Aug. 15, 1945, V-J Day, was unique, like no other day before or since.
For Americans conscious on that day 50 years ago, it was the ultimate bonding experience, an emotional peak, a memory we would share for the rest of our lives. The whole nation, a population that had been assuring itself for nearly four years that “we’re all in it together,” now could explode in joy and triumph. Americans could ring bells, blow horns, dance in the streets and shout, “WE DID IT!”
The accent was on the “WE,” because that was one war in which nearly everyone from coast to coast was involved. It did not matter much which party you voted for, your race or region, your religion or ethnic origins, that war was your war if you were an American. The war touched just about every family, every household, in the land. That is why Americans of that day still are fiercely proud of the response to that challenge by the truly United States.
The young people who actually fought that global war, now gray-haired and getting on, are known to demographers as “the World War II generation.” They were the “We Generation,” and they knew it. Measured by its deeds, that generation is the greatest America has produced in the 20th century.
Its members, though tempered in the miseries of the Great Depression, had not been raised to be warriors or shaped to traditional warlike virtues. Our most formidable enemies, Germany and Japan, spent huge amounts of time and money in the 1930s training and preparing their young, from childhood on, to go out and die for their supposed master races. Newsreels of the day showed uniformed German and Japanese schoolchildren marching with rifles in massed battalions, with flags flying and drums beating.
Not so the American kids, who were spending their outdoor time in the ‘30s playing baseball or football, working to put food on the table for their families, planting trees and building bridges for the Civilian Conservation Corps. When their country was forced into war in 1941, it was militarily unprepared, and they paid the cost of that in their own blood.
Many young men were sacrificed to buy time while the country rushed to catch up, for the Axis dictatorships had begun the war with a long series of crushing conquests. Many died because their weapons were too few, too obsolete, too ineffective to match those of garrison states that had been preparing for war for years. But they did not hide or quit.
As the war ground on, it developed that the American young people and their country had some strengths of their own, strengths that did not show up on propaganda news film, as did May Day parades on Red Square or spectacular Hitler Youth rallies or Bushido military reviews. For one thing, the American young people had been raised by a self-disciplined society, one where fathers were married to mothers and helped raise the kids, where schools actually taught children to read, write and compute, where churches and synagogues taught values that were honored throughout society. Our most basic institutions were strong, respected, influential. Cultural ties bound us; the center held.
For another, it turned out that modern warfare was not fought by massed battalions, which were showy on parades and in newsreels but were slaughtered wholesale on the battlefield. Modern wars were won by teams - small, effectively cooperating groups, like tank crews, gun sections, aircraft crews, rifle squads. And by teams of teams - squadrons, warships’ crews, artillery batteries, rifle companies and battalions. A reader, an infantryman then, remembers those teams, “friends who would literally lay down their life for you.” Those loyalties, strong to this day, will live as long as the men who formed them.
Without any thought of military applications, America had multiplied the Duke of Wellington’s “playing fields of Eton” and made sports and team-play available to the ordinary youngsters of the all-inclusive middle class, from the richest to the poorest. No nation in the world had such a network, reaching down to the farm and hamlet and teaching all kinds and classes of kids the power of teamwork. Fifty years ago, Americans were the world’s greatest team players, and in the world’s most horrible war, that teamwork paid off in victory.
Finally, the young Americans who fought that war expected and got total support from the home front. The upper classes, the privileged whose status and wealth carry an obligation to lead, stepped out front and led in that war. They did not send others to fight - they went themselves, and their own sons went into uniform and combat. Blue stars hung in the windows in all the neighborhoods, as did the gold stars. The dreaded War Department telegrams came to the posh side of town as well as to humbler homes across the tracks.
All ages pitched in, from gray-haired ladies rolling bandages at the old folks’ home to grade school kids throwing their skates and toys onto collection points for the scrap metal drive. When the World War II generation came home from combat zones, those young people did not face spittle and screamed insults from countrymen who had sat out the war at home. Their sacrifices were appreciated and honored.
That “all in it together,” that “we” quality, made World War II and its triumphal ending an experience that welded Americans together as a solid, purposeful society. Younger people, who never have known that kind of unity, who never have seen some of the strengths so evident in that America of 1945, never can understand it. But older Americans who remember it will always be warmed by its memory.