In these uncertain days, let’s reflect briefly on the anniversary of a long-ago moment of bittersweet joy.
Seventy-five years ago today, half of World War II officially ended when the Allied powers formally accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. It unleashed celebrations around the globe, which would be repeated (and then some) three months later when Japan surrendered to bring this terrible conflict to a close.
The fact that V-E Day is still remembered tells you the kind of impact World War II, which ultimately killed as many as 61 million people, had and still has on us.
Germany’s surrender was not unexpected — Adolf Hitler’s ignominious suicide on April 30 telegraphed the inevitable. In fact, the Press & Dakotan published a massive banner headline (“WAR IN EUROPE ENDED”) on May 7 when news of an offer of unconditional surrender by Berlin spread like wildfire. Word of the official acceptance of the offer arrived in Yankton at about 8 a.m. the next day, setting off a symphony of whistles and sirens to signal the start of a long-awaited holiday.
But it was generally far from boisterous.
“With business and other activities at almost a complete standstill,” the P&D reported, “Yankton observed the official ending of the war in Europe … with restrained rejoicing and in a spirit of thoughtful and solemn contemplation of the tasks remaining to be done — of defeating Japan, of reconstructing broken Europe and of building a lasting peace.”
It was likely more than the unfinished business in the Pacific that weighed on our minds. We still owned bitter memories of World War I and the failure of its flawed promises of peace. Most every town and family had lost too much in this second world war to forget the broken dreams of the first.
Still, this moment could not pass without some joy. Indeed, activities were in the planning stages for days as Germany’s capitulation grew increasingly likely.
“Is this V-E Day or isn’t it?” the P&D wrote on May 7. “That’s the question Mr. and Mrs. Average Citizen of Yankton was asking today — withholding celebration until (receiving) the official proclamation by President Truman, which … might come later today or possibly tomorrow.”
The paper announced that the Yankton Ministerial Association was planning a thanksgiving service at city hall depending on when the end officially came. (The event wound up being held at 4 p.m. May 8.) Many churches also planned to open their doors for prayer and contemplation.
Meanwhile, most Yankton businesses and government offices closed immediately once the news arrived. A fireworks display at the baseball stadium was also scheduled for that night, but due to a lack of promotion, it was postponed to the following weekend.
The news also brought the start of a great unshackling, which echoes somewhat in our current situation. Wartime restrictions were soon rescinded, and the P&D reported on May 10 that the midnight curfews and brownouts were being lifted: “Some business and entertainment places last night again turned on Neon and other electric signs and a few store show windows were lighted up for the first time in several weeks.”
One group in Yankton had a very different view on things, however, as there were still German prisoners of war quartered here. The Press & Dakotan noted, “In fact, these boys … were ‘enjoying’ business as usual this week while the U.S. and other Allied nations rejoiced over the final capitulation of Germany. … A stoic lot to begin with, the POWs displayed little feeling over the tremendous news from Europe,” and it appeared the “internees are just waiting out their turn to go home.” (Actually, “stoic lot” may be the kindest homefront description I’ve ever encountered of German soldiers from that war.)
The bittersweet sense of the moment was not confined to the Yankton area.
Not forgotten by anyone was the fact that President Franklin Roosevelt, who had died less than a month prior, did not live to see this triumph; in fact, Americans were still flying flags at half-staff in mourning on V-E Day. For his successor, Harry S. Truman, the day (which was also his birthday) was an occasion to honor his old boss while declaring that the victory was only “half won.” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, as ever, eloquently remarked, “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing (as Japan) remains unsubdued.” Alas, Churchill would be voted out of power in late July just before Japan was finally defeated.
The ending that arrived 75 years ago today was a mixed moment. It was a cathartic end to a monstrous evil, and yet we well knew there was a crushing load still to lift, although most of us probably didn’t foresee the atomic fire that would be used to that end.
Even on V-E Day, it was clear that, while so many had already died, we were bracing for more death to come — but we were resolute.
“With the war in Europe officially ended, greater attention can now be given to the task of polishing off Japan,” the P&D declared. “(The) American people must gird themselves for the remaining job in the Pacific. There is plenty of evidence that they are in no mood to relax until that job has been finished, too.”
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