American Victory over Japan
14 August 1945
Japan had been at war with China since 1937 and at war with the United States, British Commonwealth, and the Netherlands since December 1941. (Resistance groups in Japanese-occupied territories also fought against their occupiers, and Mexico sent a fighter squadron that was attached to the 58th Fighter Group, US Army Air Forces.)
The Second World War in the Pacific and Asia was particularly brutal, often take-no-prisoners affair on both sides. Combat intensity only increased in the final months of the war as Allied forces, primarily American, came closer and closer to the Japanese home islands.
On Peleliu (September 15–November 27, 1944) only 33 of approximately 6,000 Japanese on the island were taken alive; American casualties were nearly 10,000, over 1,600 of them killed in action. On Luzon in The Philippines (October 20, 1944—August 15, 1945) some 205,000 Japanese were killed; US fatalities were over 8,300; an estimated 100,000 civilians died in the battle for the city of Manila.
The Battle of Iwo Jima (February 19–March 26, 1945) cost 6,500 American dead and another 20,000 wounded. (Twenty-two Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines, four to Navy corpsmen and one to a Navy officer for actions on Iwo Jima, one-third of all Medals of Honor awarded to the Marine Corps during WWII.) Between 95,000 and 100,000 Japanese died; only 300 were taken prisoner.
Then came Okinawa (March–June 1945). Some 107,000 Japanese and Okinawans, military and civilian, died in the struggle; women threw their babies off cliffs into the sea and then jumped themselves because they had been led to believe, falsely, that the Americans would torture them. The US Army suffered approximately 50,000 killed and wounded. The Marine Corps accounted for about 17,000 more. In the waters offshore, nearly 10,000 Navy personnel were killed or wounded, most of them victims of a new Japanese tactic—kamikazes, suicide pilots following orders to dive their bomb-laden planes into US and British ships.
These intense, costly struggles led an American journalist to predict an invasion of the Japanese home islands would cost 1,000,000 Allied casualties. American military planners anticipated about one-third that amount, still a very high cost. All Allied service personnel and the people back home feared how bloody the campaign would be. Combat veterans from the war in Europe awaited orders to transfer to the Pacific.
The invasion became unnecessary after American B-29s dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima on August 6 and another on Nagasaki on August 9, largely obliterating those cities. The same day the bomb fell on Nagasaki the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, keeping with its promise to enter the Asian war three months after the defeat of Germany. Faced with these deadly new weapons and insurmountable odds, Japan’s emperor, Hirohito, announced on August 14 that he would accept the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender.
V-J Day celebrations, August 15, 1945
Rumors of Japan’s surrender had been circulating among the Home Front in the Allied nations, and some premature spontaneous celebrations had taken place over the previous days. On August 14, crowds anxiously awaited some official word that the latest rumor of Japanese surrender was true. In New York City the scrolling news feed on the outside of the Times Tower announced at 7:03 p.m., OFFICIAL – TRUMAN ANNOUNCES JAPANESE SURRENDER, setting off a roar from a crowd estimated at two million.
In the nation’s capital, crowds danced on the lawn of the White House and chanted, “We want Harry.” Finally, President Harry S Truman stepped out and proclaimed, “This is the day we have been waiting for since Pearl Harbor. This is the day when Fascism finally dies, as we always knew it would.” In Leyte Gulf, off the Philippines, and at naval bases across the Pacific pyrotechnic flares were fired in celebration. In Toronto’s Chinatown, as in Chinatowns in the US and elsewhere, joyous celebrations broke out amid the smoke from fireworks.
In Great Britain, Prime Minister Clement Atlee broadcast news of the surrender at midnight, saying, “The last of our enemies is laid low.” He expressed gratitude to Britain’s Commonwealth allies, as well as those from all countries occupied by Japan who had fought against the imperial aggressor, and to the USSR. The prime minister reserved special thanks for the United States, “without whose prodigious efforts the war in the East would still have many years to run.”
In Australia, on the other side of the International Date Line, it was mid-morning of August 15 when Prime Minister Ben Chifley announced over the radio that Japan had surrendered. Australians danced in the streets; traffic came to a halt; piles of shredded paper tossed from windows were so deep in places that they looked like snow. A narrator of a newsreel shot during the revelries summed up the crowded streets with a joke: “As one sardine said to the other, ‘How would you like to be people?'” The spontaneous celebrations of the 15th gave way on the 16th to formal events that had been planned in advance and were only awaited the hoped-for word: Peace. Among the Chinese immigrants and their descendants in Australia, the day was called VC Day (Victory in China).
Australian soldiers helped them parade a ceremonial dragon through the streets.
On New Zealand, sirens sounded immediately when the glorious news was announced around 11 a.m. Soon, bands played and people danced in the streets although it was a wet and windy day, but public regulations kept the spontaneous outpourings to a manageable level. Over 11, 600 New Zealanders had given their lives fighting in the war. Given the island nation’s small population, this represented the highest per capita casualties in the British Commonwealth.
In China, where the war had been going on the longest, celebrations were often more subdued. One Chinese who had been a schoolchild on August 15 recalled that students were called out of their classrooms for an emergency assembly on the playground by the flagpole. Their principal raised China’s “White Sun and Blue Sky” flag and sang the national anthem. The students were informed Japan had surrendered and China was now one of the “Four Great Powers” of the world.
In Korea, the Korean National Anthem was played and sung in the streets, and reportedly Japanese “Rising Sun” flags were repainted to resemble the Taegeukgi, the Korean flag. In many communities the Bonganjeon, the shine containing the Japanese emperor’s picture, was destroyed. Arrangements were made to free Korean independence activists from prison.
In the USSR, the war against Germany, “the Great Patriotic War,” had been the great moment of the war, and observations of the end of the war against Japan were minor compared to the celebrations the previous May.