The Road to VJ Day, 75 Years Later

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.

Cover image: Joe Rosenthal/AP/Shutterstock

Smoke billowed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.

U.S. Navy/National Archives

During the attack on Pearl Harbor, the battleship known as the West Virginia (center, foreground), shredded by bombs and torpedoes, was on fire and sinking. Behind her, the Tennessee was struck by two bombs but would emerge from repairs In May 1943 and go on to participate in some of the most critical actions in the war, from Tarawa to Okinawa. At the far left, the hull of the Oklahoma is visible behind rescue boats.

U.S. Navy

On Dec. 8, 1941, one day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war against Japan as he addressed Congress in a joint session. War was declared by both houses within a half hour of the President’s speech.

Bettman/Getty

In 1942 Japanese Americans saluted the flag during their forced internment during World War II.

Photo by Hansel Mieth/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Gen. Douglas MacArthur (C) and Gen. Richard Sutherland (L) and Col. Lloyd Lherbas waded ashore during the American landing at Lingayen Gulf on January 9, 1945.

Photo by Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Two emaciated American civilians, Lee Rogers (L) and John C. Todd, sat outside a gym which had been used as a Japanese prison camp following their release by Allied forces liberating the city, February 1, 1945.

Photo by Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

In September 1945, soldiers raised the American flag at Atsugi Airbase in Japan as the first occupying forces arrived.

Photo by Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

October 1945: This Hiroshima neighborhood had been reduced to rubble by one of the two atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Japan, bringing World War II to an end.

Bernard Hoffman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

On December 7, 2015 in Honolulu, U.S.S. Arizona survivor Lou Conter saluted the Arizona Remembrance Wall during a memorial service marking the 74th Anniversary of the attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

Celebrate the 1970s

LIFE’s brand new special issue Celebrate the 70s, a lively romp in photos and words, is available for purchase here.

If you were a child in the 1970s, and Vietnam and Watergate were just background buzzwords on the AM radio as you sat—unbuckled—in your father’s wood-paneled station wagon, the decade could seem like one continuous, cloud-swept “sunny day,” to borrow the lyrical phrase that opened every episode of Sesame Street. 

It wasn’t, of course, and for stretches of the ’70s, that station wagon had to idle in a long line at a gas station as a newscaster droned on about oil embargoes and OPEC. Despite this, or possibly because of it, the yellow smiley-face icon—invented in the 1960s by a man named Harvey Ball, and later appropriated and marketed with the phrase “Have a Happy Day”—became ubiquitous in the 1970s. Long before emojis, that smiley face appeared on T-shirts and coffee mugs and bumper stickers that reminded children riding shotgun in the family land-yacht: “Have a Happy Day.”

Happy Days, the No. 1 program on American TV in the mid-1970s, became so popular that Henry Winkler, who played its breakout character Fonzie, was stopped on the street in Manhattan by an astonished fan from England. “The Fonz!” said a starstruck Paul McCartney in greeting the actor. In doing so, the coolest man of 1967 passed a metaphorical baton on a Lexington Avenue sidewalk to the coolest man of 1977.

That same summer in New York, there was a 23-hour blackout that kicked off city-wide riots, looting, and arson, and a serial killer named Son of Sam was on the loose. Yet in much of the country the prevailing mood of the ’70s somehow remained “C’mon Get Happy,” as expressed in the theme song for the hugely popular Partridge Family, whose TV rivals on The Brady Bunch performed a hit of their own called “Sunshine Day.” 

Much of this nominal happiness in the so-called Me Decade—a phrase coined in a seminal essay by author Tom Wolfe—was in the service of self-improvement and ecological awakening. “The pursuit of happiness is a planet whose resources are devoted to the physical and spiritual nourishment of its inhabitants,” said President Jimmy Carter. And indeed, Carter’s own rise to the presidency from a peanut farm in Plains, Georgia, represented a clean break from Richard Nixon and the endless scandal of Watergate. Carter, elected in 1976, was caricatured for his oversize smile and his bib-overalled brother, Billy, who flogged his own brand of beer and who earned, by dint of $5,000 personal-appearance fees, more than the President did. “Billy’s making so much money, he’s financing a pipeline to Milwaukee,” said Johnny Carson, conjuring a beer pipeline to rival the newly opened Alaskan oil pipeline. Carson’s nightly monologue on The Tonight Show gave buoyancy to the weighty news of the day, putting millions of Americans to sleep with a smile. 

And so, perhaps, did The Joy of Sex, which was published in 1972 and remained on the New York Times best-seller list until 1974. It sold 12 million copies worldwide in a decade that was slightly louche, gold-chained, hairy-chested, wide-lapeled. In many ways, the ’70s aren’t preserved in amber so much as entombed in a block of cheese. The decade didn’t take itself terribly seriously, and at times it couldn’t take itself seriously, given its much-loved signature kitsch: lime-green leisure suits, appliances in colors of avocado and harvest gold, the AMC Gremlin subcompact car, shag carpeting, Pet Rocks, the Bermuda Triangle, the disaster films of Irwin Allen, Jell-O molds and casseroles, white belts and white loafers and white suits like the one John Travolta wore in Saturday Night Fever, or the white suits worn by the storm troopers in Star Wars. Think of the Houston Oilers’ Billy (White Shoes) Johnson as he danced in the Astrodome end zone on Monday Night Football; or the white outfits worn by the Hudson Brothers on their Saturday morning kids’ show, The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show; or the white spikes worn by the Oakland A’s, who won three World Series and came to be known as the Swingin’ A’s.

In the swingin’ ’70s, nothing swung harder than the Boeing 747, which made its maiden voyage in January of 1970, and had a spiral staircase leading to an upstairs lounge—often a piano bar, where transatlantic passengers could enjoy a Harvey Wallbanger from New York to London.

As those travelers raised a highball at high altitude, consider that the ’70s were worth celebrating in other ways, as well. This is, in part, a celebration of the ’70s and the biggest celebration of that celebrated decade was devoted to the Bicentennial, a party that peaked on the Fourth of July in 1976, with fireworks and tall ships in New York Harbor and parades—and Bicentennial mattress sales—on every Main Street. The celebration lasted all year. 

But the era was often tragic, too, and occasioned national reckoning, collective self-examination, and mourning, especially as America began its slow extrication from Vietnam. Emerging from the long shadows of war and Watergate, while enduring energy crises and environmental horrors, people naturally embraced diversion and a kind of dogged determination to be happy—or at least hopeful.

So there was Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat into the sky in downtown Minneapolis at the start of the show that bore her name, and whose theme song was “Love Is All Around.” Coca-Cola gathered young people from various nations on a hill in Italy to sing “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” which became a pop hit for the Hillside Singers when retooled as “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony).” Other soft rock acts of the ’70s, like Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and Peter Frampton, sold zillions of albums in the heyday of the LP, but they and everything else in its path were eventually overtaken by disco, the strobe-light-illuminated, hip-gyrating music that pervaded the culture, from film to fashion, and catalyzed the sybaritic party that was Studio 54. An inevitable backlash ensued, and the world was eventually inoculated against disco fever, so that by the time the 1980s arrived, there was already a what-were-we-thinking hangover to the decade just passed. 

Still, the ’70s were vitally important, as every decade is, and shifted American culture, as every decade does. It is easy to get lost in the ’70s, like a marble dropped into shag carpeting. Suspended between the counter­cultural revolution of the ’60s, and the fall of communism in the ’80s, the ’70s were often portrayed as frivolous. “Don’t sneeze or you’ll blow the whole thing away,” as Tom Wolfe sniffed in Esquire’s last issue of the decade. The 1970s often survive only as a stage set that has been struck, loaded onto trucks, driven into posterity, and remembered by its props: Pet Rocks, pull tabs, rotary phones, bell bottoms, banana seats, and eight-track tapes. 

And yet, the decade contained all of life, for what is now history was once the present. “These are the good old days,” as Carly Simon sang in 1971, in a song—“Anticipation”—that would later be used to sell ketchup. “Thick, rich, Heinz ketchup,” declared American Top 40 host Casey Kasem, whose voice—thick and rich—provided the soundtrack for a decade that continues to fascinate, resonate, and deliver music to our ears.

Here is a selection of the photos from the LIFE special issue Celebrate the 70s:

Clockwise from top: Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson and Farrah Fawcett formed TV's crime-fighting trio, Charlie's Angels. Richard Nixon bid farewell, saying, "I am not a crook." The Village People scored with YMCA, and John Travolta went from Sweathog to superstar in Saturday Night Fever..

Clockwise from top: Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson and Farrah Fawcett formed TV’s crime-fighting trio, Charlie’s Angels. Richard Nixon bid farewell, saying, “I am not a crook.” The Village People scored with YMCA, and John Travolta went from Sweathog to superstar in Saturday Night Fever..

Photo credits (clockwise from top): Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images; Bettmann/Getty Images; CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images; Michael Ochs Archives/Moviepix/Getty Images

Women marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City as a part of the Women’s Equality March on August 26, 1970. The march, organized by the National Organization for Women, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted American women full suffrage.

John Olson/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In 1973 released prisoner of war Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm was greeted by his family at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., as he returned home from the Vietnam War.

Sal Veder/AP/Shutterstock

The Watergate scandal toppled the presidency of Richard Nixon, leading to his resignation in August 1974; here he delivered a farewell address to his staff, flanked by his wife Pat, daughter Tricia and son-in-law Edward F. Cox.

Wally McNamee/Corbis/Getty Images

The bicentennial in 1976 gave Americans, including this group of children in Washington, D.C., a chance to celebrate the stars and stripes.

AP/Shutterstock

One of the biggest TV hits of the 1970s was a nostalgic look back at the ’50s. The cast of Happy Days featured (standing, L-R) Henry Winkler, Tom Bosley, Anson Williams and Marion Ross; and (seated, L-R) Donny Most, Erin Moran and Ron Howard.

Walt Disney Television/ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

The Bee Gees (L-R Maurice Gibb, Robin Gibb and Barry Gibb) laid down the disco grooves of the decade with their hit soundtrack to the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever; it is the most popular soundtrack ever, with more than 45 million sold.

Ed Caraeff/Getty Images

Celebrities at the Studio 54 New Year’s Eve party in 1978 included (L-R) Halston, Bianca Jagger, Jack Haley, Jr. and wife Liza Minnelli and Andy Warhol.

Robin Platzer/Twin Images/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

In 1979 President Jimmy Carter helped broker a peace treaty between Egypt’s Anwar Sadat (left) and Israel’s Menachim Begin; the leaders clasped hands on the North Lawn of the White House after signing the agreement.

Bob Daugherty/AP/Shutterstock

Gas shortages meant long lines at the pump, New York State, 1979.

Bill Pierce/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Cooling towers took on a newly ominous bearing after the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant in Dauphin County, Pa.

Bill Pierce/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Jaws: The Shark Movie That Changed the World

The following was adapted from Richard Jerome’s introduction to LIFE’s brand new special issue Jaws: The Shark Movie That Changed the World.

Forty-five years ago, in the summer of 1975, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws transformed the Hollywood landscape, sparked a cultural phenomenon, and took a huge bite out of the collective psyche. Visually compelling and augmented by an iconic musical score, the adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel about a great white shark terrorizing a beach resort was a masterpiece of the thriller genre. From the movie’s opening moments, when a young woman gets devoured while taking an evening skinny-dip, Spielberg—just 27 when he made the picture—grabs us and never lets go. “I went to the third public screening in Hollywood, and the whole audience jumped as one when the girl was yanked under by the shark,” recalls film historian and screenwriter Joseph McBride, author of Steven Spielberg, A Biography. “It was like a wave. The only comparable experience I’d had was while working as a vendor at Milwaukee County Stadium on November 24, 1963, the day Lee Harvey Oswald was shot. I was walking through the stands and everybody had these portable radios and the news came rippling through the stadium.”

Jaws would become history’s highest-grossing film (eclipsed in 1977 by Star Wars), but it’s remarkable that it ever got made in the first place. The shoot on Martha’s Vineyard—directed by a rising but relatively unknown young filmmaker—was notoriously arduous,  not least because the elaborately designed mechanical sharks used for the title character constantly malfunctioned. As it turned out, those snafus made Jaws a better film. The villain doesn’t even make an appearance until 81 minutes into the picture—in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock and other masters of suspense, it was the idea of the shark, the unseen menace lurking in the depths, that had audiences grabbing their seats. “[Jaws producer] Richard Zanuck told me back in the ’90s that if you made the film today, they would have used CGI and it would be stupid and unreal,” McBride says. “It would all look like a cartoon, what they would do is have the shark do all sorts of stunts. I actually saw the storyboards they’d done for Jaws, and it showed the [mechanical] shark jumping and doing all kinds of tricks. Spielberg was thin ing of doing that . . . [but] he later realized that what made the film work was you didn’t see the shark very much.”

On another level, the movie is also a gripping sea chase, with parallels to Melville’s Moby-Dick, featuring three nuanced main characters—conflicted police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), witty, rational ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and Ahabian shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw). Still, for all Jaws’s treasures, Spielberg nearly got the axe when the production went a whopping 300 percent over budget and the shooting schedule tripled from 55 days to 159.

“I think Sid Sheinberg [then head of Universal Pictures] always blocked the intention of Ned Tanen [the studio’s production chief] to fire me,” the director told Entertainment Weekly decades later. “Dick Zanuck and [coproducer] David Brown always told me that the other shoe was about to drop. They always warned me. And they didn’t warn me to threaten me or to intimidate me, they just said, ‘Is there anything you can do with the script, with the schedule, to avert a shutdown? What can you do?’ And I didn’t have anything to do, because I couldn’t cut the script . . . I had to just keep moving forward, and the schedule was dictated by the mechanical shark, and by the weather conditions on the ocean. That’s what dictated the overrun. And I think every time there was an intention to replace me, Sid stepped in quietly behind the scenes and stopped it from happening.”

Perhaps, but Carl Gottlieb, who wrote the shooting script for Jaws and played a small acting role, credits the director’s business acumen, as well as his cinematic talents, for the film’s survival and monster success. “Steven had a superb sense of camera, in spades; he was very assured of his directorial vision—and he was also a consummate player of studio politics,” says Gottlieb, whose book The Jaws Log is a vivid account of the production. “He knew how to get executives to kind of see things his way and was also very aware of budget and schedules. He could carry it all in his head. Steven was quite the wunderkind.” The industry took notice: Jaws earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and took home three Oscars, for film editing, sound, and John Williams’s score.

On the business, side, Jaws, released on June 20, 1975, was one of the first “summer blockbusters.” Traditionally Hollywood studios saw those months as a dead zone, fit for a diet of low-budget B-grade cheese. One reason was that movie houses were just plain hot—who wanted to sweat for two hours or more in a leather or otherwise upholstered seat? By the late 1960s, however, more and more theaters were air-conditioned, which no doubt played a part in the summer release of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, Easy Rider in 1969, and American Graffiti in 1973. When Jaws hit screens, multiplex cinemas were proliferating around the country, many of them in air-conditioned shopping malls—which were soon swarming with teens and tweens, a mine of potential moviegoers. Today, some 40 percent of Hollywood’s annual box office revenue comes from summer releases.

It’s difficult to believe now, but Jaws was also the first Hollywood movie to be aggressively advertised on television. For three nights leading up to the movie’s premiere, Universal flooded all three major networks with half-minute- long trailers. The campaign cost about $700,000—not a bad investment for a property that quickly passed a record- busting $100 million at the box office and eventually grossed $260 million in the domestic market alone. (The studio spent $1.8 million total in pre-opening advertising, an unheard of amount at the time.) Jaws spawned three sequels and innumerable knockoff flicks about man-eating animals. It also inspired a fascination with sharks—as well as an unwarranted fear that led to a frenzy of overfishing and wreaked profound ecological consequences.

For two generations of film fans, of course, Jaws may be most notable for unleashing the juggernaut known as Steven Spielberg. The director, now 73, is a Hollywood institution, with a résumé including E.T. the Extra-TerrestrialClose Encounters of the Third Kind, the Indiana Jones films, Jurassic ParkSchindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan. Perhaps none of those acclaimed works is more accomplished than Jaws. “When I saw the audience reacting that first time I thought it was sort of a Grand Guignol kind of thriller film, though terrific in that regard,” McBride says. “The more I’ve seen it, it seems very positively restrained by comparison to today’s action films that have gotten so explosive and so violent. It’s a terrific character study of three men. A lot of the film is very intimate on those guys and their relationships.”

—Here are a selection of the many images that appear in LIFE’s special issue, Jaws: The Shark Movie That Changed the World.

Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty

Steven Spielberg (second from the right) was only 27 when he took the helm to direct actors (l-r) Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws.

Universal Studios/Moviepix/Getty Images

Director Steven Spielberg and producer Richard Zanuck conferred on the set of Jaws in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

Michael Ochs Archives/Moviepix/Getty Images

Roy Scheider, second from left, filmed a scene for Jaws, Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., 1975.

Michael Ochs Archives/Universal Studios/Moviepix/Getty Images

Robart Shaw brought a salty edge to his portrayal of Quint.

Universal Studios/Moviepix/Getty Images

In one of the movie’s many iconic moments, police chief Martin Brody, (Roy Scheider) and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) searched the insides of a shark; they find a Louisiana license plate but no proof that this shark had been hunting in Vineyard waters.

Silver Screen Collection/Moviepix/Getty Images

The hard-scrabble Quint and the scientifically oriented Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss) were the odd couple of the shark-hunting team.

Universal Studios/Moviepix/Getty Images

Spielberg’s shark, hidden for much of the movie, was never more visible to the audience than when it came partway aboard to attack Quint.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

In 2018 beaches like this one in Truro, Mass., were closed to swimmers and surfers because of a shark attack off the shores of Cape Cod.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

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