I didn't know, for example, that the Germans had sent into their front lines 11-year-old boys, as I was only days away from becoming. And the Germans had not been the only ones handing weapons to children that young. We just knew that our own ordeal was at an end, and that our fighters would soon be on the way home.

And even on that joyful night there were reminders that the pain had not ended for everyone. Across the street an elderly gentlemen was crying. I stopped and asked him what was wrong. He waved a yellow telegram that he had received only hours before: His son, had been killed, one of the last casualties of the Pacific war.
That young man the summer before had driven me crazy by endlessly practicing "You Are My Sunshine" on his guitar at an open window late into almost every sweltering night.
And that was how my V-J Day and night ended.

Stroube Smith is a copy editor for The Washington Times and a freelance writer.

Copyright © 2003 News World Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.
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