War Stories

Remembering the sound and fury—and the joy—of the end of World War II

Our copy chief, Karen Larkins, put together the special package about the end of World War II. She got the idea during a Sunday brunch with her mother, Patricia, who told Karen that she had been on a train traveling from Pennsylvania to California that August 15 sixty years ago. When the train pulled into Baird, Texas, Patricia remembered, she saw people celebrating on the platform. Karen says, "I thought it would be fascinating to solicit letters from those Smithsonian readers who remember the day, and it dawned on me that we would get letters from all over the world."

So in this space this past February, I invited readers to tell us "where you were and how you reacted to the news" of the war's end. More than 400 of you responded, not only with your recollections but with photographs, telegrams, medals and other memorabilia.

In the course of the project, Larkins got to know many of our readers on a first-name basis. "I even got to know their children," she says, "because they, too, were invested in talking to me or sending materials. So many of our readers had experienced such amazing things. And they were such good writers. The letters came to us in excellent shape."

Larkins says one of the most remarkable letters was from Sgt. Richard Hagerman to his fiancée. Another, from Mississippi native Odean Fondren, recounts how her husband, Aubry, had been killed in action in Italy somewhere near Rome. "After all these years," says Larkins, "it's clear that the emotions are still fresh."

Martin J. Sherwin, who with coauthor Kai Bird wrote the acclaimed biography of Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus, from which our story is adapted, began his research about the man behind the atom bomb in 1979, near Cowles, New Mexico.

"It was from there in the summer of 1922, that Oppie, as many of his friends came to call him, first explored the beautiful Sangre de Cristo mountains. My destination, several hours by horseback over the 10,000-foot summit of Grass Mountain, was the spare cabin on 154 acres of spectacular mountainside in which Oppie had vacationed for many years. The trip had two purposes. The first was to absorb in a small way the experience that Oppie had shared with his friends—the liberating joy of riding on horseback through this awesome wilderness. The second was to talk with his son, Peter, who was living in the family cabin. Both missions accomplished, the biography fell into place...a mere 25 years later!"

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