Gen. Dwight Eisenhower celebrates the end of World War II in Europe by holding the pens used to sign the surrender document. (Public domain, National Archives)
By George Morris
May 8, 1945. A historic day. An exciting day. An unforgettable day.
In New York, a quarter-million people jammed Times Square. In thousands of towns, smaller celebrations erupted.
In England, hundreds of strangers packed a church as an American soldier took a British bride.
In Austria, women fired artillery at U.S. Army soldiers — and danced with them that night.
On a Pacific island, grim-faced faced Marines just hoped they’d live long enough to celebrate, too.
A joyous day. A prayerful day. A glorious day.
An American soldier and sailer celebrate Germany’s surrender with an English woman at Piccadilly Circus. (Public domain, National Archives)
On May 7, Germany unconditionally surrendered to Allied forces, ending almost six years of European conflict that had killed untold millions. World War II was not over — Japan had not surrendered — but the world had something to celebrate.
At 9 a.m. EST on Tuesday, May 8, President Harry Truman’s voice crackled over radios throughout the United States. He declared the day Victory in Europe Day. Similar announcements were made in Great Britain and the Soviet Union.
Lee F. Mason was a military policeman stationed in New York City. His unit was sent to patrol Times Square at 6 p.m. that day. They would have had as much success stopping the tide from changing.
“People were just everywhere — the streets, the sidewalks,” Mason said. “A vehicle couldn’t get down the street if they tried. I’m not sure how many blocks the people covered, but it was just a tremendous mass of people … just walking and yelling and kissing and hugging and shaking hands. It was just a madhouse of celebrations.
“Our commanding officers realized they had made a mistake by sending us down there. There wasn’t a thing in the world we could do,so they pulled us back when they realized the size of the crowd.”
Upon returning to headquarters, the military policemen were dismissed and allowed to celebrate. They didn’t have to look far.
“There was a bar right across the street from us, and when we got back to our quarters, somebody had moved the piano from the bar room out onto the street, obviously with the permission of the owner,” Mason said. “Someone was playing, and they were singing and dancing and just having a ball. there were a lot of people there, too.”
Few celebrations could match New York’s, but joy and relief are not measured by the number of people gathered in one place. Genevieve Flynn was with her in-laws in Worcester, Massachusetts. Flynn’s mother-in-law, Rosie, had two sons fighting in Europe. She would panic, Flynn said, when the telephone rang or a telegram messenger knocked at the door.
When word of V-E Day reached them, Flynn said, they took the telephone off the hook. Outside, they heard firecrackers. Townspeople gathered on top of a hill and lighted a bonfire. It was not the only bright glow Flynn saw that night.
“I watched my dear mother-in-law’s face radiate a joy and peace,and you could literally see the lines disappearing from her face,” Flynn said. “It was a grand and wonderful day.”
People in America were not the only ones who felt relief. That was abundantly true of the soldiers and civilians who had heard the bombs and guns in Europe.
Living in Holland, on V-E Day Frank Smoorenburg searched the skies for American B-17 bombers. Instead of bombs, however, they were dropping food to starving civilians, who had been reduced to eating tulip bulbs mixed with sugar beets.
“All the people in this part of Holland had nothing to eat,” said Smoorenburg, who now lives in Patterson, Louisiana. “The Germans took it all.”
Jeannine Prayez was 11 years old and living in Compiegne, France, when war broke out. Her family endured the German invasion, Nazi occupation, Allied bombing and, finally, the Allied invasion to liberate France. They housed German soldiers. Air raid sirens would waken them at night, and they would take refuge at a hill or trench near the house.
France was liberated by late 1944, but no European could breathe easily as long as Hitler’s military resisted.
“V-E Day for me was the end of being afraid, end of killing Germans, Americans and French — being able to sleep again,” she said. “The Americans were my heroes, my friends!
“V-E Day, I was in Compiegne. When we heard the news we began shouting: ‘The war is over, the fear is over.’ We were dancing in the streets. The Americans rode through Compiegne on trucks, tanks. … They stopped once in a while to get a hug and a kiss from the French people. … It was a glorious day.
“I later married one of these Americans who landed on Normandy beach.”
That soldier, Peter Crescionne, died in 1982. She later married Clarence Mitchell, and they lived in Plaquemine, Louisiana.
In 1944, Doreen Collins, a member of the British Women’s Royal Naval Service, also decided to marry an American soldier, Jimmie Purpera. They set the wedding for 9 a.m. on May 8, 1945, in Collins’hometown, Sheffield, England.
When she arrived, the shocked bride saw St. Catherine’s Church packed with about 500 people, most of them strangers to her.
“My mother made all the arrangements for the wedding,” she said.”We hadn’t listened to the radio — wireless, as we used to call it — that morning. … When I walked in, I thought, ‘Why did my mom invite all these people?’ Of course, it wasn’t for us at all.”
As Germany’s defeat neared, the church priest had announced a 9 a.m. Peace Mass would be held whenever V-E Day was declared. Thus, the Collins-Purpera nuptials were well attended.
After the war, the couple moved to Jimmie Purpera’s hometown, Morganza, Louisiana, then Baton Rouge.
“I think it was a good start for the marriage, as my mother used to say,” Doreen Purpera said. “It was a good start to have a Peace Mass. It’s lasted.”
If not hearing about V-E Day caused a bride’s confusion, the stakes were considerably higher for Master Sgt. Millard Brewer. A member of Company A, 808th Tank Destroyer Battalion, Brewer was approaching Linz, Austria, on May 8. Linz had been declared an “open city,” meaning German troops no longer defended it.
To Brewer’s surprise, his company came under artillery fire. To their greater surprise, women and young boys were doing the shooting. The company halted.
“We knew this was the end (of the war), and it was real hard to get people to stick their head up, so to speak, fearing they’d get it on the last day,” Brewer said.
At about noon, the soldiers received word that the fighting was officially over. They advanced into the city without any resistance and went to the town’s beer halls to celebrate.
So did the women who had shot at them just hours before.
“Linz was supposed to be an open city,” Brewer said. “This one German woman said, ‘We know that, but we had some ammunition we wanted to use up.’ It may be 50 years, but I remember her saying it.”
Then, in an act that seems incredible five decades later, American soldiers danced with the women who’d tried to kill them hours earlier.
“Here you are: You’re 21 years old and you haven’t been fraternizing, quote unquote, with anybody for 225 days, and suddenly the old man says, ‘No more killing. The war is over,'” Brewer said. “We started breaking out the wine and champagne, and that night women showed up. Hey, when women show up and there’s guys there, you’re going to do the normal things guys and girls do.”
Even under the most abnormal circumstances.
Loneliness, malnutrition and desperation were normal circumstances for prisoners of war. Barwick Barfield’s airplane was shot down on May 24, 1944, and he spent more than 11 months in Stalag 7A at Moosburg, Germany. Gen. George Patton’s troops liberated the camp on April 29, 1945.
The prisoners, however, could not leave.
“The war was still going on around us, so they couldn’t evacuate us out of the camp until the 8th of May,” Barfield said.
On that day, DC-3 cargo planes arrived, and soldiers got their first real taste of freedom since being captured. They were taken to Le Havre, France, the first stop on their trip home.
“Everybody obviously was very ecstatic, very happy,” Barfield said. “The worst thing about being in there was the uncertainty of what’s going to happen to you. We weren’t in there for a year or two years. We were there until the war ended in our favor. “Everybody was extremely happy in going back. … It was joyful. You were walking on Cloud Nine.”
Although millions felt the same way, the celebrations were tempered by a reality known all too well by Pat W. Almond, serving with the 4th Marine Regiment, Fox Company, 2nd Battalion on Okinawa. Their battle against Japanese defenders was in its second month.
“Down the line came the word, ‘Germany has surrendered,'” Almond said. “No one showed any excitement — no yells, no gunshots. This was very low-interest news to the men. More personal problems had priority.
“Food: Average weight loss was 30 pounds per man. Clothing: All were wearing clothing they landed in six weeks before. Shoes: Most were almost rotted off of raw feet. Staying alive: Already a casualty rate of 50 percent, and it would reach 100 by end of campaign.
“To the Marines at Okinawa, the most momentous event in modern history was just another day of mud, blood, filth, hunger and death.”
V-E Day was here. V-J Day was yet to come.