It's Over- page 18 | History | Smithsonian
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It's Over

We asked readers to tell us where they were and how they reacted to the news that World War II had ended. And what a response we got!

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Fate had me in Washington then, a worn combat infantry Captain assigned to the U.S. Army War College 55 months after the draft had redirected, endangered and, yes, enriched my life with nearly five years in the varied, strange phases of war-life. It had taken me from upstate New York to Alabama to California and, with Pearl Harbor's shock, across the Pacific to Maui, back stateside to Georgia then South Carolina. Then it was overseas again in the other direction, into the war in Europe, through North Africa into mountain fighting in Italy, on through Anzio, ultimately Rome, and, finally, Southern France. It was there I took my third wound leading to "home" again and eventually limited duty. That classification landed me the rear echelon assignment in the shadow of the Capitol.

Steamy August Washington was the ideal place to be—it was there the course of war had been set, where the fueling of America's military determination and capabilities originated, and where the gutsy order to drop bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was sounded.

With another officer, equally high off the ground, and equally skeptical, we hitchhiked to the White House area to breathe the intoxicating drafts of peace that had floated from there earlier in the day. The moments are vivid yet as first dozens and later hundreds of people walked by and aimlessly back and forth, just smiling and dreaming, not really celebrating, not kissing strangers. There was none of that there to see. Crying? Yes. Some. Most of us visibly moved. Ecstatic. Sober. Suspicious. Dazed. Was another shoe going to drop? There was a lot of visible head-shaking.

So much had happened so fast: FDR's death, the war's end in Europe, Hitler's bizarre end. And then that tortuous speculation about the human cost of invading Japan, the obvious next step to really conclude the war—obvious to those who could visualize no other ending possible. So few knew of a secret bomb.

I had been at the center of such concern, in the atmosphere of the War College (then under command of noted General Vinegar Joe Stillwell) AND because I had a wife in active service. She was still stationed in France as an Army Nurse Lieutenant after two years of combat-zone time in Africa and Italy before she, too, had landed in Southern France. In recent weeks her General Hospital unit had been preparing to move to the Far East, towards Japan. Now, on this great surprise day, a new and unplanned future life could be considered. What would postwar life be? How to adjust?

Lights were on in the White House. Hopes for real peace, for normalcy, were being broadcast. Central to the universal prayer was admission that nothing was likely to be like anything had ever been before.

In my War College assignment I was privileged to serve under adventurer and writer James Warner Bellah. His tales of flying in World War I fascinated me as had his novels like She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, which still entertains on TV. That day, the day Japan capitulated, Colonel Bellah had smilingly forecast, "We shall now go forth to prove peace is more horrible than war." Many times the prescience of that wisecrack has amused me.

After somber observance of the news of peace, I went back to the War College BOQ and wrote a letter to my wife. In it I kiddingly pointed out it had taken me only three months in Washington to conclude the war, but seriously begged her to cash in her accumulated service points and hurry home; we had a life to build.

She did and was back within a month. Our 62nd wedding anniversary is this August 11.

Doug Johnson
Mesa, Arizona

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