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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

VJ Day: August 14, 1945

Originally published on August 15, 2007
Journal Opinion

“It” was over. After nearly four years of war, the announcement was made by President Truman at 7 p.m. Peace at last.

The Rutland Herald headline read bold: “War Ends As Japs Surrender”. The end had come quickly following the dropping of two atomic bombs. Faced with complete destruction and upon the assurance that their emperor could remain, the Japanese had begun surrender talks four days earlier. Gone were the fears of a costly invasion of the Japanese homeland. The war-weary nation exploded in a frenzy of joy and thanksgiving. It was V-J Day.

New York’s Times Square celebration with its half-million participants was replicated in miniature throughout Vermont that evening. In Rutland, thousands turned downtown into “a roaring sea of cheering people.” Waving flags, shouting, blowing horns and whistles, Vermonters sang, hugged and kissed each other. The pent up emotions of the long war and heavy sacrifice exploded in wild exuberance. Burlington, Barre, Springfield and Windsor residents turned out in large numbers as bedlam broke loose throughout Vermont and the nation.

Older residents noted that the wild celebration surpassed the emotions that had accompanied Armistice Day, 1918 at the end of World War I. Even V-E Day in May had been accepted with quiet thanksgiving as Americans realized that the end of the war in Europe gave the world only partial peace. Observances then were largely confined to schools and churches. In Fairlee, the children from the elementary school had walked to the monument in the park for a brief ceremony. In West Newbury, the church bell rang out an invitation to an evening service of thanksgiving.

Locally, V-J Day emotions ran the gamete from celebration to sadness. In Bradford, plans had been underway for several days to welcome peace. In the previous week’s edition of the United Opinion, businesses that would be closed on whatever day peace arrived were listed in bold print. Plans were underway for a community victory church service that would be held on “the evening of the announcement.” Wood was collected for a bonfire. But when peace came, it came in a wild “orgy of celebration.”

The Opinion’s front-page article described the celebration. “The fire siren kept up a continuous noise with the whistles of the Veneer Mill and Vermont Cooperative Creamery adding to the din. Later the two churches and the school added the ringing of the bells to the other noises of joyful observance. Impromptu parades were formed; the fire truck and apparatus, autos full of delirious citizens and a host of people on foot filled the Square and street to overflowing. A piano on a truck appeared and dancing was indulged in with Joyce Bowles at the piano, Gayle Carpenter playing the accordion and Dick Bowles his drum. Three caskets, donated by A.E. Hale, were burned with appropriate ceremony thus committing the three War Lords to their proper places. Fun waxes fast and furious for the remainder of the evening.”

In a recent interview, Dick Bowles recalled using his father’s coal truck to get the piano. Just 17, he said that he “kissed a girl or two that evening. We were having a ball; one of those all out things; wild in a good way.” He remembered that the war, with many local people involved, had “seemed like it went on forever.” And now it was over.

To the north in Woodsville and Wells River a similar spontaneous outpouring was taking place. Dean Rowden, 17 years old and owner of a Model T Ford, gave little thought to gas rationing as he joined “an endless parade of people and automobiles that snaked its way back and forth between the two communities.” He recalled that up to six locomotives added their steam whistles to the clamor from auto horns, mill whistles and church bells.

Smaller town centers experienced smaller but no less joyful celebrations. In Thetford Center, a group gathered at the Timothy Frost Methodist Church to ring the bell. A local columnist described it as follows: “The people of the town welcomed the surrender of Japan with ringing of the church and school bells, and by several people out ringing cow bells and blowing horns. James Hovey, 88 years old, was one who helped ring the church bell on Tuesday evening. With him was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Sperry, giving the oldest and the youngest the honor of ringing for victory.” (See photo)

To understand these reactions to peace, one needs only to understand our local contributions to the war effort. Hundreds of young men and women joined the services in numbers equal to that of the Civil War. Dozens would lose their lives. Many more left to work in war production down country.

Daily life on the home front was changed by a state of total war, with virtually every aspect of life affected. The prospects of peace meant the end of food and gas rationing, news censorship, the blackouts, the scrap and war bond drives and so many loved ones stationed far from home.

Not everyone joined the celebration. Many were isolated in rural locations and participated only at home listening to the radio news. “Coming to the village was not a regular thing,” Maxine Burgess of Bradford recalled.

Many savored the moment alone. Out in his fields, Harry Brainerd of Corinth recalls hearing the whistles from the mills and, knowing what they signaled, went on with his work.

His sister-in-law, Muriel Brainerd of Bradford along with her friend Dorothy Cole had husbands in the service and so while the end of the war was “a big relief,” the celebration was “bitter-sweet”. Both were part of the overflow congregation attending the victory service at the Grace United Methodist Church the following evening. Similar church services were held throughout the area as people raised their voices “in praise and thanksgiving.”

No less thankful were the millions of service personnel stationed away from home. In Europe, some fighting units had been packing for transfer to the Japanese invasion points. In the Pacific theatre, Marine divisions, like that of Rev. Steve Seminerio, now of East Haverhill, were scheduled to be in the first wave of the invasion. Having just participated in the bloody invasion of Okinawa, this young marine welcomed peace. “The end of the war saved my life,” he said recently.

Hopes for a lasting peace were everywhere. An editorial in the United Opinion suggested that in the joy and relief of peace the cost of the war not be forgotten nor the needs for “the great work of a constructive peace.”

In a letter that appeared on the front page of the April 27, 1945 edition a young Bradford paratrooper named Paul wrote to his Dad: “I don’t believe I’ll ever be one of those silent heroes because I don’t want people to forget what war is. So I’ve made a silent vow to myself to dedicate my life to make the peace gained from this war a lasting one. Nothing big, mind you, just what little I can do to keep Americans from slipping into an upholstered bit of complacency. It’s the least I can do for the real heroes, the guys who won’t be coming back…for everybody who gave life for what they believed was the cause.”

Joy was also tempered by introspection about the losses of the war. People were having difficulty in comprehending a conflict in which world-wide 59 million military personnel and civilians had lost their lives.

These numbers alone did not fully represent the human misery, deprivation, dislocation of peoples and the sheer physical destruction of property that the war involved. News censorship and enemy secrecy had hidden the totality of these impacts from the general public. The PBS series “The War” by Ken Burns, scheduled for September, will give viewers new insights into the impact of this conflict.

Author Earl Rickard suggests that “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.”

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