Boys who had just finished high school – grades 41 to 44 – died in North Africa, in the mountains of Italy and on the coral reefs of Tarawa. Death by telegram has come knocking on your neighbor’s door, if not yours.
From our seats in 2020, we know how this second act ends. We saw the movie; it is not surprising that Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains team up in the fog of Casablanca airfield. But for those who talk about it – who survived WWII – their second act’s ending was never scripted.
Three and a half years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Allies had ended the Nazi rule, razed town after town, killed scores of Germans and denounced the barbarism of National Socialism. For millions of people, Victory Day – May 8, 1945 – was a dream come true, a joyful roar in a great moment for mankind, a day of peaceful parades and flyovers with sailors kissing nurses in the streets.
If only Victory Day had been the conclusion of Act II. But for the thousands of Americans who still hang out in the Pacific Theater (and their families in their homes), VE Day was only worth a few paragraphs in Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper. There was, again, a war going on in places with more unknown names Americans had to search the World Atlas for, more little spots of black ink on a blue map. Where exactly is Okinawa? Why is there a battle at a place called Balikpapan?
“For the duration” dampened the ferment on Victory Day, even as magazines and newspapers ran advertisements for televisions and new fashions. War bonds were always advertised to “help finish the job!” opposite pages with a puff extolling the charms of a recent debutante. To pretend the war was over was to imagine that it would miraculously disappear.
During the winter of 1944 and 45 and spring 45, the new American B-29 bombers dropped arsonists on Japanese cities which ignited vortices of fire, burning to death thousands of men, women and men. children in landscapes of hell straight out of Dante. Plans for the invasion of Japan had been drawn up that would eclipse the D-Day landings in Normandy the previous spring. American troops – many of whom were veterans of the European battlefields – were gathered on the west coast. As recently as the first week of August 1945, the end of World War II was just a patch of clear sky on the horizon. From hell to paradise in 47? May be.
Without warning, in a moment beyond the comprehension of ordinary people, a most hideous week brought the war to a shocking and sudden end. In the blink of an eye, Something reduced the city of Hiroshima to a landscape of molten glass, disappearing tens of thousands of inhabitants, leaving no trace other than their shadows. Three days later, Kokura town reportedly suffered the same destruction, but the smoke obscured the bomb drop, so Nagasaki, the relief target, was wiped out instead.