Commemorating V-J Day: 14 August 1945

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this blog post, Scott searches old newspapers to find stories about the day Japan announced its surrender, ending World War II.

A few days ago I happened to notice an obituary in my local newspaper for Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk. I read that this gentleman passed away in Stone Mountain, Georgia, at the age of 93. I was curious to learn why this obituary would be in my local paper when Stone Mountain, Georgia, is well over 700 miles away.

photo of the World War II bomber Enola Gay after the Hiroshima mission

Photo: the Enola Gay bomber after the Hiroshima mission. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

I soon discovered that his death was news across the entire United States—his obituary was published coast to coast. For example, this obituary was published in a California newspaper.

obituary for Theodore Van Kirk, Tri-Valley Herald newspaper article 31 July 2014

Tri-Valley Herald (Pleasanton, California), 31 July 2014

As this obituary explains:

Theodore ‘Dutch’ Van Kirk [was] a navigator who guided the Enola Gay bomber over Hiroshima during World War II to drop the first nuclear bomb in the history of warfare… Van Kirk was the last surviving member of the Enola Gay’s 12-member crew, which was responsible for dropping the atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945 that killed 80,000 people and hurried the war’s end eight days later.

The phrase “hurried the war’s end eight days later” refers to the fact that the announcement of Japan’s surrender was made on 14 August 1945 (which, due to time zone differences, was actually August 15 in Japan), in effect ending WWII.

This article from an Illinois newspaper presents Van Kirk’s own words describing the world-altering event he and his fellow Enola Gay crew members participated in that day.

article about the WWII bomber Enola Gay and the atomic bombig of Hiroshima, Register Star newspaper article 7 August 2005

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 7 August 2005, page 11

“Dutch” died just two weeks shy of the 69th anniversary of the declaration of “V-J Day” (Victory over Japan Day), commemorating the Japanese surrender which marked the end of World War II. Note: although Japan’s surrender was announced in the U.S. on 14 August 1945, the formal surrender ceremony took place aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2—so both days can be called V-J Day.

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Intrigued by Van Kirk’s story, I began to look for more historical information on V-J Day in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to see how the news was reported—and to learn what our ancestors might have been doing that day.

Here is what the front page of this Louisiana newspaper looked like on Victory over Japan Day.

Japs Surrender Unconditionally, Advocate newspaper article 15 August 1945

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 15 August 1945, page 1

This photo spread from a California newspaper shows Americans celebrating the good news of Japan’s surrender and the ending of the war: streets jammed with huge, happy crowds, with celebrations of all types.

photos of people in San Diego celebrating V-J Day, San Diego Union newspaper article 15 August 1945

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 15 August 1945, page 2

And speaking of end of war celebrations, on page three of that same newspaper was an article reporting that floodlights were lit at night after four years of darkness, almost every store in nearby towns was shuttered for the holiday—and from weeping telephone operators to an elevator attendant giving out free whisky to his riders, the whole of America seemed engaged in some type of revelry.

article about people in San Diego celebrating V-J Day, San Diego Union newspaper article 15 August 1945

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 15 August 1945, page 3

And why shouldn’t America have been celebrating with wild abandon? As the headline of this Ohio newspaper declared: the soldiers would finally be coming home!

Japs Delay Reply to MacArthur's Orders on Surrender Procedure, Plain Dealer newspaper article 16 August 1945

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 16 August 1945, page 1

Seven and a half million men (and women) coming home at last! I know my father, a 1st lieutenant in the U.S. Army, was among those men. While Dad fought throughout Europe, he and his men all had a terrible feeling of foreboding should they have to fight on the shores of Japan. But now they all knew that they’d be coming home.

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While many Americans had been waiting out every second of time for V-J Day to finally arrive, this Texas newspaper article cleverly pointed out that a Mr. and Mrs. B. M. Day had enjoyed V. J. Day for 12 years already! It seems that their daughter was Vera Janice Day, and some smart reporter caught that cute tidbit amongst all the other excitement!

Vera Janice Has Been V-J Day Twelve Years, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 16 August 1945

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 16 August 1945, section II, page 7

This Oregon newspaper article reported that Portland was already planning how to celebrate V-J Day even before Japan announced its surrender: “City fathers have no objection to John Q. Citizen’s celebrating in any manner he chooses so long as the peace is kept. ‘I am not interested in stopping people from showing their exuberance,’ the mayor said, ‘as long as property is not destroyed and the laws are observed.’” Sounds to me like Portland was surely going to rock for V-J Day!

Citywide Plans Underway--V-J Day Pattern like V-E, Oregonian newspaper article 11 August 1945

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 11 August 1945, page 4

Also on the home front, the impending end of the war was going to mean the end to rationing. Two days before V-J Day, a Massachusetts newspaper published this article listing many of the everyday items that were being rationed for the duration of the war, such as gasoline, tires, shoes, food and fuel oil. The old newspaper article speculated when that rationing might end after the formal surrender of Japan. Another family story I recall is that after my Dad returned home from the war, my Mom explained to him how challenging it was to live with rationing—and my Dad responded, with a chuckle: “I’d have traded anyone on the home front anything for the bullets and K-Rations!”

Life Will Begin Again for Civilians Not Long after Japs Fold for Good, Springfield Republican newspaper article 12 August 1945

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 12 August 1945, page 1

As we commemorate V-J Day today, I hope you will take a moment to reflect on what your ancestors might have been doing 69 years ago. I’d love to read your comments here!

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Newspapers Break through Genealogy Brick Wall, Solving 100-Year Mystery

Louise A., of Longview, Washington, had a mystery on her hands. A dedicated genealogist, she had been tracing her family history and building her family tree—but had hit a brick wall. There was a 100-year-old mystery in her family history that she couldn’t solve in her genealogy research: what had ever happened to her long lost great-uncle, Fred Day?

Our Letter from Louise

Louise wrote to GenealogyBank describing her research frustration—and her exciting genealogy breakthrough.

As the beginning of her email explained:

A note to give you a BIG “thank you” for your service! I had searched off and on for eight years trying to solve the 100-year-old mystery in my family of a great uncle that disappeared while fishing along the Columbia River in Oregon, or so the story went. In all the searching in local and state archives, plus checking with records offices anywhere I could think of, the ONLY record I found was a certificate of marriage, to my great aunt in 1909.

Eight frustrating years of research, and no answers. The family story Louise heard as a child had always been vague, about some “fishing accident” involving her great-uncle Fred, but never any details.

How Newspapers Helped Crack the Case

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Then one day Louise turned to GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, figuring that in a collection of more than 6,500 newspapers and over one billion records, there was sure to be something she could find out about her great-uncle. She found articles about a Fred Day, all right, but not the Fred Day who was her great-uncle. Then an idea hit her.

As Louise’s note explained:

The other day I happened to think to put in my great-aunt’s name, “Bertha Day.” Bingo! Here came article after article of the disappearance of “Frisco” Day in 1910!

I could barely believe my eyes! He did not disappear while fishing, but disappeared by driving drunk as a chauffeur, taking a woman to catch a ferry late at night, and ran off a trestle into the Columbia River slough!

Here’s the first news article Louise found, in which she began, at long last, to discover the truth of her relative’s disappearance. The old article begins with these shocking headlines:

article about the fatal car accident of Frisco Day, Bellingham Herald newspaper article 12 June 1910

Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington), 12 June 1910, page 3

The newspaper article’s opening three paragraphs lay out the story:

article about the fatal car accident of Frisco Day, Bellingham Herald newspaper article 12 June 1910

Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington), 12 June 1910, page 3

The headlines of the next news article speculate that Louise’s great-uncle Fred “Frisco” Day and a woman—Mabel Monto—were the victims of the car crash. Although the bodies had not yet been recovered, a Portland saloonkeeper, Tice Adkins, served the couple drinks and saw them get into the red car and drive off into the pouring rain.

article about the fatal car accident of Frisco Day, Oregonian newspaper article 12 June 1910

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 12 June 1910, page 1

The newspaper article supplies these details about the fatal accident that claimed Louise’s great-uncle’s life:

article about the fatal car accident of Frisco Day, Oregonian newspaper article 12 June 1910

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 12 June 1910, page 1

Great-Aunt Shares Her Story

That same newspaper had another article about Frisco Day’s accident.

article about the fatal car accident of Frisco Day and his wife Bertha's grief, Oregonian newspaper article 12 June 1910

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 12 June 1910, page 8

This historical newspaper article describes the grief of Louise’s great-aunt:

He [Frisco Day] was expected to return on Friday night at a late hour, and even before hearing of the accident, Mrs. Day had become much worried over the non-appearance of her husband. When she was informed that her husband might have been one of the party which met a tragic death she was prostrated with grief. She remained downtown with friends hoping against hope as clue after clue was followed out, each pointing more strongly than the other to her husband as one of the probable victims.

Mrs. Day is scarcely out of her teens and was married to Frisco Day in Portland less than six months ago. She said last night: “My husband never failed to telephone me when he was detained longer than usual and I felt sure something terrible had happened to him even before I heard of the accident on the bridge over the Oregon Slough. He never stayed away from me any longer than was absolutely necessary, and I am heartbroken to think he is lying out there beneath the water dead.”

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Missing Bodies & More

The next day’s newspaper reports that the car was recovered but no bodies found. However, police investigations confirmed that Day and Monto were the only two people in the car, and that both certainly drowned in the accident.

article about the fatal car accident of Frisco Day, Oregonian newspaper article 13 June 1910

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 13 June 1910, page 1

News of Frisco Day’s accident and the recovery of the auto were reported in a wide range of newspapers. For example, this Utah newspaper printed this story:

article about the fatal car accident of Frisco Day, Salt Lake Telegram newspaper article 13 June 1910

Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah), 13 June 1910, page 1

A Washington newspaper ran this short notice editorializing about Frisco Day’s accident:

article about the fatal car accident of Frisco Day, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 14 June 1910

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 14 June 1910, page 6

Thanks to these old newspaper articles, Louse found out what happened to her great-uncle Frisco Day all those years ago, finally breaking through the brick wall that had her stumped in her genealogy research. But since his body had not been recovered, she still lacked closure—and kept searching through the newspaper archives to see if she could discover more. Then she found what she was looking for—this newspaper article, reporting that his body was finally recovered in 1913, nearly three years after he was killed in the accident.

article about the recovery of the body of Frisco Day, Oregonian newspaper article 15 February 1913

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 15 February 1913, page 4

The historical newspaper article reports:

The skeleton, which was identified by letters in his pockets, was taken to Portland.

As Louise wrote:

The papers had the final story of finding his body almost three years later, in 1913. What a scandal it must have been and my great-aunt had only been married to him for a few months. It was absolutely fascinating to read all these stories and finally solve this mystery! I know without these newspapers being available, I never would have known what happened to him and why he was never mentioned while my great-aunt was living.

Again, thank you for this service!

Genealogy Search Tips: We thank Louise for sharing her family story with us and our readers. Her genealogy brick wall breakthrough presents some helpful family history lessons.

  • Always include old newspapers in your family history searches. Louise spent years searching local and state archives, but government records don’t have all the information—sometimes, the only place you’ll find the true story of what actually happened to your ancestor is in the pages of an old newspaper.
  • Try searching on different variations of your ancestor’s name in the newspaper archives, including initials and nicknames. Also, try searching for the names of close relatives. In this case, her search for Fred Day came up empty—but if she had searched on his nickname “Frisco” she would have found him right away. The key to her research success was searching on the name of Fred’s wife, Bertha Day.
  • Don’t limit your initial ancestor search geographically—cast a wide net. Although Frisco Day’s accident on the Columbia River was a local Oregon/Washington story, newspapers as far away as California, Utah and Florida picked up the news story.
  • Be persistent. Louise had tried to unravel the mystery of her great-uncle’s disappearance for eight years before busting through her brick wall. What a good feeling—to finally fill in a missing piece of your family tree, a satisfying reward after much patient ancestor searching!

Congratulations to Louise on finding the story of her long lost relative!

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