Monday, January 25, 2016

August 14, 1945

On another historical note . . . the importance of reading many books covering the same material. Different historians have very different tones to their writing, and they drop in different details from the historical record of the times. I read a book last week that included some detail about a subject that I had only seen covered in more general terms elsewhere.

The book was The Fall of Japan, by William Craig, covering only the tail end of the war and the immediate aftermath of the Japanese surrender. Mr. Craig also wrote Enemy at the Gates, about the battle of Stalingrad. They’re both good reads.

Mr. Craig’s approach to writing history is suitably academic, but it is more personal than most historians. Where many historians dryly set forth facts, Mr. Craig includes a lot of personal detail about the people involved in the events. He illuminates their thought process so that we may get some idea of what they were thinking, and why they acted like they did. I enjoy his style.

I’ve read another book that covered exactly the same subject and time period: Downfall: the End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, by Richard B. Frank. Mr. Frank’s book included a lot more detail about the decision to employ the atomic bomb, among other strengths. I think that Mr. Frank was better on the geopolitical aspects of the events. Reading both books, with their different emphases, provided a full picture.

The details that were new to me were about the behavior of Americans back at home, mostly American servicemen, upon hearing of the end of the war.

The announcement was made in America on August 14, 1945, in the afternoon. We’ve all seen the famous pictures from Times Square in New York. The most famous one is a sailor in dress blues kissing a woman rather enthusiastically. Only in the last couple of years has it been reported that she probably did not wish to be kissed in that manner. Other books that I have read only noted that there was general relief and celebration on the announcement. Well, it was a lot darker than that.

There were at least twelve million (mostly) men in the armed forces at the time. I’ve seen it reported to be a rather higher figure, but at least twelve million. This was the “Greatest Generation,” often credited with having made great sacrifices for their country and having defeated the evil powers of the world almost on their own. In reality, they were a rough bunch that didn’t particularly want to be there. They resented the discipline and the dangers involved, and they were very anxious for the whole thing to be over.

The celebrations of the servicemen that day were neither good natured, nor innocent.

In many cities there were extensive displays of public drunkenness, public nudity, and public sex. The sex was often not consensual. Mr. Craig focuses on the revelries in San Francisco, which seem to have bordered on a riot. San Francisco was a big Navy town. It was full of members of all of the services. The announcement of the surrender was immediately greeted by an excess of enthusiasm.  The drinking started right away, and before long every liquor store in San Francisco had been looted. Hundreds of cars were stolen, and the drunken, joyriding servicemen careened around the streets incautiously. There were twelve deaths all together, some were deaths by misadventure (a bag of empty liquor bottles thrown from a high window killed a passerby), but most were the deaths of people being run over.

Women in San Francisco were seized, stripped and raped, often repeatedly.

The San Francisco police were instructed to keep back. They just watched the action. No sense in started another war, I suppose. Let the boys blow off some steam!


These additional details, plus a few from other cities, put that Times Square kiss photograph in a new perspective. 

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