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Celebrating V-E Day Relief Swept Inland Northwest On May 8,1945, When News Came Of Germany’s Surrender

Sun., May 7, 1995, midnight

Two stories above the factory floor in the cab of her crane, Verona Connors saw the news sweep through the Trentwood rolling mill while she maneuvered a block of hot aluminum.

Without being told, she knew what the screaming was all about. Germany had surrendered.

For Connors, victory in Europe meant relief, and a chance that she would see her husband who was in Germany after more than three years in the Army.

A chance to celebrate, if only partially.

“After I came home, my stepfather and I went up to the Old Barrel Tavern on Francis and Wall and bought two or three cases of quarts of beer,” Connors said. “We went downtown and gave one to every serviceman we saw.

“Everybody was singing and dancing, laughing and crying. We ran out pretty quick.”

Thousands of miles away, Army Cpl. Michael Butorac was watching German prisoners near Salzburg, Austria, on May 8, 1945, when the surrender became official.

“You didn’t have to guard them, really. All we had to do was pick up their guns and throw them in a pile. So many of them were just glad to give up.”

V-E Day came as no surprise, but that didn’t stop the troops from firing off some celebratory rounds, he said.

Most soldiers were eager to get home. Butorac stayed through the next winter, figuring he deserved some time off.

“I saw practically all of Europe,” said Butorac, who still farms in north Stevens County at age 82. “Figured I’d never get to see it again.”

For the nations fighting Nazi Germany, May 8, 1945, was the first day to truly rejoice after years of war, hardship, death and deprivation.

In England and Western Europe, the joy was nearly unrestrained.

“There were no enemies that night. All you had were thousands of friends,” recalls Joan Krogh, then a 17-year-old grocer’s clerk in London.

“For the first time, we didn’t have to worry about whether we would be here the next day,” said Krogh, who later married an American airman and settled in Spokane.

In the Pacific Northwest, joy was tempered with the anxiety of a war only half won and sons, husbands or friends still far from home.

Few Americans doubted the eventual outcome of the war, and some were already planning what to do after the victory.

The day Germany surrendered, Spokane leaders announced progress on plans for a civic auditorium as a war memorial. It would provide jobs for veterans, they said.

When work actually started on the Coliseum, it was 1953.

Fearful of too much V-E Day celebrating, government and civic leaders tried to keep people on “the home front” from slacking off on the wartime production pace. A full-page ad in The Spokesman-Review on May 9 warned against “a fools orgy” of drunken revelry while “Japan still hates our guts.”

“We can, if we choose, pray for our dead, … stay on the job, buy another war bond, give a pint of blood. We can choke back our cheers and save our wind for the mighty task that lies ahead,” the ad, commissioned by some 200 businesses and community leaders, exhorted.

To rein in celebrations, the Washington State Liquor Board closed its stores. Defense plants didn’t miss a shift. Students attended school.

“They announced (the surrender) at an assembly,” recalls Janet Schaffer, who was a junior at North Central High School. “The principal spoke. Some of the returning soldiers came and talked to us. We said a prayer. You could do that back then.”

For 3 1/2 years, the war had shaped students’ lives, said Schaffer, now a part-time teacher in the Valley.

Maps on classroom walls marked troops’ progress. Lists of former students killed, wounded or missing were posted. The school day started with “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Within a month of turning 18, young men reported for the draft.

Dick Wright was taking his preinduction physical in Butte, Mont., when the German surrender was announced. As some 200 naked teens waited to be poked and prodded, a sergeant arrived with the news.

“I remember everybody laughing, jumping, shouting, everybody with a mile-wide grin,” said Wright, a long-time Spokane sports broadcaster. “Finally, one guy says, ‘Sergeant, you think we’d be able to go to Germany?’

“The sergeant looked down at this guy and said, ‘Son, you’ll have to walk through Japan first.”’

On the front lines, news of Germany’s surrender took minutes - or days.

Ray Batten, a 21-year-old sergeant with the 101st Airborne, didn’t know officially for several days. He was looking for explosives in Berchtesgarden, Adolf Hitler’s retreat near the Austrian Alps, and searching for escaped Nazis.

Not bad duty for a twice-wounded paratrooper who had survived a parachute that didn’t open on D-Day and a land-mine explosion during the Battle of the Bulge, a soldier who once went AWOL from a hospital to rejoin his unit. “I always say I slept in (Hermann) Goering’s private railroad car. Even drank his whiskey.”

The news “came down as an order to cease fire,” said Batten, now a retired civil engineer. “We were tired. It’d been a long war over there.”

He spent the summer in the Alps, sweating out the prospect of being sent to Japan while fishing in beautiful mountain streams and hunting with the father of a German girl he had fallen in love with.

Behind the front lines, troops had suspected for weeks the end was near.

On May 5, B-17 mechanic Leroy Kuest marked two years with the 94th Bomb Group near Suffolk, England, and wrote in his diary: “Looks as if the war will be over with soon. Our planes have flown only practice missions the past two weeks. Supposedly there are no targets left.”

The main feeling after the surrender was relief, recalled Kuest, now a retired businessman in Spokane. “It felt like a big weight was taken off our shoulders.”

While the war had dragged on and on, Kuest had used his twice-monthly passes to court Margaret McCurdy, a Canadian working in the War Office in London. After the war, McCurdy wanted to come to Moses Lake to be near Kuest, but he didn’t have $500 for a bond. An immigration officer advised her to take out a 30-day visa, come for a visit and marry him.

“Boy, my back was against the wall. I couldn’t back out,” Kuest laughed. They will celebrate their 49th anniversary in September.

V-E Day was the first time Sid Singer let himself think he might survive the war. A former medical corpsman turned supply clerk, he had “escaped death two or three times” after enlisting in December 1941.

“Of course, we all just took it for granted we’d be sent to the Pacific,” said the retired postman who now lives in Coeur d’Alene.

No one greeted the news more favorably than soldiers and sailors in the Pacific.

Wayne MacGregor, a member of the 306th Regimental Combat Team on Okinawa, heard news of the German surrender late in the evening after a day of fighting the Japanese at a place the Americans called Chocolate Drop Hill.

Foot soldiers huddled with their accompanying tank units for dinner and sleep, recalls MacGregor, now a Grangeville, Idaho, attorney. Infantry troops were assigned to kill explosive-laden Japanese soldiers before they could throw themselves under the tanks on jungle trails.

The tanks had radios for communicating with headquarters during battle. At night, they were tuned to the Armed Forces Network broadcasting news and music.

“We were glad it was over in Europe because we were hoping they would send some of those troops over here,” MacGregor said.

Back in Spokane, B-25 pilot Scott Rohwer spent V-E Day in the Fort Wright hospital, recovering from the stress and fatigue of 67 missions over Italy and France. The missions - with their steep, body-punishing dives and intense anti-aircraft fire - seemed to continue forever because the Army kept changing the rules to keep crews from returning home.

Rohwer wrote to Sara Robbie, his future wife, reflecting on news of the surrender: “No one seemed very excited about it, thinking of the Pacific war, I guess.”

Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service 50 years ago, Rohwer discounted the idea that he was something special.

Thousands of guys flew airplanes, he said. “After the war, I began to think how the enlisted men - the mechanics, down on the flight line, working in the wind and sand and going all through the war keeping the flak holes patched, changing the engines, keeping them going - they were heroes, too, if I was a hero.”

xxxx VICTORY IN EUROPE May 8, 1945 Fifty years later, our readers still have many memories of the end of fighting in Europe. Today you’ll read their recollections of V-E Day, and the story of former POWs. Coming Monday: Juanita Ramirez remembers her father, who died in WWII when she ws 6. Also, three Spokane residents tell their tales about the end of the war. For those stories, see Monday’s IN Life section.

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