by Imperial War Museum curator, Sean Reheling
In the wake of the death and devastation caused by the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9 1945, the people of the Allied nations expected Japan to surrender.
Further impetus was given to this hope when the Soviet Union attacked Japanese forces in Manchuria on August 9.
The following day in London, a group of American servicemen and British civilians, who had heard on the radio of the Japanese offer to surrender, paraded through Piccadilly Circus, waving the United States flag. The end of six years of war, which had taken a tremendous toll on all sides, was in sight.
In Britain, the official announcement of the Japanese surrender was made at midnight on the night of August 14 and the recently elected Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, declared, “The last of our enemies is laid low.”
'I was very happy'
For many British civilians, the first they knew of the end of the Second World War, called Victory over Japan (VJ) by the allied nations, was from the morning newspapers.
The Prime Minister’s announcement of VJ Day resulted in scenes of celebration in many places. Across the length and breadth of Britain, crowds gathered to dance, sing and in some instances climb atop vehicles, lamp posts and buildings.
In certain towns and cities street parties were organised, in a reprise of the VE Day celebrations.For some, their initial reaction was of relief rather than celebration, as the news dispelled their anxiety about the continuing war.
In an interview conducted by Imperial War Museums (IWM) for their sound archive, Michael Pallozolla, serving with the USAAF, in Felixstowe, recalled, “...hearing all these noises and I guess they were firecrackers or something going off...they said that ‘the war is over; the war is over’. Well then we felt that we would not be going to the Pacific, so I was very happy.”
'The birth of a new spirit of independence'
Of course, the declaration of the end of the Second World War had huge significance for Britain’s overseas colonies, many of which had played crucial roles in the conflict.
In British East Africa, a formal military parade in Nairobi constituted the official VJ Day celebration - perhaps intended to emphasise the expected continuation of colonial power.
Similarly, in Trincomalee Harbour, Sri Lanka, Royal Navy vessels - the perennial symbol of British Imperial might - were illuminated by fireworks ignited on the evening of VJ Day.
However the indigenous peoples of Britain’s colonies were aware that the war had been fought for freedom from oppression by other peoples or nations. This desire to be free was becoming more and more evident in those colonies.
Wan Guay Gay, a teacher in Singapore spoke of the growing feelings that independence was due in the aftermath of VJ Day and said, “Soon everything was restored but most important thing was the birth of a new spirit of independence among the young people. That it was time that independence should be taken seriously.”
'It's a mixed feeling'
The end of the Second World War generated complex, mixed emotions for many people, particularly in Japan. In Voices of War, a collection of experiences compiled from IWM’s sound archive to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Michiko Nakamoto expresses the ambivalence felt by many Japanese people about the end of the war.
Michiko said, “I didn’t like the thought of losing the war and I couldn’t bear it, but then no more air raids and we could sleep at night without going to the underground shelter, so that was some relief. So it’s a mixed feeling.”
The feelings and aspirations of those who experienced VJ Day and its aftermath ranged from the relief and jubilation at the end of fighting, through to the perceived ignominy of having been defeated. Many serving in the armed forces, or released from horrific conditions in Far East Prisoner of War Camps, simply wished to return home.
The governments of Western European nations hoped for a return to the situation before the war, but indigenous people in colonised lands had been inspired by a longing for freedom. Human freedom was, after all, the cause for which millions had been killed, wounded, or traumatised, much destruction had occurred, and which ultimately had ushered in the age of nuclear weapons.
The world would never be the same again.
You can hear more first-hand memories of the momentous events of August 1945 from Imperial War Museums’ collections by listening to Voices of War at iwm.org.uk/victory