The following is the introduction to LIFE’s special issue The Road to VJ Day
On the evening of August 14, 1945, the words “OFFICAL—TRUMAN ANNOUNCES JAPANESE SURRENDER” streamed around the New York Times Tower’s news zipper. President Harry S. Truman’s proclamation marking the end of World War II unleashed a wave of communal ecstasy. Before long, some 2 million people packed into Times Square. They tossed hats into the air, cheered, embraced, and cried. From high up in office buildings and hotels, others threw down confetti and streamers. “The victory roar that greeted the announcement beat upon the eardrums until it numbed the senses,” observed the Times.
Meanwhile, locals dressed in ritualistic dragon costumes led processions along Chinatown’s narrow downtown streets as people crammed onto fire escapes, waved American and Chinese flags, and watched the sacred dance that symbolized peace. Across the East River in Queens, thousands staged impromptu parades, and in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, residents strung up effigies of Japanese emperor Hirohito. Soldiers, sailors, and small boys first used them for target practice, and then set them ablaze. Similar celebrations broke out from Maine to California. And far to the west, in Honolulu, where the war began for America with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, church bells pealed, military bands strutted, and families turned out in their Sunday best, while soldiers, sailors, Marines, and civilians hopped into jeeps and cars and cruised around the city, blaring their horns.
The most devastating war in human history was truly, indisputably over. It was almost impossible to believe. In Europe, where Nazi Germany had surrendered on May 7, troops who had nervously been preparing to take part in a planned invasion of Japan let out a collective sigh of joyous relief. Paul Fussell was a second lieutenant based near Rheims, France. Thirty-six years later the author recalled in an essay for the New Republic that “for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried . . . We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all.”
Japan had begun the war in China by attacking Beijing in 1937; with Adolf Hitler’s ravenous aggression in Europe two years later, bloodshed spread like a pandemic across the globe, taking the lives of 65 million people, including more than 400,000 American servicepeople. After years of grinding, seemingly interminable conflict, two U.S. attacks on Japanese cities with a terrifying new weapon hastened the war’s end. The first use of the atomic bomb, on August 6, 1945, destroyed Hiroshima; the second, three days later, devastated Nagasaki. The twin mushroom clouds are believed to have killed almost 200,000 people and seemed to have been unleashed by an omnipotent, supernatural being, one whose wrathful power forced Hirohito—whom his people viewed as a descendant of the gods—to surrender.
Some 27,000 U.S. military members had been held prisoner by the emperor’s forces. One of those now liberated was Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright, who had been imprisoned since the Philippines fell in 1942. Wainwright was the highest-ranking American POW, and following his release General Douglas MacArthur made sure he was on hand to take part in the official Victory Over Japan Day on September 2, 1945, as a witness to Japan’s formal surrender onboard the USS Missouri.
While many states once celebrated that signing, now only Rhode Island remembers the occasion with its Victory Day. And of the 16 million Americans who served in the war, no more than 300,000 now survive. A dozen of those who fought at the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945 returned to that speck of a volcanic island, now called Iwo To, in March 2019 to commemorate one of the Pacific war’s bloodiest engagements, which took the lives of about 6,800 Americans and some 18,000 Japanese. Also at the ceremony were U.S. Marines and Japanese military troops. Yoshitaka Shindo, a member of Japan’s House of Representatives and the grandson of Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the battle’s Japanese commander, also came to honor the fallen.
The once strapping and now bent American warriors all wondered why they were the lucky ones who could be there. “I had a lot of Marine buddies killed here,” said E. Bruce Heilman, who served as a sergeant (and died at 93 in October 2019). “For 74 years these guys have been dead, and I’ve been having family and marriages and success. You think about that. Why me?” And Barney Leone, a former machinist’s mate second class on the USS Nemasket, likewise remembered friends who headed off to their deaths, and how after the war he devoted his life to visiting schools to teach about the war and tell of the heroics of his comrades. “They died for each one of you,” he said. “The freedom that you’re enjoying, myself included, somebody paid for with their life. Appreciate the freedom you have, try to get along with each other. I’m 94 years of age now. I think I’m here to carry that mission out for those who are not able to be here to do that.”
Here are a selection of the many photos that appear in LIFE’s special issue The Road to VJ Day.