Holiday History: The 76th V-J Day

A massive crowd gathered in Times Square to celebrate the surrender of Japan in August 1945.
A massive crowd gathered in Times Square to celebrate the surrender of Japan in August 1945.

An estimated 60 million people died in World War II. On this date in 1945, word came that the killing would stop.

This is V-J Day, Victory over Japan Day. On August 14, 1945 in the United States—August 15 in Japan, on the other side of the International Date Line—Emperor Hirohito announced his country had accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, which meant unconditional surrender.

“Japan has today surrendered,” said British Prime Minister Clement Attlee. “The last of our enemy is laid low. Peace has once again come to the world. Let us thank God for this great deliverance and his mercies.”

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Attlee expressed the relief felt by people in the Allied nations. Joy was another emotion the world experienced.

People were literally dancing in the streets, everywhere from Sydney, Australia, to Paris, to London and New York City. The iconic picture of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square was taken on that day. (The “nurse” was actually a dental assistant.)

Statue depicting sailor and dental assistant kissing on V-J Day

The surrender came nine days after the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and six days after the second atomic bomb hit Nagasaki. It also came six days after the Soviet Union declared war on Japan.

It may be considered fitting that the end of the war came where it began. The start date for World War II is generally accepted as September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. But for many people in Asia, the war started much earlier.

On September 18, 1931, the Japanese army invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria. By the end of February 1932, Japan had gained control and created the puppet state of Manchukuo.

There were many incidents between Japan and China over the next several years. Then, on July 7, 1937, a conflict at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing escalated into major fighting.

That is considered the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Japan would conquer much of eastern China. The United States supported the Chinese. This support led to U.S. embargoes of steel and gasoline on Japan. Without access to those resources, many Japanese then began to think that war was inevitable.

As that idea took root, planning began for the attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese military leaders hoped that decimating Pearl Harbor would discourage Americans from fighting—or at the very least, destroy enough of the American Pacific Fleet to leave it ineffective to respond to attacks in other areas until it was too late. 

The latter goal could have easily happened, if not for three crucial mistakes: Japanese planes did not hit the fuel depot, the submarine base or the shipyards. If they had, it would have forced the U.S. fleet to base in San Diego. Instead, the United States quickly repaired many of its vessels and used Pearl Harbor as its Pacific base for the remainder of the war.

Japan was always destined to become America’s primary enemy in the war, but Adolf Hitler decided he would declare war on the United State in solidarity with his Japanese ally—and because of other American actions he considered provocations.

So the United States went to war on two fronts. In the Pacific there was the dramatic turn at the naval Battle of Midway (just six months after Pearl Harbor), and heroic battles such as Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and others. Soldiers in the China-Burma-India theater struggled to get supplies over “The Hump”—the Himalayan Mountains—to assist the Chinese in their ongoing fight.

Simultaneously, the United States and its allies fought the Nazis in North Africa, in Italy, and finally in northern Europe after the D-Day invasion.

During the war, more than 400,000 American soldiers, sailors and airmen died. Another 670,000 were wounded. In the Soviet Union, where the Soviets were fighting off the Nazis in the East, the numbers are even more staggering: 27 million dead, including at least 18 million civilians.

Those numbers just reflect two countries. Soldiers from six continents fought in the war. And many millions of other civilians—including the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust—lost their lives.

Sometimes you will see September 2, 1945 as V-J Day. That’s the day when the formal surrender declaration was signed on the USS Missouri.

Regardless of which day one marks, V-J Day marks a day of unbridled relief and celebration after years of death, injury and sacrifice around the world.

U.S President Harry S. Truman summed it up well: “This day is a new beginning in the history of freedom on this earth. Our global victory has come from the courage and stamina and spirit of free men and women united in determination to fight.”

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