Everyone has some private holidays – besides commemorations such as the birth of a child or the wedding day – that may mean a lot or a little to the outside world but which are very special to that one person.  V-J Day is one of my private holidays but it didn’t start out that way.  Now, with its commemoration just past, I’d like to tell you how it became special to me.

I’m a baby boomer and admit that V-J Day – Victory over Japan, September 2, 1945 – meant little to me growing up.  Oh, I relished the stories of the Pacific war, stories of great sea battles and heroism on rocky atolls, of the men who fought a virulent tyranny to keep us free and safe, of the men and women in captive countries who resisted bravely and too often paid with their lives.  I thought, too, of the millions of ordinary people who suffered.  I loved that great scene on the deck of the USS Missouri where Gen. Douglas MacArthur and American sailors, soldiers and Marines, some of them just released from the miseries of Japanese POW camps, took the surrender that ended the war.

But the deeper meaning of the day itself, well, I somehow missed that.  Even after my own time in war, seeing what my war meant to Vietnam and the Vietnamese, I did not understand with my gut what I thought I understood with my head about V-J Day.  Vietnam taught me that you have to understand both ways to understand anything at all.  Then an astonishing thing happened to me.

I was working in Australia at the time, a beautiful country of people who often seem larger than life.  One day, they made me feel that way, too.  It was the fiftieth anniversary of the victory in the Pacific.  The whole city had turned out for the parade and the celebrations.  Aussie veterans groups, marching troops, brass bands, pretty girls, the works.  I was invited to join the American contingent and took along my daughter.  She was five years old and her mother had put her in a sweater – V-J Day was winter in Australia – that was red, white and blue with stars and stripes.  We took our places way back in the crowd of happy Yanks.

But a U.S. Navy officer in full dress, leading the color guard, spotted my daughter in her stars and stripes and called us up to the front of the American contingent, and that is where we marched.  It was a wonderful day, cool and bright.  The crowds cheered and the cheering was non-stop.  We marched through the city, along streets I took every day to work and my daughter saw on her way to school or shopping with her mother.  We were happy and waving to the crowds, marching behind that sparkling flag.

We turned a city corner and there was a sudden roar of cheering for the stars and stripes snapping in front of us.  What had happened to bring on all this uproar?  I looked into the crowd and saw why.  It was very simple.  This part of the parade route was crowded with men and women old enough to remember the Pacific war first-hand.  They had fought alongside U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines.  They had striven at home to raise the crops and produce the materials of war.  They had suffered.  They had yearned through very dark days for the victory that would save them from even greater misery.  That sparkling flag meant something more in their lives than just a hard-fought victory.  It meant the leadership and inspiration and sacrifice of America in defeating a tyranny ready to engulf the world.

Oh, but putting it in those terms is to understand only with the head.  What happened next gave me understanding of the spirit.  It made V-J Day one of my private holidays and that parade march something I will never forget.  Women pushed through the crowd, women my mother’s age and older.  They shoved through the crowd and past the police keeping the crowd out of the parade route.  They ran up to me and the Navy officer and all the other Yanks in our color guard and they kissed us.  They cheered and they wept and they kissed us.

My father had been in the Army Air Forces but I was born after the war.  I had made no contribution to winning the Pacific war or to keeping Australia safe and free.  Yet these women, who had suffered through the war, chose to kiss me because the child whose hand I held wore her stars and stripes sweater and because of the flag beside which we marched.  I was no longer just another American.  I was a symbol of what America had been, is and always can be.

When I finally understood with my gut what those kisses meant, when I realized how proud I was of my country for leading the world against tyranny, well, I don’t suppose I need to say I finished that parade march streaming tears, too.

Now I remember that parade as my private commemoration of V-J Day.  It reminds me that, despite all of the many problems we face today at home and around the globe, despite our many disappointments with ourselves and the direction of American life, America still possesses the capacity to do great things provided Americans maintain our old spirit of leadership, inspiration and sacrifice.

(c) 2014 Steven Hardesty

stevenhardestyOp-Edparades,world war IIEveryone has some private holidays - besides commemorations such as the birth of a child or the wedding day - that may mean a lot or a little to the outside world but which are very special to that one person.  V-J Day is one of my private holidays...Recovering forgotten and overlooked military history