On Memorial Day 50 years ago, the nation was in the midst of a poignant period, never to be repeated, of celebrating fresh victory in Europe without knowing that triumph over Japan was but ten weeks away. Scores of young Americans were dying daily in the fierce battles for Okinawa and other Pacific strongpoints.
The Evening Sun, in an editorial, captured the mixture of relief in Hitler's overthrow and the dread of what lay ahead in the Pacific. "This year we know half the task is done," the paper declared, but then added: "We cannot dare tell ourselves that by the time another Memorial Day comes the war in the East too will have ended in final victory, but it is the deepest hope of all Americans that it will be." How prophetic!
We now know that the Pacific war ended in mid-August under the nuclear cloud that rose from Hiroshima -- a decision that will be disputed as long as history is written. In the context of Memorial Day 1945, however, it is understandable why the dropping of the first atomic bomb was bound to have broad support among the American people.
As U.S. forces island-hopped closer to Japan, the resistance of Japanese troops became more and more fanatic. The conquest of Iwo Jima in five weeks from mid-February till late March had cost 26,000 casualties. Okinawa was next, beginning April 1, and it was destined to be the longest, bloodiest battle in the entire conflict. Before it was over on June 21, U.S. forces had taken 49,000 casualties, including 7,613 killed in action. The toll fed American fears than an invasion of the Japanese homelands would result in 1 million dead and wounded. We will never know.
What we knew half a century ago and know now is that Japanese troops fought to defend every trench and cave on Okinawa, that the island's commanders committed suicide rather than surrender, that kamikaze planes sank 34 ships and caused a fearful toll among Navy personnel.
At home, on this day of remembrance 50 years ago, all war plants in the Baltimore region were working, with the exception of a General Motors aircraft unit. The plant's CIO union protested, demanding the usual 48-hour week. There were a few scattered parades, many veterans observances at cemeteries. But the mood was somber, downtown largely deserted.
That Memorial Day near the end of World War II was not the last to be clouded by on-going conflict. Korea and Vietnam, plus several minor conflicts, were in the future. But in sheer numbers, the bloody graveyard that was Okinawa cast a pall that deserves remembrance as the world is poised between 50th anniversary celebrations of V-E Day and V-J Day. It should make Americans thankful that on Memorial Day 1995 the nation is at peace.