How Nations Around the World Reacted to V-J Day, the end of World War II.
Facts and Summary: Facts and Summary of V-J Day, also written VJ Day, stands for Victory Over Japan or Victory in Japan. V-J Day has sometimes been applied to August 14—the day Japan announced it would surrender unconditionally—but usually refers to August 15—the first day of a two-day celebration in 1945—or to September 2, the day the official instruments of surrender were signed in Tokyo Harbor. In Australia, August 16, 1945, was celebrated as Victory in the Pacific, or VP Day; today, VP Day is observed on August 15, the day Australians learned the Japanese had surrendered. In Korea, August 15 is known as Liberation Day or Independence Day or simply the Fifteenth of August because it marked the end of Japanese control of that country, which had begun in 1910.
In the United States, President Harry S Truman changed the name to Victory Day in 1946 when he referred to it as such in Proclamation 2698, calling for a day of solemn commemoration and a day “of prayer and high resolve that the cause of justice, freedom, peace, and international good-will shall be advanced.” Decades later, after Japan had become an important trading partner and ally of the United States, the name “Victory Day” came to be preferred by those who did not want to embarrass the citizens of modern Japan. In the US today, only the State of Rhode Island observes V-J Day/ Victory Day with a holiday, closing state and municipal offices on the second Monday in August.
On May 8, 1945, (May 9 in the USSR and New Zealand) the Allied nations had celebrated V-E Day, Victory in Europe, the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies. While V-E Day saw joyous celebrations around the world, the knowledge that the war against Japan still had to be one was a cloud hovering over the V-E festivities. No such cloud cast a shadow over V-J Day.
Prelude to Victory Over Japan
Japan had been at war with China since 1937 and at war with the United States, British Commonwealth, and the Netherlands since December 1941. (Resistance groups in Japanese-occupied territories also fought against their occupiers, and Mexico sent a fighter squadron that was attached to the 58th Fighter Group, US Army Air Forces.) The Second World War in the Pacific and Asia was particularly brutal, often take-no-prisoners affair on both sides. Combat intensity only increased in the final months of the war as Allied forces, primarily American, came closer and closer to the Japanese home islands.
On Peleliu (September 15–November 27, 1944) only 33 of approximately 6,000 Japanese on the island were taken alive; American casualties were nearly 10,000, over 1,600 of them killed in action. On Luzon in The Philippines (October 20, 1944—August 15, 1945) some 205,000 Japanese were killed; US fatalities were over 8,300; an estimated 100,000 civilians died in the battle for the city of Manila. The Battle of Iwo Jima (February 19–March 26, 1945) cost 6,500 American dead and another 20,000 wounded. (Twenty-two Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines, four to Navy corpsmen and one to a Navy officer for actions on Iwo Jima, one-third of all Medals of Honor awarded to the Marine Corps during WWII.) Between 95,000 and 100,000 Japanese died; only 300 were taken prisoner.
Then came Okinawa (March–June 1945). Some 107,000 Japanese and Okinawans, military and civilian, died in the struggle; women threw their babies off cliffs into the sea and then jumped themselves because they had been led to believe, falsely, that the Americans would torture them. The US Army suffered approximately 50,000 killed and wounded. The Marine Corps accounted for about 17,000 more. In the waters offshore, nearly 10,000 Navy personnel were killed or wounded, most of them victims of a new Japanese tactic—kamikazes, suicide pilots following orders to dive their bomb-laden planes into US and British ships.
These intense, costly struggles led an American journalist to predict an invasion of the Japanese home islands would cost 1,000,000 Allied casualties. American military planners anticipated about one-third that amount, still a very high cost. All Allied service personnel and the people back home feared how bloody the campaign would be. Combat veterans from the war in Europe awaited orders to transfer to the Pacific.
The invasion became unnecessary after American B-29s dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima on August 6 and another on Nagasaki on August 9, largely obliterating those cities. The same day the bomb fell on Nagasaki the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, keeping with its promise to enter the Asian war three months after the defeat of Germany. Faced with these deadly new weapons and insurmountable odds, Japan’s emperor, Hirohito, announced on August 14 that he would accept the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender.
V-J Day celebrations, August 15, 1945
Rumors of Japan’s surrender had been circulating among the Home Front in the Allied nations, and some premature spontaneous celebrations had taken place over the previous days. On August 14, crowds anxiously awaited some official word that the latest rumor of Japanese surrender was true. In New York City the scrolling news feed on the outside of the Times Tower announced at 7:03 p.m., OFFICIAL – TRUMAN ANNOUNCES JAPANESE SURRENDER, setting off a roar from a crowd estimated at two million. In the nation’s capital, crowds danced on the lawn of the White House and chanted, “We want Harry.” Finally, President Harry S Truman stepped out and proclaimed, “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.” In Leyte Gulf, off the Philippines, and at naval bases across the Pacific pyrotechnic flares were fired in celebration. In Toronto’s Chinatown, as in Chinatowns in the US and elsewhere, joyous celebrations broke out amid the smoke from fireworks.
In Great Britain, Prime Minister Clement Atlee broadcast news of the surrender at midnight, saying, “The last of our enemies is laid low.” He expressed gratitude to Britain’s Commonwealth allies, as well as those from all countries occupied by Japan who had fought against the imperial aggressor, and to the USSR. The prime minister reserved special thanks for the United States, “without whose prodigious efforts the war in the East would still have many years to run.”
In Australia, on the other side of the International Date Line, it was mid-morning of August 15 when Prime Minister Ben Chifley announced over the radio that Japan had surrendered. Australians danced in the streets; traffic came to a halt; piles of shredded paper tossed from windows were so deep in places that they looked like snow. A narrator of a newsreel shot during the revelries summed up the crowded streets with a joke: “As one sardine said to the other, ‘How would you like to be people?'” The spontaneous celebrations of the 15th gave way on the 16th to formal events that had been planned in advance and were only awaited the hoped-for word: Peace. Among the Chinese immigrants and their descendants in Australia, the day was called VC Day (Victory in China). Australian soldiers helped them parade a ceremonial dragon through the streets.
On New Zealand, sirens sounded immediately when the glorious news was announced around 11 a.m. Soon, bands played and people danced in the streets although it was a wet and windy day, but public regulations kept the spontaneous outpourings to a manageable level. Over 11, 600 New Zealanders had given their lives fighting in the war. Given the island nation’s small population, this represented the highest per capita casualties in the British Commonwealth.
In China, where the war had been going on the longest, celebrations were often more subdued. One Chinese who had been a schoolchild on August 15 recalled that students were called out of their classrooms for an emergency assembly on the playground by the flagpole. Their principal raised China’s “White Sun and Blue Sky” flag and sang the national anthem. The students were informed Japan had surrendered and China was now one of the “Four Great Powers” of the world.
In Korea, the Korean National Anthem was played and sung in the streets, and reportedly Japanese “Rising Sun” flags were repainted to resemble the Taegeukgi, the Korean flag. In many communities the Bonganjeon, the shine containing the Japanese emperor’s picture, was destroyed. Arrangements were made to free Korean independence activists from prison.
In the USSR, the war against Germany, “the Great Patriotic War,” had been the great moment of the war, and observations of the end of the war against Japan were minor compared to the celebrations the previous May.
V-J Day Celebrations Turn Violent
Throughout most Allied nations, a two-day holiday was declared, August 15 and 16. In some places, the raucous celebrations turned joy to tragedy. In Canada—a nation that had declared war on Japan following the Pearl Harbor bombing even before the US did—mobs caused $40,000 damage in Sudbury, Ontario, breaking windows and looting stores. In San Francisco, California, sidewalk booths where war bonds had been sold were torn apart and used to build bonfires in the streets. Vandalism, looting and sexual assaults cast a dark pall over the city’s joy. A crowd on Market Street overturned vehicles, wrecked streetcars and took over the street for several hours until military and civilian police drove them out. What had begun as a celebration had become the deadliest riot in San Francisco’s history. Over three days 11 people were killed and over 1,000 injured.
The Losers on V-J Day
Apart from those harmed in some places by riots, V-J Day had its losers as well as its winners. In Imperial Japan, when Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, in his first-ever radio address, informed the nation of his decision to accept the terms of the Allies and end the war (his speech included the phrase, “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”; he never specifically said Japan was surrendering or that the war was lost), many of his people fell to the ground in grief—but many were happy that bombs would no longer be falling on their nation and that their young men would no longer be shipped overseas never to be heard from again. More than 300 Army and 50 Navy personnel are believed to have committed suicide following the emperor’s decision to surrender.
In the United States and Canada, citizens of Japanese descent had been stripped of their rights and property and sent to spend the war in internment camps. The end of the war meant their imprisonment would be ending, but they faced the task of rebuilding their lives. (In Britain, thousands of German, Austrian and Italian immigrants were also incarcerated in interment camps, many of them sent to Canada and Australia.)
V-J Day, September 2, 1945
In the outpourings of ecstasy over the news of Japan’s surrender, most people tuned out what leaders such as US President Harry Truman and King George VI of England were saying: the surrender wasn’t official yet. No documents had been signed between the belligerents. American and British fleets in the Pacific remained on high vigilance, and their warplanes maintained flights over the Japanese islands to monitor activity.
The official end of World War II didn’t come until September 2, when representatives of Japan and the Allies met aboard the battleship USS Missouri. Thus, September 2 was the day President Truman declared to be V-J Day. He did not call for a holiday, noting the two days of work stoppage and celebrations in mid-August.
As it turned out, those two days of the outpouring of pent-up fear and war weariness had satiated the victorious nations. The New York Times said of the September 2 V-J Day, “Times Square shrugs.” The Chicago Tribune wrote, “According to the newspapers, President Truman and future history, this is V-J day, but no one could find the slightest evidence of that in London … as far as England is concerned this is the weekend, and mere thing like the ending of World war (sic) cannot be expected to interfere. There were services in the churches and editorials in the newspapers, but that was all.”
Wartime rationing had been lifted, so gasoline and rubber for tires was readily available again, and the Labor Day weekend in the US saw highway traffic that was close to the levels of 1941, the last Labor Day holiday before America entered the war.
Troubles on the Horizon as World War II Ends
Even during the giddy first weeks of peace, controversies and warning signs of future problems hovered like darkening thunderheads on the bright horizon. Reverend C. C. Thicknesses, dean of St. Albans’ near London, England, banned a V-J thanksgiving service in the abbey to protest the use of atomic bombs. The threat posed by nuclear devices concerned many around the world, even among those who approved of their use to end the war without invading Japan. When the Soviet Union, wartime ally of America and Britain, developed its own A-bomb, the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over the world during the Cold War between the communist East and the republics of the West that followed close on the heels of the end of World War II.
Apart from the nuclear threat and the fear of brinksmanship between East and West, there were other matters threatening to cause unrest in the world. An Australian newspaper of September 3 noted that a proposal to open the country to immigration “by a limited number of colored people” had been resurrected by Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne. The idea had also been raised following the First World War but had been abandoned among the howl of protests, and the newspaper did not support the archbishop’s proposal, citing in part the problems between blacks and whites trying to coexist in the US.
In the United States, black soldiers, sailors and airmen who had fought for their country returned to find the same racial barriers were still in place that had existed before the war.
In China the war against the Japanese invaders was fought by two internal forces, those of President Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang government and the communist forces of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung). The two groups had fought each other as much as they fought the Japanese. On September 3, Chiang Kai-shek’s radio broadcast called for national unity and promised to lift wartime censorship of the press and “promulgate a law to facilitate political assembly and organisation so that the people may have freedom of association and all political parties may enjoy the same legalised status. Only thus can we tread the path of democracy traversed by the United States and Great Britain and establish a model democratic state in the Far East.”
Mao wasn’t impressed. Two days later he demanded, “The people’s democratic self-government in all the Liberated Areas should be recognized; the Central Government should not appoint and send out local officials.” Otherwise, he said, civil war could not be averted.
South of the Chinese border, in the area of Vietnam in French Indochina the Central Committee of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) decided on August 13 to lead the population in a general uprising against their French colonial masters while the French were still regrouping from the war. On August 20 Viet Minh forces seized power in Hanoi, and soon British and Japanese troops who had been shooting at each other joined together to fight the communists in Indochina until the French could arrive to reclaim their territory. It was the beginning of a bloody struggle that would not end until 1975.
Remembering V-J Day
V-J Day, under whatever name, should be remembered primarily as a day of great joy and hope worldwide. Continuation of the fighting would have meant hundreds of thousands of deaths for both the Allies and the Japanese. The largest war in history had been concluded and some aggressive dictatorships’ dreams of domination shattered. King George VI said in a radio broadcast from Buckingham Palace on August 15, 1945, “Our hearts are full to overflowing, as are your own. Yet there is not one of us who has experienced this terrible war who does not realise that we shall feel its inevitable consequences long after we have all forgotten our rejoicings today.”