As the summer rolled into August in 1945, the Pacific theater of World War II was still trudging along with slow but deadly steam. Germany had surrendered several months earlier, and the Allies were ready for the devastating conflict to come to an end. But despite the rest of the world turning towards peace, the Japanese forces continued to fight on with no signs of capitulation.
In order to speed the conclusion along, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan—one on Hiroshima on August 6 and another on Nagasaki three days later. It was the first and only time that nuclear weapons had been used in warfare, and the results were devastating. Over 200,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the attacks and the fallout lasted for years. However, the bombing had its intended effect. On August 14, Japan officially surrendered and World War II came to an end.
But that mid-August day when the big announcement was made isn’t the only “Victory Over Japan,” or V-J, Day. The end of World War II is technically celebrated twice. On September 2, representatives from Japan and the United States gathered on the deck of the USS Missouri, which was docked in Tokyo Bay for the formal signing of the papers that would bring the war to an end. “This is a victory of more than arms alone. This is a victory of liberty over tyranny,” President Truman said in his September 2 speech officially proclaiming V-J Day.
Let the Celebrations Begin!
As this video report shows, crowds gathered across the country on August 14, waiting for word that Japan had unconditionally surrendered to end the war. At 7p.m., President Truman gathered advisors and reporters in the White House and “calmly” read a statement declaring the end of the hostilities. When he was done, “his face broke into a smile.”
Crowds in Washington, D.C., gathered to congratulate Truman and parade around town, as they did in most cities throughout the country. But the biggest celebration of all was in New York City. Music and dancing broke out in the streets of Little Italy, “confetti” made of scraps of cloth rained down in the Garment District and in Times Square, two million people packed into 10 blocks to express their jubilation.
“Five days of waiting, of rumor, intimation, fact, distortion—five agonizing days …came to an end for New York, as for the nation and the world, a moment or two after seven o’clock last night, and the metropolis exploded its emotions, harnessed for the most part during the day, with atomic force,” The New York Times reported, describing the “victory roar” that lasted for 20 minutes after the announcement flashed across the electronic ticker.
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Pucker Up, the War Is Officially Over
While contemporaneous photo spreads covering the two-day festivities show that a rash of spontaneous kissing broke out in celebrations around the country, the most iconic of these smooches is undoubtedly that between a soldier and a nurse in Times Square. The photo was taken by LIFE photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, who spotted the sailor joyfully dipping a nurse back to give her a peck as he snapped the picture.
At the time, the identities of these famous lovers were unknown. But over the years, they came forward. The nurse was 21-year-old dental assistant Greta Zimmer Friedman who was kissed by sailor George Mendonsa, a stranger who grabbed her out of the crowd to express his joy. Because of the spontaneous nature of the kiss, some over the years have suggested that the photo has connotations of sexual assault. But Friedman thought differently.
“It wasn’t that much of a kiss,” Friedman told the Veterans History Project in 2005. “It was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event.”
The Darker Side of the Festivities
It wasn’t all confetti and kisses to celebrate the end of the war. In some cases, the heightened emotions as thousands of civilians and service members around the country erupted into violence. In New Bedford, MA, for instance, the revelers fought against policemen after one officer asked a man in uniform to get off the fender of a car. The result was a “free-for-all fight” involving about 100 people.
But the worst, by far, was in San Francisco, where the second day of the festivities turned into an all-out downtown riot. Young soldiers and sailors waiting to ship out smashed windows, broke into stores, destroyed streetcars and attacked women on the streets, in what turned into one of the worst riots in Bay area history.
"A looting, smashing crowd is tearing up Market Street tonight…this crowd is out of hand. You couldn't stop it if you tried, not short of tear gas and fire hoses,” reported San Francisco Chronicle journalist Stanton Delaplane.
In the end, eleven people lost their lives in the deadly crowds and 1,000 people were injured. But historical memory—or lack thereof—of this event goes to show how relieved the country was that the war was at an end. Despite the tragedy of the San Francisco celebrations, the riot that swept the city is hardly remembered today, lost in the more joyful memory of what V-J Day meant for the nation and the world.