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On Point

A Look Back at V-E Day


by Austin Bay
May 4, 2005

For the crowd in Piccadilly Circus, the first V-E Day -- Victory Europe, May 8, 1945 -- was a manic moment of relief and release.

With the Nazis defeated, "the lights came on again in England" and Piccadilly erupted with a spontaneous street party.

Sixty years later, the impact of V-E Day is fading. The war in the Pacific tempered V-E Day's celebrations, and many soldiers and sailors weren't convinced that all German resistance had ceased. But like Pearl Harbor, people remember where they were when they heard the news, and the spontaneous combustion of May 8, 1945, left deep -- if mixed -- memories.

To experience V-E Day with the pulse of the present tense, listen to Edward R. Murrow's live-from-London radio report (archived on the Internet at hearitnow.umd.edu/1945.htm).

The clip begins with Murrow's cool, measured baritone, but five sentences in, his pace quickens. "I can remember this place," Murrow says, describing Piccadilly under air attack, "when it was completely empty and you could read a newspaper by the light of the flares dropped by German bombers ..." But, "Tonight you can walk on the heads of people ..." The occasional bang in the background isn't flak, Murrow notes, it's "effervescent people shooting off fireworks."

Fireworks, not flak -- sounds like a Hollywood ending, a triumphant climax with a kiss in Berkeley Square the perfect denouement. That's not the way it was -- World War Two, like all wars, didn't end, it subsided. I don't blame Murrow's superb report -- time has obscured the day's scars, uncertainty and doubts.

Bob Gilbert, an American B-17 gunner, had a different view of Piccadilly's party. "V-E Day, 1945, was fraught with irony and frustration for me," Gilbert wrote in a note on my Web site. "As a 19-year-old veteran of 35 combat missions over Germany, I was delighted for the defeat of Germany and also because I was on a troop ship" in England getting ready to sail to the United States.

However, the troop ship maintained wartime blackout rules because its skipper thought U-boats might be prowling. "The harbor was alive with lights and boats of all types plying back and forth, tooting horns and shooting off flares. We could hear female laughter. Everywhere there was joyous celebration, but we could not light so much as a cigarette on the deck of our ship. I and my fellow returnees had to stand in the dark and watch the great city celebrate this great victory we had helped win and yet not be allowed to participate." Gilbert now lives in Murrieta, Calif.

William Clarkson had a definite "Pacific perspective" on V-E Day. "I was aboard LSM 270 (landing ship medium) at Okinawa," Clarkson wrote, "when we heard that the war was over. It (the war) wasn't for us, as fighting was still going on in the East China Sea. After Okinawa was secured, we were preparing to invade Japan. President Truman ordered the atomic bomb on Japan, thus ending the war in the Pacific and saving the lives of probably 1 million Americans, including myself."

My father, Tom Bay, echoed Clarkson. "We were in basic training at Camp Hood, getting ready to go fight Japan," Dad said. "We knew the war had been winding down in Europe, but it wasn't over in the Far East."

Dad said the training commanders confined the troops to quarters so they couldn't celebrate. "For the parents and families of prisoners held in German camps, it meant their wait would soon be over," Dad added.

My mother, Jean, didn't party, she prayed. She was a junior at the University of Texas. When Mom and five other women in the Scottish Rite Dormitory heard the news, they walked across the street to All Saints Church and said a collective prayer of thanksgiving.

"It was a spontaneous thing," she said. "We were thankful it was over in Europe" -- but it wasn't finished in the Pacific. Loved ones remained in harm's way. Their party would have to wait until V-J Day, Victory Japan, Aug. 14, 1945.

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