Victory at Last: Oregon Celebrates the Final Acts of the War
Nervous Anticipation Yields to Joyous Bedlam
Several months separated the Allied victories over Germany and Japan in 1945. Following the collapse of the Nazi forces in May 1945, the Allies, led by the United States and Great Britain, turned their attention to the defeat of Japan and the final act of the war. Based on the refusal of Japanese defenders on western Pacific islands to surrender and the suicide tactics of kamikaze pilots, many experts predicted a long string of gruesome battles similar to those fought on Iwo Jima. Some thought that the war could continue for more than a year and cost tens of thousands of American lives to win. But the atomic bomb, newly developed and tested by the super secret Manhattan Project, was ready for use. New president Harry Truman had to make a terrible decision: Fight the war conventionally and surely witness the deaths of countless Allied and Japanese troops and civilians or unleash the awesome power of the atom on Japanese cities and cause the deaths of untold Japanese civilians, hoping to trigger a surrender. Truman's controversial decision, and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August, ushered in the Atomic Age and within days ended World War II.
V-E Day challenges
Events in the European Theater moved quickly in early 1945 after the Allies withstood the last major gasp of Nazi resistance at the Battle of the Bulge. While the Allied forces tightened the noose on Germany and the end of the fascist regime became just a matter of time, military and home front officials planned for the inevitable V-E [Victory in Europe] Day to mark the German surrender. They also thought about how to keep the troops and home front workers motivated to "finish the fight" against Japan. There were good reasons to fear complacency and burnout on the home front. The war had dragged on for years and Americans were weary of the endless overtime, war bond drives, rationing, and other sacrifices. Officials needed to convince civilians to not rest on the laurels of victory in Europe when there was still plenty of work to be done: more victory ships to build, more war bonds to buy, and more materials to salvage. Literature distributed as part of a statewide Shriner's Hospital salvage drive in June 1945 spelled out, in blatantly racist terms, the challenge ahead:
We can't sit down to rest until the war
is really won. Have you ever looked at the Jap...the Jap we haven't yet
tackled! Translate this into all the things we need to win -- PAPER --
He's big - The Jap controls the world's second largest empire - [he] has 4,000,000 war hardened soldiers - twice the number [of] Germans used to defend [the] Western Reich. [He] has millions more in China, Burma, Manchuko, which we have yet to encounter.
He's strong - For 20 years the Jap has worked to make Manchukuo a war arsenal. Here he has huge war plants. He has ample resources. He can build ships, tanks, [and] guns in great numbers. And thousands of swift planes.
He's hard to hit - It takes three times as long to carry men, guns and food to our rear bases in the Pacific as it did to our front lines in Europe. Three times as many ships for the same amount of material - more men in our supply lines.
He's a hustler - The Jap war worker works like a beaver - he is 35,000,000 strong, working 12 to 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, taking only 2 days off per month. He's hustling [with] every muscle he's got - building ships, planes, and guns.
Says Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith, U.S. Marine Corps: "The Japanese fighting man may sometimes fight foolishly but he always fights furiously, savagely, ruthlessly. Any notion that such a people will wilt morally, psychologically or economically is quite certainly wrong. Our battles with the Jap will go into Marine Corps history as the toughest of all our time. Beating him will take the best we've got.["](1)
Officials issue calls for a "sober" observance
Many communities adopted a "V-E Day Code of Conduct" in an effort to tamp down excessive enthusiasm and keep citizens focused on the work ahead. One such code included pleas that "the steady flow of airplanes, ships and other materials should not be interrupted by unrestrained celebration causing let-down or absenteeism in the war plants...." The code told citizens that "the announcement of the termination of hostilities in Germany should be received with prayerful thanksgiving and with gratitude that the further sacrifice of human life for the defeat of the Axis Powers in Europe is no longer necessary." Instead, the code called for a "rededication to the unfinished task of defeating the Japanese aggressor in the Pacific" and reminded readers that:
"The end of the war in Europe cannot be an occasion for celebrating. Not while America's sons are dying in the merciless fighting of the Pacific. Not when the nation's war job is only half done."(2)
Focused on the work ahead
Actual events and actions when V-E Day arrived on May 8, 1945 generally followed the pattern hoped for by officials. In Portland churches were open for prayer and special services were held. In order to encourage the proper reaction, liquor stores were locked up as were most downtown businesses and stores. But city offices, courthouses, schools, post offices, and similar venues were open. Highlighting the rededication to finishing the war, the shipyards were open and, according to The Oregonian newspaper, they "operated with renewed zeal." While absenteeism was normally a chronic problem, on V-E Day the "Swan Island yard reported even more than the normal complement of workers on the job."
A large crowd did gather for a scheduled event at the Victory Center in Portland. But according to reports, people "felt little cause for jubilation." Instead, they listened "soberly and with a strange stillness" to a civic program of prayers, addresses by government leaders, and music. They heard Portland Mayor Earl Riley summarize the official view: "We have work to do, ships to build, bonds to buy, blood to give. Today we pause; tomorrow we resume." As a counterpoint, editors at The Oregonian had heard enough of government leaders "scolding" citizens about avoiding "immoderate celebration." Writing that "our concern...should be with the lack of exuberance rather than any excess of it," the editors made the case that considering the heroic victory over the Nazis, "there is every reason why V-E day should be a day of true celebration."(4)
V-J Day finally arrives
The mood of Oregonians surrounding the surrender of Japan in the middle of August took a decidedly more boisterous tone than the subdued events of V-E Day. Certainly, people were shocked by the power and destruction of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan several days before. But the consensus was that the bombs were a necessary evil needed to quickly end the war and save American lives. This attitude was reinforced after people had read or heard about the desperate, no-surrender mindset of many of the enemy fighters encountered by Allied forces as they island-hopped in the direction of Japan. Most people moved quickly from imagining of the horror of people being instantly vaporized or dying slow deaths from radiation poisoning in Hiroshima to excited anticipation of the official announcement of Japanese surrender. The announcement finally came on August 14, 1945.
Once again, state and local officials worried about celebrations turning into riots, only this time they couldn't use the argument that "the war job was only half done" to tamp down the exuberance. Still, on August 9, 1945, Brigadier General Raymond Olson, the acting Adjutant General of the Oregon Military Department, had plenty of advice for Governor Snell. Obviously worried about the effect of alcohol on any celebrations, Olson counseled Snell to issue a proclamation closing all liquor stores in the state. He also urged the governor to call on citizens to be "sober and patriotic," by attending church services and offering thanksgiving prayers. Snell took much of Olson's advice as he followed the lead of President Truman in declaring August 15 and 16 to be legal holidays. In addition to closing the liquor stores, Snell closed all public buildings and asked that business activity be suspended as much as possible. While he made no mention of "sober" observances of the holidays, he did ask that the "rejoicing be tempered with compassion and prayer for the loved ones of those who have made the supreme sacrifice."(5)
Others took precautions in anticipation of V-J Day as well. The Portland Retail Trade Bureau called on its members to close for the holidays. The bureau took the further step of sending out a bulletin "requesting that all merchants remove things from their display windows and where possible either pull down a blind or shade the window at such a height that people from the street would not be able to glance in over the blind and see anything that might be on display." The bureau also asked that there be "a representative on duty in each store who would be able to handle any disturbances in case they should arise." Meanwhile, the Veterans' Guard and Patrol in Portland was planning to "immediately put from two to five men in plain clothes in each of the hotels and also have a patrol around the various theaters to handle the situation." Portland Mayor Riley issued his own proclamation calling on all "dispensers of beer" in the city to suspend sales. All State Guard personnel were to be available for duty if the governor needed their help. Moreover, police forces in the area cancelled leaves and set strategies for dealing with trouble. Thus, according to General Olson, "the Portland Police Bureau figures on maintaining a heavy patrol in the Albina area to take care of the Negro situation and [Multnomah County] Sherrif [sic] Martin Pratt figures on a very rigid patrol of the Vanport area."(6)
While Portland and other Oregon cities experienced no significant violence during the victory celebrations, officials were right to be vigilant. By the night of Wednesday, August 15, the death toll related to celebrations reached 26 in the United States. San Francisco experienced some of the worst violence as events escalated beyond control on Tuesday, August 14 after people read headlines proclaiming "Tokyo says: Japs quit!" According to Associated Press reports, "milling soldiers, sailors and civilians ripped up war bond booths and started a bonfire in the middle of Market street. Flames roared up 30 feet high before fire trucks inched through the thousands of boisterous people to douse the blaze." The next night riot squads of 3,200 police and shore patrolmen were called out to quell "a mob of celebrants who inflicted heavy damage on downtown property." According to reports, every window along a busy three block stretch of Market Street was broken and a total of five people died in the San Francisco violence. Several others died in New York City where at least 890 people "were treated for injuries or alcoholism."(7)
While incidents of violence occurred across the country, the great majority of celebrants showed their pleasure with dancing, shouting, kissing, and ear-to-ear grins seemingly frozen across their faces. Portland's celebrations began in earnest just after midnight on August 14 as unofficial announcement of the imminent surrender spread. Most of the celebration developed along Broadway in the downtown area where an impromptu parade formed, including 200 marchers, "many flourishing bottles, and a continuous two-direction parade of cars with horns sounding almost constantly." The afternoon of August 14 saw more celebrations as the official announcement of the end of the war was made by President Truman amid a "joyous bedlam" of laughter, blaring horns, and confetti that rained down from the taller buildings. According to The Oregonian, "girls kissed sailors to signify their joy at the end of the war, and particularly exuberant sailors kissed girls at random." Firecrackers were heard in all parts of Portland but nowhere more than in the Chinatown section of the city where people of Chinese descent had been saving their fireworks for years to celebrate the defeat of Japan, which first invaded Manchuria in 1931. By Thursday, the celebration continued "but a great deal of the steam had gone out of it." Similar, albeit smaller, events broke out in cities and towns across Oregon as the pent up energy of years of war finally found its release.(8) (listen to a radio report of a Hollywood V-J day celebration.-via Marr Sound Archives)
1. Statewide Shriner's Hospital Salvage Drive Literature, circa June 1945. Folder 6, Box 30, Defense Council Records, OSA.
2. "Let's Help Finish the Fight When Germany Falls" Flyer, City of Los Angeles War Council, Spring 1945. Oversize Records, Defense Council Records, OSA.
3. KSLM Radio Broadcast Transcript Re: Upcoming V-E Day, May 1945. Folder 3, Box 7, Gov. Snell Records, OSA.
4. "Victory Center Crowd Hears V-E Theme of Rededication to Task of Beating Japs," The Oregonian, May 9, 1945, Page 7; "V-E Day," Editorial, The Oregonian, May 8, 1945, Page 14.
5. Memorandum from Raymond Olson to Governor Snell, August 9, 1945. Folder 7, Box 5, Gov. Snell Records, OSA; "Proclamation" Re: V-J Day, Governor Snell, August 14, 1945. Folder 7, Box 5, Gov. Snell Records, OSA.
6. Memorandum from Raymond Olson to Governor Snell, August 11, 1945. Folder 7, Box 5, Gov. Snell Records, OSA.
7. "GI Killed In Denver 'V' Jubilee," The Oregonian, August 14, 1945, Page 1; "V-Day Jubilee Costs 26 Lives," The Oregonian, August 16, 1945, Page 1.
7. "Noisy Revelers Fill City Streets At Jap Reports," The Oregonian, August 14, 1945, Page 1; "Wailing Horns, Confetti, Crowds Throw City Into Bedlam as Joyous News Heard," The Oregonian, August 15, 1945, Page 1; "'Party' Continues Into Third Night," August 16, 1945, Page 1.