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.