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The Happiest Day in American History

By Peter Carlson
1/5/2018 • American History Magazine

On V-J Day 65 years ago, a tsunami of sheer joy swept the nation and dwarfed any public celebration before or since.

The good news came over the United Press wire at 9:34 on Sunday night, August 12, 1945: “Flash— Washington— Japan accepts surrender terms of the Allies.” Immediately, an announcer interrupted the radio show Double or Nothing to tell America what it desperately wanted to hear—the war was over!

In towns and cities across the land, men and women cheered, kissed, hugged and ran into the streets, hollering, blowing horns, banging pots and pans.

“Free beer to everyone!” a Manhattan bartender bellowed as he rolled a barrel to the sidewalk. “The war’s over!”

But the war wasn’t over. At 9:36 p.m., a correction came over the wire: “Flash—editors—hold up on that flash.”

It wasn’t the first false report that World War II had ended, or the last. Ever since August 6, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Americans had waited anxiously for news of Japan’s surrender. The stakes were enormous. Surrender meant the end of the most horrific war in history, a conflict that killed 60 million people, including about 410,000 Americans. Continued resistance meant Allied forces would be compelled to invade Japan, at a cost of tens of thousands of casualties. For days premature peace announcements sent people scurrying to celebrate, only to slink away upon hearing the bad news that the good news was wrong.

“The Japanese surrender has been on and off more times than Gypsy Rose Lee’s favorite costume,” joked newspaper columnist Jack Tarver. Others were not so amused, including a psychiatrist who told the Chicago Tribune that the continued uncertainty “accentuated the emotional tension of the people.” Denver’s Rocky Mountain News ran a front-page headline: “Allies Getting Sore as Japs Stall on Peace.”

On Tuesday afternoon, August 14, some 200,000 people packed Times Square in New York City to stare hopefully at the Times Tower, where electric letters continually spelled out news bulletins. Across the continent, Mrs. David Murdoch sat in the office of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in a flowerprint dress, clutching a letter from her son Robert, who was a prisoner of the Japanese, and staring at the Associated Press ticker, eager for news of peace. “If it comes,” she said, “I’m gonna hit the ceiling.”

At the White House, reporters milled around, waiting, pacing, smoking. Shortly before 7 p.m., they were summoned to the president’s office, where Harry Truman sat at his desk in a double-breasted navy blue suit. At exactly 7:00, Truman began reading from the paper in his right hand. “I have received this afternoon a message from the Japanese government…”

Finally, it was true: The war was over. Reporters sprint- ed from the room, scram- bling for phones. Three minutes later, in Seattle, Mrs. Murdoch watched the news tap out of the AP ticker. “Official— Truman announces Japanese surrender.” She sat stunned for a moment, then leaped to her feet, throwing her hands in the air. “If they put him on a plane, he could be home in a week,” she said, smiling and sobbing simultaneously. “He could, couldn’t he?”

In Times Square, a WNYC radio announcer uttered the words “Japan accepts surrender terms,” and the crowd exploded in a collective scream that drowned out whatever he said next. The roar echoed from the canyons of skyscrapers, where people hung out windows tossing confetti on the folks below, who couldn’t stop kissing each other.

It was the happiest moment in American history, a spontaneous eruption of ecstasy, an outpouring of sheer joy that swept the continent. They called it V-J Day—Victory over Japan—and the public celebration dwarfed anything ever seen before or since. Two million people gathered in Times Square. Chicago and Philadelphia each hosted a million revelers and numerous other cities drew crowds in the hundreds of thousands. Coast to coast Americans took to the streets not to see politicians or celebrities—most cities had nothing scheduled—but simply to celebrate peace.

“Work immediately ceased. People just couldn’t contain themselves within four walls and they rushed shouting into the streets,” reported the Seattle Post Intelligencer. “Unashamedly, strangers hugged and kissed one another. Every – where they danced like dervishes and yelled like Sioux Indians.”

In Los Angeles, servicemen and civilians formed a conga line and sashayed down Hollywood Boulevard, singing “Hail, Hail, the Job’s All Done!”

In Chicago, two elderly women beating drums attracted a crowd that turned into a parade. A block away, six little girls dressed as drum majorettes led a burgeoning group of conga dancers and jitterbuggers.

In New Orleans, Melba Lusse—whose husband was stationed in the Philippines—grabbed a flag she’d mounted on a fishing pole and ran into the street, accompanied by her 8-year-old daughter, tooting on a tin horn, and her brother, carrying a bottle of Dixie beer. Within minutes, they were joined by dozens of other neighborhood families. “We started marching down Saint Roch Avenue,” Lusse later recalled, “just hollering and screaming, yelling and singing and blowing horns.”

In the Bronx, a crowd gathered outside a veterans hospital to applaud the wounded men who walked outside in pajamas and bathrobes.

In Dalton, Ga., mobs of pedestrians stopped traffic but police lieutenant W.A. Britton didn’t even try to restore order. “Everybody is joyfully happy, rousingly happy,” he said.

“We watched a soldier and a sailor dance on top of a moving car,” the Honolulu Advertiser reported. “Sailors piggybacked on each other, sun-browned Hawaiian kids piggy-backed on sailors, and a gang of four barefoot youngsters came from nowhere, holding crab nets and bamboo fishing poles and dashed into the parade on Alakea St.”

In Washington, D.C., 75,000 people gathered outside the White House chanting, “We want Harry! We want Harry!” Smiling, the president and his wife, Bess, strolled to the front porch and waved. “This is a great day,” Truman proclaimed, “the day we’ve been waiting for since December 7, 1941.” Across America, people used anything available to make as much noise as possible. “The air raid sirens sounded first. Then automobile horns, factory whistles and ships whistles—and church bells,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle. “Anything that could make a noise was blown or pounded or beaten.” Housewives banged pots and pans. Children whacked the lids of garbage cans together like cymbals. Drivers tied tin cans behind their cars and cruised around honking their horns.

In Chinatowns across the country, firecrackers rattled like machine guns. At the Boston Navy Yard, workers pounded their tools on their workbenches. In Jenkintown, Pa., police chief Frank Sweeney pushed the siren button on his desk and kept it wailing for 12 solid minutes. “I’m happy, people!” he explained. “Gotta let everybody know what’s up.”

In Honolulu, jubilation in the streets drowned out deliberations of the Board of Supervisors. “Bill No. 9 passed third reading,” the Advertiser reported, “but as the din got so loud that words became unintelligible, it was decided to defer bill No. 10, relating to the construction, reconstruction and repair of sidewalks.”

Everywhere, oceans of alcohol were consumed. In New York, bartenders poured free drinks for servicemen. In Boston’s North End, women set up tables and served free wine. “On the streets it seemed that everyone had a bottle,” the Boston Globe reported. “And these bottles were freely handed around among persons who were total strangers a moment before.”

In Norfolk, Va., two sailors jettisoned their uniform pants and danced through the streets in their skivvies. In San Francisco, two naked, tipsy women plunged into a pond outside a service men’s dormitory and delighted the soldiers by frolicking like mermaids.

Amid even the most raucous crowds, though, people dropped to their knees to give thanks. “The worshipful prayed and celebrators frolicked,” the PostIntelligencer reported, “and neither group criticized the other.”

“Many who lost brothers or husbands or sons in the war,” the Chronicle noted, “found the void was somehow less if they joined the parading and shouting.”

Newspapers rushed to publish special celebratory editions, many proclaiming “PEACE” in the hugest headline possible. “We couldn’t find type big  enough,” Walter Cowan, a reporter for the New Orleans States, later recalled. “Our biggest type was 96-point, and we wanted at least 120. So the letters had to be drawn by hand by the artist. Oh, she gloried in drawing those letters.”

“Boy, let me have one of those joy sheets,” an Atlanta woman yelled to a newsboy hawking an extra.

The newsboys easily sold papers in crowds of euphoric celebrants. Many of those newspapers were saved in attics for decades; others were immediately torn to pieces and thrown into the air, mingling with the blizzard of confetti falling from every tall building.

“Tons of confetti and torn paper showered down on the crowd,” the Atlanta Constitution reported. “Girls wore some of it fetchingly in their hair.”

In New York, stock traders buried Wall Street in ticker tape and in the Garment District, workers threw a rainbow of cloth on happy crowds. In Washington, clerks in the National Press Building hurled teletype paper out windows while women in a fourth-floor beauty parlor sprinkled the crowd with face powder that smelled like carnations.

“Among the paper products torn up and tossed from office building windows,” wrote Seattle columnist Douglass Welch, “was one product which is in notoriously short supply, and which will be in even worse supply tomorrow.” As Welch’s readers understood, he was alluding to toilet paper, a precious commodity in wartime America.

Beyond the noise, booze and confetti, what amazed most people on V-J Day was the unprecedented orgy of public smooching. “Servicemen kissed their girls and then they kissed somebody else’s girls,” reported the Rocky Mountain News, “and pretty soon everybody was kissing everybody else and nobody was complaining.”

In Chicago, 30 sailors formed a line at the corner of State and Madison, kissing every woman who passed. In Los Angeles, a wounded soldier named Edgar Buckingham wore his Purple Heart and leaned on his cane as he wandered Hollywood Boulevard, kissing women sitting in cars immobilized by the crowd. In New Orleans, Helen Dunn, who wasn’t raised to kiss strangers, managed to dodge the smooching sailors—at least for a while. “I dodged about ten sailors. I was so proud of myself,” she recalled decades later. “And then I turned around, and this sailor came up behind me and gave me the best kiss. A real cute little sailor. It was a good one. And then he disappeared.”

“We’ve seen some fancy public smooching in our time, but nothing like what happened all over downtown Seattle last night,” Welch wrote. “At precisely 6:14 p.m., a sailor kissed a girl for what seemed like two minutes straight. It couldn’t have been, though, they couldn’t have held their breath that long….An admiring throng gathered around and applauded noisily.”

Amid the smooching and celebrating, newspaper reporters asked people how they felt about the end of the war. “I’m just thankful,” said Nora Doherty of Seattle, mother of a Marine on Okinawa. “You don’t know what this means to me. My boy is safe.”

“It’s wonderful, perfectly wonderful,” said George Petersen, 31, a wounded soldier recuperating in a Chicago hospital, as he hugged his wife and 2-year-old son. “Now we will be able to be together again like we used to be.”

“I’m mighty happy it’s over and I’m going home,” said Corporal Sam Holland of Louisville, Ala. “I’ve sorta got a girl in mind right now.”

“Thank God it’s over,” said Ethel Duncan, a Seattle housewife with three sons in the service. “I’m sorry for all the lives that have been lost. ”

“I’m tickled pink,” said Sergeant Willard Johnson of Bremen, Ga. “I was in Europe but I know what these boys in the Pacific are feeling now.” Then he added this: “Boy, now I can go fishing.”

Overseas, reactions among America’s fighting men ranged from weary relief to delirious joy. On Guam, news of the surrender blared from loudspeakers mounted on palm trees, and GIs responded with shouts of “Let’s go home!” On Okinawa, the Marines who’d fought the horrific battle for that island were more subdued. “We received the news with quiet disbelief coupled with an indescribable sense of relief,” Eugene B. Sledge wrote in With the Old Breed. “Except for a few widely scattered shouts of joy, the survivors of the abyss sat holloweyed and silent, trying to comprehend a world without war.”

In a Japanese POW camp near Nagasaki, the 1,900 prisoners were too stunned to cheer. “Nobody said a damn word,” Anton Bilek, one of the American prisoners, later recalled. “It was quiet, quiet, just the shuffling of feet. I went behind the first barracks there and I bawled like a baby. It took a couple hours, then the guys started yelling and beating one another on the back.”

In Europe, where the war had ended in May, GIs were thrilled to hear that they wouldn’t have to fight in Japan. “I remember the fantastic joy that everybody had—and also the relief,” said Joseph Jeffs, who was a U.S. Army staff sergeant in Biarritz, France, on V-J Day. “The whole town turned out. Everyone was dancing in the streets. It was just a total letting go of everything.”

In Naples that day, the Andrews Sisters, a popular American musical trio, played a USO show for thousands of morose soldiers waiting to be shipped to the Pacific. From backstage, somebody passed a note to Patty Andrews and she read out the news—Japan surrenders! There was no reaction. Maybe the soldiers thought it was a gag, or maybe they were simply stunned. “This is the end!” Patty repeated, tears running down her face. “This is the end!”

“Suddenly, all hell broke lose,” Maxine Andrews later recalled. “Those GIs yelled and screamed. We saw a pair of pants and a shirt come down from the rafters, where men were crammed together above the stage, followed by a human being. He fell on the guys sitting in the audience, but he didn’t care and neither did his human cushions.”

Back home in American cities, the celebrations continued until the booze ran out or the revelers staggered home or simply passed out. Some were still partying when the sun rose on August 15, the day after V-J Day.

Across the country, shops were shut and streets were deserted, except for glum, overworked street sweepers. Hung over people read newspapers with surreal headlines. “Joyous Bedlam Loosed in City,” screamed the Chicago Tribune, while the Rocky Mountain News proclaimed: “Downtown Denver Is Screaming Mass of Happy People.”

Journalists accustomed to reporting war, death and tragedy struggled to describe the outbreak of ecstasy. “An orgy of joy,” the Atlanta Constitution called it. “A joyous madhouse,” said the Boston Globe. “The wildest, noisiest, most joyous celebration this old city has ever seen,” proclaimed the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“If you want a rough idea of what it was like,” wrote the tabloid poets of the New York Daily News, “take New Year’s Eve at Times Square, an old-time mining camp on pay night, Brooklyn the day the Dodgers last copped the pennant, and throw ’em all together.”

Newspaper hyperbole generally has a short shelf-life, but the superlatives describing V-J Day have endured. No public celebration in the ensuing 65 years has surpassed V-J Day, either in simple numbers or in sheer ecstasy. And perhaps we should hope that no celebration ever exceeds it, simply because such an outburst of mass mirth can probably come only in the aftermath of years of mass slaughter.

The next night, crowds returned to the scenes of celebration, hoping to recapture the magic. There was plenty of drinking and kissing but somehow it wasn’t the same. As the New York Times put it, “The spark was gone.”

Euphoria is glorious but tough to sustain. Soon the confetti had all been swept away, and nobody considered throwing ticker tape out windows or banging pots and pans or kissing strangers. It all seemed like a strange dream.

But it wasn’t over, not really. For months, soldiers and sailors came home to spouses and sweethearts, and they celebrated the end of the war with their own private V-J Days. These were quiet celebrations and no newspapers covered them, but their impact was enormous: They produced an unprecedented peace dividend—the population explosion now known as the Baby Boom.

 

Peter Carlson writes our Encounter column. His latest book, K Blows Top, will be released in paperback in July.

Originally published in the August 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here

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