Victory in Europe Day on 8 May 1945 saw the end of war in Europe. Yet the fighting was not over and World War Two continued to rage in the Pacific. Soldiers knew they could likely be redeployed to East Asia where British and US forces would continue to fight the Japanese Empire for a further 3 months.
The war between the US and Japan came to a head when the US dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on 6 and 9 August respectively. These atomic attacks followed months of heavy Allied bombings on top of 60 Japanese cities. With colossal numbers of civilian casualties, the Japanese were eventually forced to share their intentions to surrender the next day (10 August).
Just days later, victory was declared over the Japanese. Soldiers and civilians across the world rejoiced: in New York’s Times Square, Sydney, London and Shanghai, thousands gathered to celebrate and dance in the streets. For many, 14 August became ‘Victory over Japan Day‘ or VJ Day, following ‘Victory in Europe Day’ or VE Day marking the Allies’ acceptance of Nazi Germany’s official surrender.
On 2 September the end of the war was enshrined in the official treaty of surrender, signed aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. This has since been the date chosen by the US to celebrate VJ Day, declared by President Harry Truman in 1945.
What happened next?
The war was seemingly over and at the news of peace, Allied troops (particularly Americans) were desperate to finally go home – all 7.6 million of them. Over 4 years these servicemen were transported to the Far East and it was going to take months to return them.
In order to decide who would go home first, the US War Department used a points-based system, with each serviceman or woman getting an individual score. Points were awarded based on how many months you had been active since 16 September 1941, any medals or honours you had been awarded, and how many children under 18 you had (up to 3 were considered). Those with points above 85 would go home first, and women needed fewer points.
However, even those who met the score for going home could not leave as there was a shortage of ships available to transport them, especially as the rush caused bottlenecks and frustration. “Bring the boys back home!” became the rallying call from both servicemen abroad and their families at home as pressures mounted on the US government.
“No Boats, No Votes”
While a steady stream of soldiers were being sent home, those that remained went nearly crazed in their desperation to be repatriated. In the months that followed, soldiers protested the delays in demobilising and their homecoming in a way that would have been unthinkable before August 1945, insulting military superiors and disobeying orders. Technically, these men were committing treason under Articles 66 and 67 of the Articles of War.
Protests peaked on Christmas Day 1945 when a shipment of soldiers was cancelled from Manila. Servicemen stationed in Manila and Tokyo expressed their anger at the government by making stamps that said “No Boats, No Votes” to stamp letters heading back to the US. At the same time, communists fed the discontent by suggesting the slowed demobilisation of US troops was a sign of their post-war imperialist intentions in East Asia.
And it was not just the soldiers in the Far East who complained. Their counterparts in Europe marched down the Champs Elysees and cried for homecoming. Eleanor Roosevelt was met at her hotel in London by a delegation of angry soldiers, and told her husband that the men were bored and from their boredom came frustration.
By March 1946, most servicemen had reached home and the issue subsided as another conflict loomed – the Cold War.
Was the war really over?
Emperor Hirohito announced the Japanese surrender over the radio, describing how the continuation of war after the horrors of the atomic attack would have led to the extinction of mankind. Hearing news of the surrender, several Japanese commanders died by suicide.
In the same wave of devastation, American soldiers in POW camps in Borneo were killed by their guards in attempts to destroy any trace of atrocities committed. Likewise, orders to carry out the execution of some 2,000 POWs and civilians at Batu Lintang Camp were found, dated for 15 September. Fortunately the camp (also in Borneo) was liberated first.
While the war with Japan ended on VJ Day for the British and Americans, the Japanese continued to fight against the Soviets for a further 3 weeks. On 9 August 1945, the Soviet army invaded Mongolia, which had been a Japanese puppet-state since 1932. Together, Soviet and Mongol forces defeated the Japanese Kwantung Army, liberating Mongolia, northern Korea, Karafuto and the Kuril Islands.
The Soviets’ invasion of Japanese-occupied land showed they were not going to be any help to the Japanese in negotiating terms with the Allies, and therefore played a part in the Japanese decision to officially surrender in September. Conflict between Japan and the USSR ended on 3 September, a day after Truman declared VJ Day.
VJ Day today
In the immediate aftermath of the war, VJ Day was marked by dancing in the streets. Yet America’s relationship with Japan has since been repaired and renewed, and as such, celebrations and language around VJ Day have been revised. For example in 1995 US President Bill Clinton referred to the end of the war with Japan as the “End of the Pacific War”, during events commemorating August and September 1945.
These decisions were in part shaped by the US recognition of the level of devastation – particularly against civilians – of the atomic bombings, and not wanting to celebrate this as a ‘victory’ over Japan. As with many recent histories, different groups remember and respond to commemoration of events in different ways. Others believe that subsuming VJ Day’s meaning into general World War Two commemorations neglects the treatment of Allied POWs by the Japanese in East Asia.
Nonetheless, VJ Day – however it is marked today – highlights the not so clear-cut ending to the conflict and demonstrates just how global World War Two really was.