They wept, but not as before for lost fathers, brothers and sons.
This time, the tears streamed from joy. A summer day erupted into a nationwide party as weary Americans first collectively exhaled in relief, then celebrated their release from years of pain and sacrifice.
Friday will mark the 70th anniversary of a turning point in history becoming dimmer in the national consciousness with each passing year. Many younger Americans, when pressed, may not know what V-J Day stands for, but the few left amid us who witnessed Victory over Japan Day will never forget it.
On Aug. 14, 1945, President Harry Truman announced that Japan had surrendered unconditionally. World War II finally had ended.
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In cities and towns across America, jubilant crowds poured out into the streets — and State College was no exception.
After the news broke at 7 p.m., the siren at the Penn State power plant began an hour of wailing. Students and residents flooded the intersection of College Avenue and Allen Street.
“People jumped with joy, hugged each other, pushed at one another playfully, shook hands, shook their heads happily, smiled,” the Centre Daily Times reported the next day.
According to the CDT, official word waited while an editor “stood glued to the Associated Press teletype machine.” When the bell rang, signaling a big story, the newspaperman called the university’s Buildings and Grounds office and said to “hold it a minute.”
Then the news of peace clacked out, and the order went out over the phone line: “Let ‘er go.” Seconds later, the power plant siren kicked off a mad celebration.
“A sailor stopped, picked up his girl, kissed her unabashed,” the CDT said. “An elderly woman dropped with her bundles, put them down, wept openly. So did men, women, children.”
People gathered at the power plant to listen to the siren, but others felt like rejoicing more actively, forming impromptu parades.
“The entire fleet of the Alpha Fire Company was on the street in a jiffy, firemen waving and shouting and ringing the bell,” the CDT said. “Residents took to their autos, honking horns continually, shouting, cheering.
“Students rushed down from campus, hovered about the Corner, made V-signs with their fingers. Impromptu snake dances formed on the front campus and razzle-dazzled through the town.”
Robert Brouse, just back to his hometown from serving in an aerial reconnaissance squadron in Italy, was there. He captured the scene with photos that wound up in the possession of his nephew, Larry Harpster, of Baileyville.
“I can’t remember Uncle Bob talked much about it,” Harpster said. “My mother talked about this big crowd down on College Avenue.”
Bellefonte also put on a good show, starting exactly 12 minutes after Truman’s statement when the town’s fire siren “cut loose.”
“For a moment all that was heard in Bellefonte was that now joyous wail, then suddenly the automobile horns joined and Bellefonte wakened from a supper-hour lull, then to an increasing traffic-jammed bedlam,” the CDT said.
Newspaper scraps floated down from office and apartment windows along Allegheny and High streets, and a milling, festive crowd quickly formed.
“Automobiles whizzed through the streets, their horns beeping and trumpeting, and Bellefonters hurried no place in particular to congratulate each other,” the CDT said.
“Someone broke out a bugle in the business district and played discordant brassy notes with nothing more in mind than noise.”
From coast to coast, people rejoiced with similar abandon. No more War Department telegrams would shatter families. After 405,399 dead and more than 600,000 wounded, it was over.
“A City Goes Wild ... And Nobody Cares,” the San Francisco Chronicle’s headline proclaimed in its “Victory Edition.”
“Market Street was the center of the celebration, but there was hilarity and excitement and gratitude — and prayers — throughout the city,” the paper said.
“The air raid sirens sounded first. Then automobile horns, factory whistles and ship’s whistles — and church bells. Anything that could make a noise was blown, or pounded or beaten.”
Crowds clogged streets and brought traffic to a standstill, with servicemen swarming over streetcars.
“By 4:15 o’clock, scarcely a streetcar could move on Market Street. Automobile traffic was at the peril of unsolicited, laughing, shouting passengers, who climbed aboard fenders or perched themselves on roof tops,” the Chronicle said.
In Washington, D.C., George Etzweiler, a Navy fire controlman first class from near Burnham, was watching a movie when a newsreel broke in and stunned the audience.
“When they stopped the film and flashed this on the screen — they obviously had this ready — everything stopped,” recalled Etzweiler, a retired Penn State electrical engineering professor now 95 and living in State College.
“Everybody poured out of the theater yelling and celebrating — and nobody asked for their money back.”
He and his wife, Mary, joined the sea of humanity along Pennsylvania Avenue.
“We celebrated and went home,” he said. “We didn’t go to any bars or anything. We just milled around the street for a while.”
When she heard the news, Josephine Yearick, 101, of State College, couldn’t drop everything and rush outdoors. An Army nurse from Howard Township, she was on duty in a top secret biological warfare research installation at Fort Detrick, Md.
Still, she and the other nurses felt elated.
“They were happy that they could go home soon,” she said. “There was a little bit of sadness with it all because we knew most of us would be leaving or going somewhere else.”
Max Confer, 99, of State College, was stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., where he was an Army medic. The Snow Shoe native had run an aid station during the North African campaign before becoming an instructor.
Soldiers spared the bloodbath of a Japan invasion had reason to rejoice, but Confer remembers low-key reactions around him on the base. So much had happened; so many were gone. They were exhausted.
“I don’t know of anyone celebrating,” he said. “Why should we celebrate? It was a war, and it ended.”
Etzweiler, for one, was relieved. During most of the war, he had been teaching fire control to sailors in San Diego. He was back east to train for a ship assignment, with a cataclysmic invasion awaiting him.
“I’m sure glad I didn’t go,” he said. “Everyone was just so glad that the thing was over. Pent-up emotions just exploded.”