The waiting had been agonizing.
Rumors and intimations both good and bad were rampant. The anxieties and melodrama made biding our time excruciating. Would we be victorious and vanquish an evil authoritarian once and for all? Tension was at a fever pitch. We had been waiting for so long.
Exhausted after four strained and stress-filled years, American’s erupted in celebration when the news came in.
Finally, when the long-awaited victory was declared we were jubilant.
Spontaneously we took to the streets en masse, crying, cheering, singing, and dancing. Strangers hugged with abandon, and the sounds of champagne corks popping competed with the sounds of horns blaring. Celebratory champagne that had been saved from four years earlier was giddily drunk with gusto, generously shared with neighbors, and passer-bys. The festivities echoed the relief we all were feeling as the tensions melted away for the moment. We knew all the fighting had not fully ended but grateful for the thought of a return to normalcy.
This was American on Tuesday, May 8 1945 May VE Day. After winning our battle with Fascist Germany, it marked the official end of the war in Europe.
This was also America on Saturday, Nov 7, 2020, after Joe Biden was finally declared the next President of the United States. Within hours of the electoral race being called that morning on cable news, Americans took to the streets to celebrate a Biden/Harris victory. As a previous generation had fought a bloody war to preserve democracy, so we, embattled voters saved our nation from losing our most precious gift. Our freedoms.
Donald Trump had yet to surrender the 2020 election. Just like Japan in May 1945.
As I watched the celebration in Times Square, the scene resembled nothing short of New Year’s Eve with the crowds of euphoric New Yorkers flooding the streets in excitement. But I couldn’t help but also be reminded of the massive WWII celebrations once held in that same place. The ones my mother had been a part of so many years ago.
For the past few years, I often thought how relieved I was that my greatest generation parents weren’t alive to see what had become of their America under Trump. Now I wish they had been here to see this jubilation and mass celebration erupting on the streets at Trump’s defeat. Especially the celebrations in Times Square the place that for decades New Yorkers gathered in collective celebration.
The Crossroads of the World was overrun with ecstatic New Yorkers on VE Day 75 years ago. Including my nearly 19-year-old mother Betty. So much of the war and its celebrations and tragedies seemed so connected to that storied area of N.Y.C. For decades Time Square functioned as a town square. And during the war, it felt like the center of the universe.
The sight of New Yorkers congregating in Times Square gathered around the scrolling New York Times news “zipper” was a scene familiar during the war years as people waited anxiously to learn of the war’s progress. And as news of the end of the war circulated, the rumors and nail-biting was ramped up.
By the spring of 1945, the conclusion of the war on both fronts was getting closer. Though victory seemed imminent, the waiting was excruciating.
The city was tense with expectation. As often happens in times of heightened expectations and nerves a rumor had spread that Germany had surrendered.
On Saturday evening of April 28 as the highly anticipated news traveled across the city, more than 10,000 people gathered in Times Square. As always people gathered around the Times Towers zipper awaiting more news, but a citywide “brownout” ordered on Feb. 1 to preserve the country’s dwindling coal supply had kept the moving electric sign dark. By 9:00 the first edition of Sunday papers hit the streets and they all carried the news of Germany’s surrender.
It wasn’t until President Truman went on the air denying the surrender that crowds began to disperse.
The Plot Thickens
News continued to be a flurry of rumors in the following days.
My grandfather who worked in the Empire State building, often walked the 10 blocks up to Times Square to check the breaking news at the end of each workday before heading home to the Upper West Side. A few days after that premature announcement, he walked past the Times Tower’s bulletin board at 43rd Street and saw a startling headline that read simply Hitler Is Dead. That 5:00 headline of May 1 would stick in his mind.
“The man most hated by the free world didn’t even rate an exclamation point,” he noted. Elated at the news, he felt as did most folks that the end of the European war was now imminent. Anticipation was in the air.
The next day expecting the end of the fighting with Germany the police began erecting barricades in front of glass-windowed storefronts in Times Sq. Meanwhile in Rockefeller Center war bond efforts were still going on.
Now with Hitler’s death confirmed and the war with Germany all but over, the city just waited.
Plans were put into place to have the official ceremonies held at Central Parks Mall. If word came by day the ceremonies would run from 5-10 that night. It was President Truman’s wish that the day be spent not in celebration but in reflection and prayer. The nation was of course still at war with Japan. Not unlike Donald Trump, Imperial Japan had yet to wave a white flag.
At 9:35 on Monday morning May 7 when most New Yorkers were just getting to their jobs a handful of people were standing around Times Tower. They were watching the bulletins posted on the side of the building when the one the city had been waiting so long for was put up. “Germany Surrenders!”
At the same time, people listening to their radio heard the news. Word of mouth spread quickly and by 11:30 an estimated crowd of 25,000 had jammed the Times Square subway station trying to make their way to the sidewalk.
In Manhattan, the impending surrender led to widespread celebrations.
Despite a paper shortage, people working in high-rises threw homemade confetti made from phone books from windows. The N.Y. Telephone Company recorded the busiest day in its history as New Yorkers spread the news. Down on Wall Street workers streamed out of their offices and gathered on the narrow sidewalks. At 10:30 the bells of Trinity Church pealed over the financial district. Church’s and synagogues were packed. Crowds gathered in Rockefeller Center, in the garment district, and in various pockets of the city. By noon, Times Square was closed off to traffic.
As the day wore on my mother and her friends joined the half a million people who would gather in the square waiting for more news.
It was a day filled with mixed feelings my mother would recall.
Amidst the collective relief, the city was still in mourning, its flags flying at half staff for the beloved president who had guided them through the war.
The news of President Roosevelt’s unexpected death only weeks earlier on April 12 had shocked and stunned Americans. Unbelieving crowds with tears streaming down their faces had mingled in Times Square for the latest news on that sad day. Some got the sad news in the buses and trolley cars that were taking them home and they too got off at Times Sq hoping to be told it was a mere rumor.
Then when they looked up they saw the flags on the Times Tower and the Astor Hotel flying half staff. Nearby firehouses sounded their alarms and they knew that the president who had seen them through this war was dead.
Now a few weeks later, on May 7, Times Square was awash in celebration still fully aware that battles in the Pacific were still being bitterly fought, the war forecast to continue well into 1946 or 1947. More importantly, our still unfamiliar President, Harry Truman had not yet told the American people that the war was over with Germany.
Not so fast
That afternoon the president went on the radio and declared that he would not officially proclaim VE Day until he could do so with England and Russia.
President Truman dedicated these spontaneous celebrations to FDR. “The flags of freedom fly all over Europe,” he said in his address to the nation. But he cautioned against wishing for the world we longed for rather than the world as it was — battles still raging in the Pacific, Japan as much a threat as ever.
That didn’t stop people from celebrating or drinking. By evening bars and restaurants in Times Square ran out of beer. Some bars were so jammed they had to close their doors to new customers until a few patrons had left.
After a long night of celebrating, it would be the following morning on May 8 when the official word came in. Americans gathered around radios at home, in offices and war plants, to hear President Truman announce the unconditional surrender of Germany. Suddenly my mother’s N.Y. apartment was filled with sounds. In N.Y. harbor, boats blasted their horns and in the city streets cars honked, pots and pans were banged and trolleys rang their bells. A roar of cheers came out of every window
But the real celebration would come that night when the War Production Board officially ended the nationwide brownout.
For the first time since April 1942, N.Y.C. would turn on its lights.
With the start of the war, it was Toodle Loo to the Great White Way.
A night out on the town was a unique event during the war-a dim out of NY’s nightlights. All the neon light and signage had been black. Bright lights reflected on the night sky made the city an easy target for German submarines or aircraft. So lights in offices were turned off, display illumination was shut down, and even Times Squares big signs depended on painting and lettering rather than lighting.
As evening fell and the skies darkened my mother and her gang joined the crowds that poured into Times Square hungry for its neon.
The night before, the electric zipper on the Times Tower had resumed its swift crawl around the building. By dusk theatre marquees and the neon signs on all the movie houses were lit up in their original state of dazzle.
But it was the lighting of Times Square’s spectacular advertising that would give New Yorkers their city back. My mother remembered being overwhelmed by the immediate brilliance. First, the “Four Roses” sign flashed on. Then came the “Pepsi Cola” sign its red white and blue colors, suddenly seeming very patriotic. The crowd couldn’t contain themselves. The tide of revelers cheered.
As confetti streamed down onto the square a group of servicemen from other countries formed a ring in front of the Astor Hotel and sang “God Bless America.” Presiding over it all was a 15-ton replica of the Statue of Liberty right there in Times Square.
The next morning as sanitation trucks swept through the city picking up ribbons of ticker tape and scraps from torn phone books that had streamed down onto the streets the night before, an exhausted city began to focus on the sweetest day of all the day when victory was declared against Japan. VJ would have to wait a few more months.
These stories serve as a reminder of a time, not so long ago when New Yorkers well knew that the war wasn’t over, but the end was in sight — and that was enough for jubilation.
January 20th Inauguration will be our VJ Day. When Trump is vanquished for good.