Boys who had just graduated from high school — the classes of ’41-’44 — died in North Africa, in the mountains of Italy and on the coral reefs at Tarawa. Death-by-telegram came knocking at your neighbor’s door, if not yours.
From our seats in 2020, we know how this Second Act ends. We’ve seen the movie; it’s no surprise that Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains team up in the fog at the Casablanca airfield. But for those who tell of it — who survived the Second World War — the end of their second act was never scripted.
Three and a half years after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Allies had ended the Nazi reign, razed city after city, killed many Germans and exposed the barbarity of National Socialism. For millions, V-E Day — May 8, 1945 — was a dream come true, a joyful roar in a grand moment for humanity, a day of parades and peaceful flyovers with sailors kissing nurses in the streets.
If only V-E Day had been the conclusion to Act II. But to the thousands of Americans still slugging it out in the Pacific Theater (and their families back home), V-E Day warranted but a few paragraphs in Stars and Stripes, the armed forces newspaper. There was, still, a war going on in places with more of the unfamiliar names Americans had to search out in the World Atlas, more tiny specks of black ink in a blue map. Where, exactly, is Okinawa? Why is there a battle at some place called Balikpapan?
“For the duration” muted the ebullience of V-E Day, even as magazines and newspapers carried ads for TVs and new fashions. War bonds were still being advertised to “Help Finish the Job!” opposite pages with a puff piece extolling the charms of a recent debutante. Pretending the war was over was imagining it would miraculously disappear.
In the winter of 1944 and ’45 and spring of ’45, America’s new B-29 bombers dropped incendiaries on Japanese cities that ignited maelstroms of fire, burning to death thousands of men, women and children in hellscapes straight out of Dante. Plans for the invasion of Japan had been drafted that would dwarf the D-Day landings at Normandy the previous spring. American troops — many of them veterans from the battlefields of Europe — were being assembled on the West Coast. As late as the first week of August 1945, the end of World War II was but a patch of clear sky on the horizon. From hell to heaven in ’47? Maybe.
Without notice, in a moment beyond the comprehension of ordinary people, a most hideous week brought the war to a shocking, sudden end. In the blink of an eye, something reduced the city of Hiroshima into a landscape of molten glass, disappearing tens of thousands of its inhabitants, leaving no trace of them but their shadows. Three days later the city of Kokura would have suffered the same destruction, but smoke obscured the bomb drop, so Nagasaki, the backup target, was annihilated instead.