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VJ-Day in Yates County

Yates Past - August 2005

Early August 1945, sixty years ago this month, the people of Yates County were very uneasy along with the rest of the country. The war in Europe had ended three months earlier with Hitler’s suicide and the surrender of the German army, but VE- Day (May 8th) was a very muted and limited celebration in Penn Yan. The job wasn’t finished. The war in the Pacific wasn’t over. In the three months between May and August, Japan withdrew its forces from China and the Philippines. Their resistance on Okinawa had ended and all that was left were the home islands of Japan. G.I.s from the European theater had been loaded onto transport ships, shipped through the Panama Canal, and were on their way to join troops already in the Pacific theater. The invasion of Japan was tentatively scheduled for November 1st. Training was well underway for what most experts considered would be the costliest amphibious assault of the war. President Roosevelt had earlier been given an estimate of a million American casualties in an invasion of the Japanese homeland. Then on August 6th, President Truman announced that an “atomic bomb” had been dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Rumors spread through U.S. troops that this secret weapon was the size of a golf ball (not true) and could destroy an entire city (mostly true). The Japanese surrender didn’t come immediately as expected and it took a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9th to bring it about. On August 14th, the Japanese government accepted unconditional surrender and the announcement was made from the White House..... VJ Day.

Bonfire at the four corners in Penn Yan on VJ Day

The Chronicle Express on August 16, 1945 had a great article which described the celebration in Penn Yan:

Penn Yan Celebrates Peace Tuesday

Announcement of Japan’s acceptance of the Allied surrender terms had no sooner been announced from President Truman’s office when all the pent-up expectancy and suppressed joy of the past hours and days exploded on the main streets of Penn Yan into a riot of whistles, bells, horns, shouts, parades, fire crackers or dynamite caps, bonfires and bottles. Kids and young people were most conspicuous in “blowing off” on the occasion, but numerous adults were right in there with them pitching lumber and boxes onto the bonfires which blazed high at the four corners and at the corner of Main and Water streets. And adults were right on hand too when an old coffin-- marked as Tojo’s-- led a parade and noisy snake dance. One well known merchant had his own idea of a walkie-squalkie. A dry battery hung over one shoulder with a strap and an electric auto horn over the other put his noise making range well above the average. In fact, fire truck sirens, cow bells, auto horns under hoods, and a big farm dinner bell rigged on the front bumper of a car could hardly compete. Remnants of the drum and bugle corps added their bit.

Showers of waste paper and streamers were dropped from building roofs as police and firemen tried to pull fuel off from a bonfire that was getting a bit out of control, but could hardly keep up with the youngsters who were tossing trash onto the blaze from a truck.

Few left the movies when the celebration began. In fact, some came in to get away from the din. Attendance at the Elmwood swelled from 200 to over 600 as the evening advanced. Many others received the news in a serious mood. With but an hour’s notice, over 700 attended services in the local churches Tuesday evening. Other services were held Wednesday morning and churches remained open during the day for prayer, Servicemen generally seemed to be more serious than civilians. One man, back from Europe and just out of uniform, asked ....”Why all the hollering? I got a brother over there yet. If a few bombs had been dropped in this country we wouldn’t feel like this, but like praying.”

Knowing what had been going on in cities all day and on other similar occasions, some precautions were taken. Sampson sent seven Shore Patrol men here to make sure sailors didn’t overstep. At all times, two trucks were kept in the firehouse and another was stationed in the street to check bonfires when they mounted too high. One jewelry store window had been thoroughly cleaned out by the cautious store owner. Generally, nothing too serious happened. Young people on cars helped themselves to decorative flags from in front of homes along the street. The owners state that they have no objections to their being borrowed for that night, but they would like to have them returned very soon. Some prankster pulled the fire siren at the North Main Street station about 2 a.m., two hours after most of the celebrating had quieted down-- with the help of a light shower.

Browsing through The Chronicle Express for the rest of that month of August, one can see that Yates County was eager to return to a peacetime footing. All rationing was ended, although there were still wartime shortages. New automobiles were especially in short supply. It was reported that the Yates County Fair, which opened on August 22nd, had twice the attendance of the previous few years. One headline was especially telling.......”Cupid Takes Up Arms : Servicemen Keeping Clergymen Busy”....followed by a long list of couples that were married that week.

There was quite a bit of concern about how peacetime was going to impact local industries. Very few layoffs were expected because some wartime contracts were continued for the army of occupation both in Europe and the Pacific. The expected increase in consumer demand (which was well underway), meant that business would be good as soon as reconversion to peacetime production could be completed. The Comstock Canning Corp. that had processed food for the army, started back to civilian production. Penn Yan Boats, which had been making utility boats for the military, switched easily back to pleasure craft. Penn Yan Buses, which had made truck bodies during the war, went back to making buses. Michael Sterns switched from making officer’s and nurse’s uniforms back to civilian clothing. Walkerbilt, the only local industry to report layoffs that month, converted from making boxes and crates for the military to making furniture. Life in the area was starting to return to normal.

by Rich MacAlpine


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