I had just turned 3 when World War II ended on Aug. 14, 1945, a hugely important moment in human history that was often referred to during and after the war as “V-J Day,” shorthand for “Victory over Japan Day.”
So I can’t tell you first-hand about the how the news was received.
Not only was I way below the age of memory, I lived in a bucolic college Vermont town, where, if there had been a wild and crazy celebration, it couldn’t have been too wild and crazy, since there were only about 3,000 of us around at the time and some were my age.
It wasn’t until I moved to Rhode Island a couple of decades later that I began to learn the significance of Victory Day, which is a holiday in Rhode Island, but nowhere else in the country, one of the reasons that it remains a matter of contention, which I hope will always be the case.
My appreciation of the holiday was acquired second-hand, by way of employment – as a reporter for the Providence Journal. The newspaper believed one of its missions was to keep its readers informed about the finer details of their strange August holiday.
Sometimes, the paper would decide just to tell people that state and local governments would be closed on the second Monday of August, but that the mail would arrive as usual; stores and businesses generally would be open; and that some people wouldn’t be working, but sadly, many would be.
Other times, the paper would get into the substance of the holiday, namely the “why” of Victory Day, which, of course, was and is the contentious part.
Why should a state continue to officially observe a holiday that many people, including citizens and businesses of Japanese backgrounds, see as blatantly anti-Japanese?
And why not? Why not celebrate “victory” in a conflict that saved the United States, something that wasn’t guaranteed when the U. S. entered the war in 1941?
In some years, the paper’s editors assigned a junior staffer – me – to jump into the newspaper’s Way Back Machine, to find out what was happening on the day itself in 1945.
One of the most profound of those assignments was very specific: I was to get hold of some veterans, people who had actually been in the Navy, Army or Marines and ask them “What were you doing on V-J Day, also known as Victory Day?”
An Army man, who had been in the European phase of the war, said the war for him ended on V-E Day (Victory in Europe) months earlier, on May 8. But on now, on V-J Day, he happened be returning home to Rhode Island, and he stepped off a train in downtown Providence, which indeed was going wild and crazy at the news. But weary of the war, the soldier just shrugged when he saw ongoing street celebration and continued on his way home.
A second man told me he was on a troop ship that had recently left a port in California to cross the Pacific Ocean en route to the planned invasion of Japan. Suddenly, the ship made a U-turn and headed back to the U. S.
A third man said he was in a prisoner-of-war camp in the mountains of Japan, where he and others had recently noticed an unusual haze. A few days later, American forces arrived to liberate him and the other POWs. He later wondered whether the mysterious haze had been the aftereffects of one or both of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima on Aug. 6, and then Nagasaki on Aug. 9.
In the course of another assignment, I learned why Rhode Island stubbornly hung onto the Victory Day holiday (it was never officially called V-J Day), even when other states abandoned the observance.
The late Albert T. Klyberg, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Society, said Rhode Island was deeply immersed in World War II. One-tenth of its population – 100,000 Rhode Islanders – was in one of the military services. The state’s factories and shipyards churned out torpedoes, Liberty cargo and troop ships and fast-moving PT boats; the state’s coast was heavily fortified, in addition to serving as home base to fleets of destroyers and other warships.
So the joy that day was not just that of victory, but of relief, that the horror was at its end.
Another year, I interviewed the state’s most decorated war hero, Harry Kizirian, who after the war, served as the Providence postmaster. Kizirian’s battlefield exploits earned him terrible wounds, two Purple Hearts and the Navy Cross and Bronze Star. Kizirian was on Guam with his Marine unit, waiting to ship out for Japan, when the news of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings came over a loudspeaker strung from a coconut tree. Meaning Kizirian would be going not to Japan, but home.
Now, decades later, Kizirian told me: “I don’t believe in the atom bomb. Disaster can be done. We can wipe out the entire universe. We have to get away from this weapon of war.”
Kizirian, who died in 2002, had both lived history and cared deeply about it. He thought Victory Day would help us remember the way the war started, Dec. 7, 1941, with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and how it ended on Aug. 14, 1945, shortly after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, at a cost of up to a quarter million Japanese lives, most of them civilians.
“The new generation should know history, on both sides,” Harry Kizirian said, “so they can prevent another conflict, remember what happened.”
So Victory Day remains a special holiday. It’s just not as one of those days on which you wish someone “Happy Victory Day.”