60 Years Ago Today

From Today’s Writer’s Almanac:


Today is the 60th anniversary of the day on which President Harry Truman announced that the Second World War had come to an end. You might argue that more human beings were happy on this day in 1945 than on any other day in history.

It was the worst war in history. An estimated 60 million people died; about two-thirds of them were civilians. In the United States, the war had been going on for three years and eight months. About one in every eight Americans served in the war—more than 16 million American soldiers. Virtually every American family had at least one member overseas. With 400,000 Americans killed, most families knew somebody who had died in the war, and the most American casualties had come in the last year of the war.

Most Americans had believed that the war was far from over. The first few battles on Japanese islands had been some of the bloodiest battles of the war. Military analysts were projecting horrific losses, casualty estimates in the hundreds of thousands. But after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese suddenly accepted terms of complete surrender. And the announcement was made on this day at about 7:00 p.m. The newswires carried the headline, “Japan Surrenders.”

There were spontaneous celebrations and parades in every major city in America. In New York City, more than a million people filled the street, overflowing Times Square, the crowd stretching from 40th all the way up to 52nd streets. Factories blew their whistles. Air raid sirens went off. Ships and trains and cars honked their horns. Churches tolled their bells.

Americans had been living under strict food and gas rationing, and once the news arrived, people went to the gas stations, filled up their cars and went riding around for the fun of it. Throughout the war, people had tried to keep their lights off after dark to save energy, but on this night, people turned on their lights and left them on all night. Some children who’d grown up during the war saw the streets lit up with lights for the first time.

And one thing that commentators noticed at the time was that nobody shouted, “We’ve won the war!” or anything about triumph. They simply shouted, “The war is over!”

The most famous photograph of that day in 1945 showed a sailor in Times Square kissing a nurse in a white uniform. The nurse’s name was Edith Shain. She later said, “When I was kissed, I closed my eyes. I didn’t look at him. It was a startling thing. But I thought, this man had fought the war for all of us.” The photograph of the sailor and the nurse was the cover of LIFE magazine that next week and that photo has been reprinted thousands of times.