By Danielle DeSimone
After years of warfare, loss and struggle, World War II officially came to an end on September 2, 1945, with the formal surrender of Japan. For the thousands of American and Allied troops that had been fighting for this moment, VJ Day was not necessarily a celebration of victory over an enemy, but rather the joyous commemoration of finally achieving peace.
Since 1941, the USO had remained by the side of U.S. service members, and VJ Day and the end of WWII would prove no different.
What Event Ended World War II?
On July 26, 1945, after years of war with Japan in the Pacific, the Allied Forces issued the Potsdam Declaration, which demanded Japan’s surrender. The declaration promised the empire’s “prompt and utter destruction” if they did not comply. Japan refused to surrender.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Harry S. Truman had been warned by advisors that a land invasion of Japan would result in enormous U.S. casualties. So, in the hopes of bringing the war to a swift end, Truman authorized the dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9.
The following day, on August 10, 1945, the Empire of Japan communicated to Allied forces that it would accept surrender. A few days later, on the afternoon of August 15, local time, Japan announced its surrender to the world.
What is VJ Day?
The official day to commemorate VJ Day is sometimes confusing.
Some countries commemorate VJ day on August 14 or 15, depending on the location, because on August 15, 1945, local time, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito broadcasted the surrender announcement to the Japanese people on Radio Tokyo. Thus, August 15, 1945, marked the end of the fighting and the beginning of the lengthy process of officially ending WWII.
However, in the United States, “Victory Over Japan Day,” or, “VJ Day” is technically commemorated on September 2, in acknowledgment of Japan’s formal surrender on the day. On September 2, 1945, representatives of the Empire of Japan signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender document aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. All in all, the ceremony only took about 30 minutes, but it represented the end of a terrible conflict.
President Truman then officially declared September 2 as VJ Day in the United States. This is still the date that is commemorated by the nation today.
How Was VJ Day Celebrated and Where Was the USO?
When the surrender was first announced on August 15, celebrations broke out across the world, and especially in the United States and among American service members deployed overseas. After many long years, one of the most brutal and far-reaching wars in recorded history had finally come to an end, and American troops could finally come home.
“We had gone to an outdoor movie,” said former Marine Corps Capt. Glenn Walter Nelson, who was at Pearl Harbor at the time of the announcement. “And all of the sudden, in the middle of the movie, all of the ships out in Pearl Harbor started shooting rockets, and whistles are blowing and bells and all kinds of things, and it turned out that the war was over.”
Crowds flooded the streets of nearly every city. There was dancing, singing, impromptu parades and last-minute USO dances with hundreds of attendees. Aboard ships in the Pacific Ocean, sailors prayed in unison upon hearing the news. Around the world, American service members, civilians and celebrities alike all joined together to celebrate the end of the war – and the beginning of peace.
When Japan announced its surrender on August 15, the famous, harmonizing singing group the Andrews Sisters were on stage in Naples, Italy, putting on a USO show for American troops there. The commanding officer interrupted the performance, passing a note to Patty Andrews, which announced the surrender and end of the war. When Andrews read the note aloud to the crowd, many service members didn’t react at first until she repeated the message, assuring them that it was true, and began crying on stage. Suddenly, the men began cheering, realizing that they would finally be going home.
Meanwhile, in Hawaii, the island of Oahu had overcome a great deal in the four years since the attack on Pearl Harbor. When the island got word of the surrender announcement on August 15, 1945, the streets of Honolulu flooded with service members and Americans, all celebrating an end to the conflict that had taken root on their island four years before.
The USO, too, was in the thick of these celebrations on the island, carrying on its tradition of always being at the side of our nation’s service members. Ann Koebel, an assistant canteen manager at the USO Victory Club in Honolulu at the time, recalled that during these VJ celebrations, the USO center was as busy as ever.
“Food was not free but sold at cost, however, on V-J day we served free food to about 12,000. I still dream about it,” she said, according to a 1946 issue of Iowa Homemaker.
A few days later, when the formal surrender was acknowledged on September 2, 1945, a parade traveled through the streets of Honolulu. In the USO archives, there is a photo taken by a female Marine named Loretta Maynard, who climbed onto the roof of a nearby building on the day of the parade and captured an iconic moment of history. In the photo, sailors can be seen in their white, formal uniforms, waving to a cheering crowd from the beds of trucks as they drive down Beretania Street.
One truck pushing through the crowd is adorned with multiple banners emblazoned with the iconic red, white and blue USO logo. The truck is driving past the then-newly opened USO Rainbow Club center that supported service members on Honolulu throughout the war – a war that was finally over.
“I was there,” Maynard wrote on the back of the photo. “And so was the USO.”
U.S. Marine Loretta Maynard snapped a photo of the official VJ Day parade that took place on Beretania Street in Honolulu, just outside of the USO Rainbow Club center, on September 2, 1945.
“V.J. Day down Honolulu Way. 1945,” U.S. Marine Loretta Maynard wrote on the back of the photo of the parade. “I was there and so was the USO. Many thanks! Loretta Maynard, U.S.M.C.”
After VJ Day
Following VJ Day, U.S. forces remained in Japan to help facilitate the occupation and reconstruction of the country. The U.S. Army and Navy quickly requested 86 USO units to join the efforts in the Pacific – that is, more than 1,200 performers – and they were to arrive within 90 days. And the USO delivered.
The USO would continue to support service members for two years following the end of WWII before being briefly disbanded in 1947. However, just a few years later, the USO was reactivated to support the troops once again in the face of the Korean War.
Since then, the organization has continued to be at the side of America’s service members and their families – from the front lines of World War II to today.
-This article was originally published in 2020. It has been refreshed for 2021.
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