How Americans Experienced V-E Day, at Home and in ServiceHistorians/History
tags: World War 2, V-E Day, Homefront
A retired Army officer, contributing editor Fred Zilian is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University. (www.zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) He is the author of From Confrontation to Cooperation: The Takeover of the National People’s (East German) Army by the Bundeswehr.
As the pandemic restrictions are lifted in the coming weeks, the joy we feel will not compare to the exultation Americans felt 75 years ago on Victory in Europe Day.
The preceding five months had been exceptionally momentous. On December 16, 1944, German forces initiated their final major offensive in the west, attempting to reverse the relentless advance of the allied forces. The allied forces were caught off guard, but recovered and repulsed it.
In early February, 1945, allied leaders—President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Marshal Joseph Stalin—met at Yalta to address key war issues. Most important were two. The Soviets pledged to enter the war against Japan within three months of the end of the war in the west. Second, the leaders decided on a plan for the postwar occupation of Germany.
On March 22, 1945, Allied forces launched the land invasion of Germany in the west, eventually turning south of Berlin.
On April 4, 1945, U.S. forces liberated its first German concentration camp, the Ohrdruf camp, a sub-camp of the larger Buchenwald camp, liberated on April 11.
On April 16, the Soviet Union launched its attack on Berlin from the east. On April 25, U.S. and Soviet forces finally linked up on a bridge over the Elbe River. The Russians waved a banner which read: “Our Greetings to the Brave Troops of the American First Army.”
During these hopeful yet anxious months, this is what American life at home was like. We went to the movies. We might have still been enjoying “To Have and Have Not,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, during the filming of which they fell in love. Released in the first months of 1945 were “Mom and Dad,” “Laura,” “Jungle Queen,” “National Velvet,” starring a young Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, “The Three Caballeros,” “The Body Snatcher,” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” and “Dillinger.”
Just before V-E Day, on May 3, 1945, the movie, “The Valley of Decision,” premiered, starring Greer Garson and Gregory Peck. The highest grossing movie in 1945 was “The Bells of St. Mary,” starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman.
We listened to our radios. The most popular new songs of this period were “Rum and Coca Cola” by the Andrew Sisters, “Till the End of Time” by Perry Como, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” by Johnny Mercer, and “It’s been a Long, Long, Time” by Bing Crosby and Les Paul. The most popular song of the year was “Sentimental Journey” by Les Brown and His Orchestra and Doris Day.
Gonna take a sentimental journey/Gonna set my heart at ease/Gonna make a sentimental journey/To renew old memories.
Got my bag, got my reservation/Spent each dime I could afford/Like a child in wild anticipation/Long to hear that all aboard.
We went to dance halls and USO clubs and danced to these songs. The most popular dances were the many variations of the Swing: the Lindy Hop, the East Coast Swing, the West Coast Swing, the Carolina Shag, and Lindy Charleston.
We read books. The most popular new books of the year included: “Animal Farm,” by George Orwell, “Pippi Longstocking,”by Astrid Lindgren, “The Glass Menagerie,” by Tennessee Williams, “Brideshead Revisited,” by Evelyn Waugh, and “Stuart Little,” by E. B. White.
Because of war production, no commercial cars, trucks, or auto parts were produced February, 1942 to October, 1945. The cars we drove at the time included: the Ford, the Chevrolet Deluxe, the Chrysler Town and Country, the Dodge Custom Town Sedan, the Pontiac Streamliner, and the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser 98.
Eggs cost 58 cents, a loaf of bread 9 cents, a pound of butter 51 cents, and a gallon of gas 21 cents.
Sixteen million Americans wore a uniform during WW II, including nearly 300,000 women. One soldier from Rhode Island was Walter K. Schroder, who had an exceptional experience during the war. The son of German immigrants, Schroder who was born in Pawtucket, RI. However he spent his early years in Germany and when the war came, he—then 15 years old—was drafted into the German Army. He was captured by the British and served as an interpreter. After his release, he decided to join the U.S. Army and became an interpreter for U.S. intelligence in western Germany. This unusual wartime experience is related in his autobiography, “Stars and Swastikas: The Boy Who Wore Two Uniforms.”
To our “boys” overseas we sent cookies, sweets, and cigarettes, and wrote and received letters. Alberta Anderson Finke of Denair, California, saved more than 300 letters from friends and schoolmates written during the war.
One soldier wrote: “There is snow all over the ground, but we manage to keep warm. The CO [commanding officer] knows only one way, and that is to march us until we get warm.”
From a sailor: “One good thing about the Navy is they can only work you for 24 hours a day. But I guess there is a war going on—darn it!”
Every letter from overseas or from a ship or military installation had a stamp on the envelope that said, “Passed by U.S. Army Examiner,” or “Passed by Naval Censor.” One letter read: “The other night I wrote a cousin of mine a 14-page letter. I bet the censor sure was tired when he got through reading it!”
A soldier writing to a girl back home: “Your picture was very much of a surprise as I find you have grown into a very nice-looking young lady.” After eight months of letters between the two: “We fellows in the hut have a picture of either our sweetheart, sister, or some girl we know, and, of course, we all try to have the best, so you should feel pretty proud to know you were chosen ‘Miss Hut 14.’”
Some GI code existed: An upside-down stamp meant: “I love you.” “SWAK” stood for “sealed with a kiss.”
Corporal Robert L. Cook wrote to his wife Eunice in South Bend, Indiana, ending his letter of September 30, 1944: “Well, sweetie, just double how much you miss me and you’ll have how much I miss you. It isn’t so bad tho’ as long as we are both healthy, so just keep pitching and our day will come. Yours forever, Bob.”
On April 30, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Fuehrerbunker in Berlin, his body cremated by aides. That night Soviet troops fought their way into the heart of the city, seized the Reichstag and raised the Soviet flag. German forces accepted defeat on May 2.
On Tuesday, May 8, 1945, the New York Times bold headline read: “The War in Europe Is Ended! Surrender Is Unconditional; V-E Will Be Proclaimed Today …”
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