All Over The Map: V-J Day 75th Anniversary

Aug 14, 2020, 9:46 AM | Updated: 10:07 am
V-J Day...
When Seattleites celebrated V-J Day on August 14, 1945 – marking victory over Japan and the end of World War II – it was one of the biggest impromptu parties downtown has ever seen. (MOHAI)

It was just after 4 p.m. on the West Coast on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 1945, when word came that Japan had accepted Allied terms for unconditional surrender. “V-J Day” – for victory in Japan – was official. World War II was over.

President Harry Truman broke the news to reporters in the White House who scrambled to get copy written for newspaper “extras” and for special broadcasts on the big radio networks.

“I have received this afternoon a message from the Japanese government in reply to the message forwarded to that governance by the Secretary of State on August 11,” Truman said, as captured by newsreel photographers. “I deem this reply a full acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, which specifies the unconditional surrender of Japan in the reply. There is no qualification.”

News of the war’s end was the biggest headline in a year of mammoth events. President Roosevelt had died in April, three months into his fourth term. Then, Hitler committed suicide, and Germany surrendered in May – that was “V-E Day” – for victory in Europe. V-E Day was observed here, but without much in the way of significant public celebrations. The war in Japan still loomed.

Then, a few days earlier that August, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and the existence of the massive project not far away in Hanford had been revealed.

Almost instantly on that long-ago August afternoon, huge street parties broke out around the United States, including in Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, and other communities around Washington — not unlike what happened when World War I ended in 1918. Nearly everyone had relatives or friends fighting overseas, and the effects of the war were felt on the homefront, too – in the form of shortages, rationing, blackouts and massive social change. Demographics shifted as rural residents migrated to urban areas for defense plant jobs, and women everywhere went to work in factories and other jobs typically filled by men.

Before President Truman spoke, there had been a few false alarms, including late the night before, and people had poured into the streets then, too. But on Tuesday, Aug. 14, just after 4 p.m., when Seattle’s 71 air raid sirens went off in pre-arranged fashion, everyone knew that this official signal meant that the war was really over and it was time to celebrate.

The iconic photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in New York City’s Times Square might have been seen by more people over the years, but Seattleites can look back with hometown pride at several minutes of silent film shot on the streets here on V-J Day by the U.S. Navy.

Also in the Seattle V-J Day history media collection is at least one commercially produced newsreel. This narrated glimpse to that glorious day 75 years ago includes our own sailor kissing a woman.

“Seattle let loose all the pent-up emotions of three years and eight months of war, and to the victors go the spoils,” the narrator says. “The pose may not be dignified, but the young lady is not the least upset. Peace is wonderful.”

In what appears to be a consensual act, while the first sailor and woman are kissing, a second sailor lifts the woman partially off the Seattle sidewalk and into the air by her ankles. Why didn’t that iconic image make the cover of LIFE magazine?

The impromptu party in Seattle was centered in what in those days was called the “Central Business District” – around 4th Avenue and Pike Street – at the south end of what’s now Westlake Park. Celebrations stretched south to Victory Square, where the temporary monument to war dead had stood since 1942, on University Street between 4th Avenue and 5th Avenue.

Since it was Seattle, a few windows of shops were of course broken – which was not a first for wartime gatherings in the city. To the south, San Francisco had a much larger event, with a lot more violence and property destruction. As many as 12 people were dead in that California city when it was all over.

For the aftermath of V-J Day, an official two-day holiday was declared by Governor Mon Wallgren for all of Washington state on Wednesday, Aug. 15, and Thursday, Aug. 16. Work came to a halt at Boeing, the shipyards, and pretty much everywhere else – though many workers grumbled because not everyone got paid time off for the two days of frolic.

Most businesses were closed on Wednesday, Aug. 15 – all stores, all taverns, all production lines, all government offices. On Thursday, some food stores opened up again, but other regular businesses – including department stores and taverns – didn’t start serving customers again until the morning of Friday, Aug. 17.

And it was that Friday night at 6 p.m. when those Truman-riffing, sailor-kissing newsreels of V-J Day festivities began showing in local movie theaters.

After that, it was all about the peace yet to come, and what was called “reconversion” – where the factories that before the war had made refrigerators and during the war made bazookas, would start making refrigerators again.

The Cold War was just over the horizon, along with all the challenges of adjusting to a modern world and new concepts and institutions such as NATO, the Iron Curtain, and the United Nations.

But all that stuff could wait for at least a few festive, nurse-kissing days in the middle of August.

Formal surrender of Japan took place on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 2, in Tokyo Bay. The proceedings were broadcast live and carried by KIRO beginning at 5 p.m. Pacific Time, where it was still the evening of Sept. 1.

As General Douglas MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri – a ship chosen for this role in honor of the home state of President Truman – it had been exactly six years since the Nazis had invaded Poland and World War II had begun.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: V-J Day 75th Anniversary