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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Remembering a Huge Day in Our Family History: V-E Day

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott commemorates V-E Day—the day Nazi Germany surrendered in WWII—and  reminisces about his father’s involvement in the war.

It had been a long, arduous, and brutal six years of war in Europe. The United States had entered World War II on 7 December 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Finally in the spring of 1945, although the war against Japan would last a few more months, Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies on 8 May 1945—“V-E Day,” which stands for “Victory in Europe.” WWII was finally over in Europe.

Some 16 million Americans served in the armed forces during WWII and more than 400,000 of these Americans died in the line of duty.

Today, which is the 69th anniversary of V-E Day, is a good time for all of us who love and enjoy genealogy and family history to reflect on this historic day.

Victory in Europe Sweeps the Headlines

This front page from a Massachusetts newspaper was typical of newspapers across the United States announcing the important news.

Today Official V-E Day, Boston Herald newspaper article 8 May 1945

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 8 May 1945, page 1

The news was welcome everywhere. Stories abounded in the nation’s newspapers about the impact of the unconditional surrender of the Nazi armies. A good example comes from this Texas newspaper. This old newspaper article explains how one family welcomed the news as the MacWilliams family learned that their daughter, a WAC, and their son, a lieutenant, met in Paris after four years of war. Later, the news story mentions that the MacWilliams’ family also had two more sons serving in the Army. The family impacts of WWII can hardly be underestimated as we do our family histories!

WAC, Brother Meet in Paris after 4 Years, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 8 May 1945

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 8 May 1945, page 3

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V-J Day Still Months Away

WWII would rage on three more months in the brutal Pacific Theatre until V-J Day (Victory over Japan). Japan announced its surrender on 15 August 1945, with the formal surrender ceremony taking place on 2 September 1945. The fact that the war in the Pacific was continuing may have been cause for many families in the United States to celebrate V-E Day with a bit of reserve. As you can see from this front page of a Louisiana newspaper, there was much concern about the continuing and staggering losses in the Battle of Okinawa

U.S. Casualties Rise on Okinawa; Bitter Fight Rages, Advocate newspaper article 10 May 1945

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 10 May 1945, page 1

Similarly an entire page from this Illinois newspaper speaks to the ongoing war effort in the Pacific and “an invasion of Japan.”

articles about the war against Japan in WWII, Morning Star newspaper article 29 May 1945

Morning Star (Rockford, Illinois), 29 May 1945, page 6

Troops Celebrate V-E Day; Wary of Invasion of Japan

My father, a 1st lieutenant in the U.S. Army Infantry, told me years later that, while he and his buddies all toasted V-E Day, they felt that being reassigned to fight what they thought was the inevitable invasion of Japan might mean their deaths.

photo of U.S. troops in Europe during WWII

Photo: Scott Phillips’s father (in the back right corner) with some of the men from his unit, somewhere in Europe. Credit: from the author’s collection.

In my father’s words:

We all felt that if we had lived through the hell of the war in Europe it was only because we were just damn lucky, and our luck would surely run out in the Pacific and an invasion of Japan.

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Despite this apprehension due to the continuing war against Japan, there was good news on the home front all the same. Even though rationing continued until 1946, a return to normalcy seemed in sight after V-E Day was announced.

photo of WWII ration coupons

Photo: WWII ration coupons. Credit: from the author’s collection.

However, with the loss of over 400,000 servicemen and women, many families would never return to “normal.”

Did you have family members who served in World War II? My father only spoke of his service one time to my children and me. I hope you were able to document your family stories surrounding WWII and after V-E Day. They are certainly crucial stories to include in our family trees.

I’d be interested in knowing if you have been able to do this. Simply leave me a comment below if you would.

Peace.

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