Sweet Surrender

Tucsonans look back 60 years and remember V-J Day

Cele Peterson clearly remembers the day World War II ended--even though that day was 60 years ago.

"We couldn't believe it was true," remarks Peterson, who ran a downtown dress shop when the news hit Tucson, on Aug. 14, 1945. "Everyone was just running around, hugging each other and screaming for joy. It was something, and I don't think I'll ever forget that day."

The Japanese intent to surrender had been signaled late the night before, but many Tucson residents were already in bed by the time the news broke. Even the town's bars remained quiet, their patrons unaware of what was happening.

Things were still calm early the next morning. The police reported a lone sailor carrying a sack of confetti heading for downtown, but that was all that happened until President Truman made the official announcement. Then from across the city, people streamed toward the streets of downtown as hundreds of others went to church to say silent prayers of thanksgiving or in remembrance for those who had died.

Pima County had a population approaching 100,000 back then, many of them military personnel who came to Tucson for training during the war. Downtown was the focal point of the community, and some of its stores closed immediately upon hearing the news.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Alva Torres had been watching a movie at the Fox Theatre when it went dark. "A spotlight came on," she remembers, "and a young man wearing a long-sleeved, crisp white shirt made the announcement that Pearl Harbor had been bombed."

By August 1945, Torres was 13 years old, and she recalls, "We heard the president on the radio. Many people congregated in front of the Fox, but I went with my sisters to a service at the San Augustine Cathedral. The church bells were ringing, and I could see people going downtown, but I think my mother told me not to go there."

Among those standing on the sidewalks of the area was an 80-year-old man. He was kissing every woman who walked by, a total of 200 or so, and told a newspaper reporter: "I just love it, and, you know, there ain't one of them hardly that objected to it."

Early in the war, Genevieve Whalen worked for Consolidated Aircraft Company on the city's far southside, helping to modify military planes. Chuckling, she says her employer originally had her try riveting, but when she demonstrated she couldn't do that very well, they had her solder. But what she did expertly was organize parties, something she still does today.

Having left her job at the plant, the day the war ended, Whalen was working as a dental assistant for Edgar Romo in an upper-floor office of the bank building at Stone Avenue and Congress Street.

"There was a lot of celebrating with everybody in the streets crying," she recalls. "But Dr. Romo didn't close the office. Instead, we looked down (on the crowd) and dropped confetti from the window. It was really exciting."

That morning's Arizona Daily Star headline predicted the end of hostilities, and by the afternoon, the Tucson Citizen simply proclaimed, "Japan Quits; War Ended." The papers also carried full-page congratulatory statements from the city's leading businesses.

The newspapers additionally had stories about what was occurring in Tucson. One recounted traffic filling the streets of downtown, car horns blaring and people shouting for joy. Accompanying the article was a photograph showing a coupe occupied by four teenagers. The car was dragging a wash tub and some scrap metal while a hand-written sign adorned its trunk. It read simply: "We dood it--again!"

Because of rationing, tires were hard to come by during the war. But on the day hostilities ended, one car was covered with tires, a sign of possible things to come.

On Aug. 14, 1945, 13-year old Jerry Juliani was being driven around downtown by his brother-in-law in a '40 Ford convertible. Juliani remembers clearly they had a bottle of booze. When asked if he partook of some of the alcohol, my friend of many years says without hesitation, "Of course I drank it."

"Downtown, people were honking horns, waving, and yelling 'We won! The war's over!'" Juliani reminisces. "You never saw such an explosion of happiness. I don't think anyone was arrested for drinking that day."

After the celebration died down around 10:30 p.m., the following day--which is formally recognized as V-J Day, when the end of the war was made official--stores remained closed, and Tucson was mostly subdued, getting ready for a big parade. Led by a band, those marching included a very elderly Civil War veteran along with some men who fought in the Spanish-American War.

The jubilation for some people, though, was tempered by the use of the atomic bombs which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of people in an instant. Called "2,000 times more powerful than the biggest blockbusters ever used in warfare," the A-bomb left a lasting impression.

"It was kind of frightening," to hear about, recalls Peterson. Torres also remembers that she was scared of the bomb when she learned about it.

But the primary emotion in 1945 was one of relief. The war was finally over, and 7 million service men and women would be on their way home. As Torres says of that day six decades ago, "There was great, great happiness, and just this intense joy."

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