Seventy-five years ago today, the bloodiest war in human history came to a formal end. A war that began in surprise with bombs ended with the highly choreographed stroke of a pen.
History, we are reminded every day, is complicated and the end of World War II is no different.
Great Britain marks Victory Over Japan Day on August 15, the date that Japan announced it would surrender. The United States marks V-J Day on September 2, the date that the surrender documents were signed aboard the USS Missouri.
All the images we remember from the war’s end — the iconic photo of the sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square — came amid the wild celebrations that erupted nationwide on August 15. Even that memory is wrong: It was later established that the woman being kissed wasn’t a nurse, she was wearing the white uniform of a dental assistant, and the kiss was decidedly non-consensual.
On August 15, Roanoke and other communities shut down for two days of celebrations. Under long-established plans, ABC stores stopped selling liquor as soon as the Japanese announced their intention to surrender. People swarmed downtown bearing “articles of every description — anything that would produce a noise, no matter what kind,” according to The Roanoke Times. “Old pans and buckets” were especially popular. “The celebration resembled a Halloween observance more than it did a victory demonstration,” the paper reported. A parade was quickly formed — plans had been laid well in advance. That night, 10,000 people gathered in Victory Stadium to hear Rep. Clifton Woodrum – and Judge J. Lindsay Almond, a future governor. Others crowded into churches.
By contrast, the actual surrender day passed quietly. The ceremony — which came shortly after 9 a.m. Sept. 2 in Tokyo Bay — was broadcast in the U.S. at 9:30 p.m. Eastern on Sept. 1, a Saturday night. To judge from old copies of The Roanoke Times and The Roanoke World-News, the next day was almost like any other. The Virginia Tech band — the VPI band in the parlance of the times — played a Sunday afternoon concert in Victory Stadium. That was the only public ceremony and that seemed typical. In New York, Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia called off the city’s planned celebrations “when public apathy to the observance became apparent.” In Texas, Dallas officials confessed they had “plumb forgotten it was V-J Day.”
In Roanoke, city manager W.P. Hunter expressed hope that the Labor Day weekend would help replenish the city’s water supply that had been diminished by a drought. The minor league Roanoke Red Sox played the Lynchburg Cardinals, winning 10-2 on the road. Lynchburg catcher Philip Cogswell was knocked unconscious during a collision at the plate; it may have been the last game he ever played. Minor league records show that was the final season of his career. In Lee County, “the Stone Creek faith healers” held their final revival of the summer. State police had raided earlier revivals to seize their snakes so this event was not advertised in advance. The United Press reported that a minister from Kentucky “was the only casualty. He was bitten by a large Copperhead which was supposedly extra vicious after having just given birth to four young ones.”
With the hindsight of history — dare we say 20/20 hindsight? — it’s clear that some of the items in those 75-year-old newspapers are more important than they appeared at the time. The big movie that weekend was “Back to Bataan” starring John Wayne. What movie-goers didn’t know was the filming of that movie gave Wayne his first exposure to a Hollywood director who expressed support for communism. The great Red Scare was coming. In the years to come, director Edward Dmytryk would both get nominated for an Oscar — and blacklisted for his political views. He would spend time behind bars for refusing to testify to Congress, rehabilitate his career and go on to make “The Caine Mutiny,” a movie praised this year by President Trump. The threads of history are long and intertwined.
In a business brief, Ford Motor Company announced that Labor Day weekend in 1945 that with the war’s end it would “sharply increase” auto production. The suburbs and interstate highways were coming. The post-war manufacturing glory of America was coming, too. “DU PONT HAS A JOB FOR YOU,” blared an advertisement. In smaller print: “In Richmond, Virginia. No experience necessary.” Those were the days when even unskilled workers could earn a good living. Those days are no more, and we’re still wrestling with that transition from the industrial age to a post-industrial one.
Another ad pitched: “ALASKA FACTS” along with questions such as “How can I get a job in Alaska?” and “Is Alaska really a place to get rich quickly?” The ad promised that those questions and many others would be answered with a subscription to Alaska Life Magazine. The U.S. flag then had 48 stars. The next year, Alaskans would vote in favor of statehood, setting off a campaign that would add two more states — and two more stars — in 1959.
A small news story reported eight new polio cases in Virginia, bringing the year’s total to 198. That was a virus that had crippled a president and filled parents with dread. Polio would get worse before it got better. In the early 1950s, polio cases in the United States would more than double — from a typical 20,000 a year to 58,000 in 1952. Wytheville would become the epicenter of a one outbreak. Ten years after that routine notice about polio cases the world would be changed by Jonas Salk and his vaccine. Today polio is virtually — but not entirely — eliminated, with cases still popping up in Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rotary Clubs continue to raise money to get more people vaccinated.
The Roanoke newspapers that day depicted a community that appeared to be entirely white, except for a single sentence: The Durham Red Sox and the Greensboro Black Byrons — “two of North Carolina’s ranking Negro baseball clubs” — were set to play in Washington Park on Labor Day. What went unreported — because it was unknown at the time — was that six days before Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey spent three hours grilling Jackie Robinson to see if he could withstand the pressure of being the first Black player in the majors. He could, and later did.
Seventy-five years ago today, World War II formally ended. Seventy-five years ago today, the post-war era had already begun.
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