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Aug. 14, 1945: the Day the Fighting Stopped : V-J Day: Americans recall life in 2 weeks leading to official end of WWII.

August 14, 1995|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Finally, the end was at hand. Hitler and Mussolini had been dispatched. Sixty-seven Pacific islands, from Tarawa to Okinawa, had been retaken by the Americans, inch by bloody inch. Hiroshima and Nagasaki lay in ruins.

Fifty years ago today, Japanese Emperor Hirohito addressed his nation over the radio and, without ever mentioning the word surrender, said Japan would fight no more. Two weeks later, on Sept. 2, 1945, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu hobbled up the starboard gangway of the U.S. battleship Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay, wearing a top hat, morning coat and striped pants. He leaned on a black cane, balancing unsteadily on the peg-leg he acquired after a terrorist bombing in Shanghai. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, silent, motioned him curtly to a table.

Gen. Hsu Yung-chjen of China looked at Shigemitsu and spit into his handkerchief. Shigemitsu leaned over the table. His cane clattered to the deck. "The Japanese delegates," MacArthur said, a slight quaver in his voice, "will now sign the instrument of surrender."

And with a stroke of the pen, the most destructive, deadly war the world has ever known was over. It was a war that united America in spirit and purpose as surely as Vietnam would tear it asunder. It was fought on the home front as well as on the battlefields of Europe and Asia, and in the end it would change the face of society and the world forever. America had erupted in great spontaneous celebrations on Aug. 14. The official day of Victory over Japan--V-J Day, Sept. 1 in the United States and Sept. 2 in Japan--brought a more subdued, reflective response. Here is how some Americans remember that two-week period 50 years ago, when Western Union delivered the last of its telegrams that began: "Regret to inform you your [fill in blank: son or husband] . . ."

Calm Response

"I'd come home from Europe in June, and I was in L.A. on V-J Day," said cartoonist Bill Mauldin, 74. "I don't remember a lot about it, except I was overwhelmed by domestic difficulties. I was in the throes of separating from my first wife. I think I took V-J Day pretty calmly. I remember going into a bar, but I'm not sure I even got drunk." Sgt. Mauldin--creator of the bearded, scruffy, unsmiling dogfaces Willie and Joe--had come home, rich and famous, at the age of 23 with a Purple Heart and a Pulitzer Prize. Willie and Joe were neither gung-ho nor particularly patriotic. They just wanted to go home. When Gen. George S. Patton was asked what he thought of Mauldin's cartoons, he replied: "I've only seen two of them, and I thought they were lousy."

Had his editor at Stars and Stripes not stepped in, Mauldin planned to kill Willie and Joe on the last day of the war, probably with a shell exploding on their foxhole. Instead, under pressure from the syndicate that distributed his cartoons to more than 300 newspapers, he brought them home, gave them a shave and put them to work as civilians in a gas station. But "I really didn't know who they were anymore. They lost their identity as soon as the war was over. They were a flop at home, and I stopped drawing them."

Mauldin went on to confront issues he cared about: supporting the civil rights movement and attacking the Ku Klux Klan, the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the militant veterans' organizations whose leadership, he suggested in 1971, should be drafted to finish the Vietnam War. Except for appearing at the funerals of Gen. George C. Marshall in 1959 and Gen. Omar Bradley in 1981, Willie and Joe were not seen again in a Mauldin cartoon. "The Washington Post wanted me to come up with something for the V-J anniversary," said Mauldin, who has been retired since his 1946 jeep slipped off a hoist and crushed his drawing hand three years ago at his Santa Fe, N.M., home. "You know, I couldn't come up with a single idea that I thought was worthy or viable. I finally told them I wasn't going to do it. That was a relief. The war is over. I want it behind me."

*

America, 1945. Bacon cost 41 cents a pound, a dozen eggs, 58 cents. Bess Myerson was Miss America; "The Lost Weekend," a drama about alcoholism starring Ray Milland, was the most popular movie. "For Sentimental Reasons" and "It's Been a Long, Long Time" replaced "Marching Through Berlin" and "We'll Meet Again" on the pop charts. Heiress Barbara Hutton divorced Cary Grant, her third husband, saying, "He made me nervous."

The population reached 140 million and, despite rationing and wartime restrictions, America was prosperous. Nineteen million more people were at work in 1945 than in 1940, and per-capita income had tripled over that span. Ninety-hour workweeks in factories were common. The Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at 169.

A 'Riveting' Symbol

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