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The day we danced

On Aug. 14, 1945, wartime surrendered to peacetime.

Spokane erupted in a wild and glorious celebration of streamers, confetti and wild dances through the downtown streets.

Today in these pages, exactly 60 years later, we too celebrate the end of World War II. We also pay tribute to the men and women who forged that victory on the battlefield and the home front.

Even the youngest of them are now 77 – and many, including some interviewed earlier this summer for this section, have died. About 1,100 World War II veterans die each day. Only about 3.5 million veterans remain of the 16 million Americans who served.

We listen to their stories and read their letters from long ago. We learn what it was like to be thrust, right out of high school in many cases, into momentous and violent world events.

But first, it helps to get a sense of what the world felt like on Aug. 14, 1945, the day that Japan surrendered (although it would not be until the next day that V-J Day would be formally declared). It felt simultaneously like the biggest party of all time and the biggest relief.

Women stood on Spokane street corners and bellowed raucous songs over the sound of honking horns. One soldier in uniform took a pull from a liquor bottle, offered swigs to every passerby, and then flung the empty into traffic.

In the Inland Northwest as elsewhere, people celebrated more than a victory; they celebrated a return to normalcy. They were desperate for a return to a settled, peaceful life after the dangers and hardships of the preceding four years.

Even at home, the war years had been far from normal. The weekly “Ration Round-Up” had long been one of The Spokesman-Review’s must-read features. Meat, butter, sugar, gasoline, fuel oil, tires and even shoes had been available only to those with the correct, precious ration stamps.

Still, these sacrifices were trivial compared with what many soldiers and sailors were enduring. Cecil Cunningham of Deep Creek, Wash., had been slaving in prison/work camps since 1942, after being captured by the Japanese in the Philippines. For two years, he worked at Davao Prison Camp on Mindanao. Then he was transported by “hellship” to Japan – a voyage which took three months – and finally to Yokkaichi, Japan. By March 1945, he was down to 125 pounds and had lost the use of his right leg. (See excerpts from Cunningham’s letters, Pages 6 and 7).

Or take James R. Stephens of Spokane, who was serving on the aircraft carrier USS Lexington in May 1942, when it was torpedoed and bombed during heavy action in the Coral Sea. The Lexington was burning fiercely when the order came to abandon ship. A U.S. destroyer came alongside the foundering carrier to rescue survivors. Stephens, on watch, was one of the last to leave.

“I was on the signal bridge, 84 feet above the deck of the destroyer,” wrote Stephens in his account of that day. “We had to go hand-over-hand down the 84 feet on a line. Some of the men just slid down the line and tore the flesh of their hands off to the bone.”

A total of 216 men died that day, yet Stephens made it to safety. He went on to take part in harrowing landings at Tarawa, Eniwetok, Leyte and Luzon, among others.

Sacrifices of a different sort had been made by the 300,000 naval recruits who had passed through the Farragut Naval Training Station on Lake Pend Oreille beginning in 1942. This instant city of 30,000 was the second largest Navy boot camp in the country. Clyde L. Roberts, a teenaged recruit from Minnesota, was sent there in early 1944.

“We didn’t even know where Idaho was,” said Roberts, who later made his home in Spokane. “We didn’t have a clue.”

For a 17-year-old, the experience was overwhelming.

“It really changed your life,” said Roberts. “You learned how to take orders in a hurry. They weren’t polite, and they didn’t treat you with kid gloves.”

During his six weeks there, he earned exactly one trip off base.

“I got into Coeur d’Alene for about five hours is all,” said Roberts, who went on to serve on the battleship USS North Carolina. “I was 17, so there wasn’t much I could do. I had a hamburger at the old Hudson’s, and they had a USO building by the park. Then we walked around a little, got on the bus and went back.”

Roberts died on July 30 of this year, two weeks after this interview.

It was on leave and on furlough that many soldiers and sailors had a different kind of life-changing experience: a wartime romance.

Violet Roskelley was a young Englishwoman in the British Army stationed on the Cornwall coast just before D-Day. One day in the spring of 1944, she met an American master sergeant from Spokane, who was headquartered in the stately home next door. Soon, they were meeting regularly on the lawn between the two mansions, talking and gazing out at the American ships gathering in the bay.

Then D-Day arrived, and the ships vanished to Normandy. Her sergeant vanished, too. They had known each other only six weeks.

Yet in March 1945, her sergeant finally finagled a leave after nearly a year of action in Europe. He flew back to Britain and married Violet in Yorkshire on March 23, 1945.

Violet and Fenton Roskelley celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in Spokane this year.

For a U.S. Army nurse at a hospital in Devon, England, wartime romance didn’t have the same storybook ending.

“On an impulse, I found myself pregnant,” wrote the woman, now of Spokane, who asked that her name not be used. “I had a daughter, born out of wedlock.”

She put the child up for adoption. About 37 years later, she met her daughter and made her a “very active” member of her family.

Still, she said, “I do not regret my three years as an ANC (Army Nurse Corps).”

Meanwhile, George Alexander of Wellpinit was driving a tank and discovering the charms of Belgian women.

“I went home with one of the girls – boy, she sure was nice, too,” Alexander wrote home. “I got dressed up and met her folks. They really had a nice home. She even wanted to come along to Germany with me, but you know how the Army is. No soap.” (For more excerpts from Alexander’s letters, see Pages 6 and 7).

The war was tough on relationships of all kinds. An August 1945 Gallup poll asked Americans this question: “Do you think a woman whose husband is overseas should accept dates with other men?”

The answer: a resounding 85 percent “No!”

Respondents typically said that “her part of his ordeal is to wait loyally.”

One of the few who answered “yes” said, “No reason why she should stay around the house and mope … Now’s the time she needs some entertainment to take her mind off her worries.”

Meanwhile, a significant demographic trend was developing that summer of 1945.

“July Record Set by Cupid,” trumpeted a headline in the paper. Spokane County had set an all-time mark for the number of marriage licenses issued.

“Whether July’s romances were due to high temperatures increasing the pulse, or the presence of many soldiers home on furlough, I don’t know,” said the Spokane County auditor.

Listen carefully to that remark and you can hear the first, faint rumblings of the post-war Baby Boom.

In the European theater, peace had descended in May with the surrender of Germany. Carl Bernson of Spokane, then a young soldier, was in Paris when victory in Europe was announced. The darkness lifted, and not just metaphorically. The blackouts lifted, too.

“All the lights went on in Paris – and what a beautiful sight that was,” said Bernson. “It wasn’t just the shop lights. They put extra arc lights on the Arc de Triomphe. Everyone was singing with joy, and some of the gals would give you a hug. In the cafes, people were passing around champagne bottles. It was a celebration like New Year’s Eve.”

In many ways, life in the Inland Northwest had also been creeping toward peacetime ever since V-E Day.

In Spokane, residents had been flocking to the parks in record numbers. The parks department reported July attendance of 291,093 at the city’s playgrounds and 151,129 at the swimming pools. The superintendent reported “all lawns looking well and greens and fairways at the golf courses in good shape.”

Patrice Munsel, Spokane’s homegrown Metropolitan Opera star, was back in town making headlines. She had recently announced her engagement to “school days sweetheart,” Lt. Robert Porter.

Also making news were two young Rogers High School graduates, who were traveling the world as “roller-artists.” They were professional roller-skaters, performing in show-girl costumes with tiaras. They were bound for a big USO tour of the South Pacific.

On islands in the Pacific, peace through liberation had already arrived for many people, including Terry Coombes, a 7-year-old girl in Manila in 1945.

“We rushed to the streets, where I saw my first American men in trucks and tanks, giving us chewing gum and chocolates,” said Coombes, now of Spokane. “They gave my mother and aunts Spam and canned beets. I still love Spam and canned beets, believe it or not.”

Yet she can’t stomach the thought of “rice pudding,” part of her occupation diet, because it reminds her of what her family called “Japanese times.”

Meanwhile, wartime sacrifices continued unabated right up to the final week. Kamikaze attacks and furious Japanese defensive battles took a fearsome toll. For the week ending Aug. 9, the Associated Press reported another 2,160 American combat deaths and 7,489 casualties (for the entire war, American casualties totaled more than a million).

Then the first two weeks of August brought shocks beyond imagining. On Aug. 7 the news arrived that the Japanese city of Hiroshima had been nearly obliterated by “the most terrible destructive force ever harnessed by man” – the atomic bomb.

The destruction of Nagasaki followed on Aug. 9.

President Harry Truman told the nation, “We have used it to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.” Most Americans were wholly in favor, since the alternative seemed to be a long and nightmarish invasion of the Japanese home islands.

Yet even the day after the news broke, the broader implications were sinking in.

“Science has let this mighty genie out of the bottle,” said The Spokesman-Review’s editorial page. “The question now is can statesmen find the way to chain its evil potentialities and make it work for the benefit of mankind?”

The A-bomb news also contained a stunning surprise to people in the Inland Northwest: One of the bombs had been made, in part, right here on the banks of the Columbia River.

“Terrific Atomic Bomb From Hanford Is Unleashed Upon Japanese Nation” shouted an Aug. 6, 1945 Spokane Chronicle headline (although later information showed that it was the Nagasaki bomb, not the Hiroshima bomb, which came from Hanford).

This was the first inkling most residents had of the purpose of a secret city, the fifth biggest in the state, outside of Richland.

The Hanford Project had ballooned to nearly 45,000 workers in April 1944, at the peak of the construction of its atom-bomb-making plants. By V-J Day, the S-R reported that the Hanford population was back down to “11 goats.”

This was an exaggeration, because even though the construction workers were long gone, the engineers were still at work. On Aug. 8, a notice was posted on a Hanford bulletin board announcing that Russia had finally declared war on Japan. Somebody at the plant altered the notice to read, “Russia declared war on what Hanford left of Japan.”

The bombs – and threats of more – finally convinced the Japanese government that resistance was hopeless. Most people at home learned of the surrender from the radio or from street-corner newsboys. Most soldiers and sailors probably heard it over a loudspeaker.

For Roberts, still on the USS North Carolina in the Pacific, the celebration was quieter than it was for the folks at home – and also more dangerous.

“The captain announced that the Japanese had surrendered unconditionally,” said Roberts. “We then had a prayer, because we knew that if we had had to invade Japan, we’d have a good chance of being killed. (Right after that), we had a bogey (enemy aircraft) coming at us. It went by and missed our task force but hit another one. We still had to be a little leery of kamikazes.”

Weeks later machinist’s mate third class Jack Lynch was on a minesweeper in Tokyo Bay when he saw some Japanese “big shots” being ferried out to the USS Missouri for a surrender ceremony.

“The Army and Navy Air Corp put on a little show,” wrote Lynch to the folks at home. “I never saw so many planes at one time in my life. I bet the Japs are glad they gave up now that they have seen our Navy and Air Corp. Well, I suppose today winds up another war. I sure hope it will be our last.”

Lynch, the father of Kerry Lynch of Spokane, would later write home about the devastation he witnessed at Hiroshima (see excerpts from his letters on Pages 6 and 7).

As soon as the victory confetti was swept from Riverside Avenue, Spokane went about the business of converting to peace.

Gas rationing ended almost immediately, followed by automobile tire rationing and shoe rationing.

Jobs were plentiful in Spokane on V-J Day – too plentiful. The local railroad yards desperately needed linemen, firemen, brakemen and even telegraphers.

“Uncle Sam Needs You – In Overalls,” announced a huge ad sponsored by the Spokane War Campaign Committee. These kinds of industrial labor shortages would soon be alleviated by waves of returning veterans.

Dick Dombroski of Liberty Lake was one of those veterans, a Navy lieutenant (jg). He wrote a letter home describing the scene in October 1945, when finally, after months at sea, he saw the Golden Gate Bridge.

“We were immediately met by many small boats carrying girls who waved different colored scarves,” wrote Dombroski. “There were dance bands on the various boats. They kept playing over loudspeakers, ‘California Here I Come.’ … Every man in the ship had tears in his eyes because the scene was so touching and everything seemed to be just as he expected it to be, when dreaming about coming home amongst the lonely Pacific islands.”

Yet those tears were not just for themselves. The tears were also, in Dombroski’s words, “for their buddies who were now lying on some deserted Pacific island, never to return.”