A night of celebration for war-weary city

Baltimore Glimpses

June 06, 1995|By Gilbert Sandler

ON AUG. 12, 1945, there was a wire service news report -- which turned out to be false -- that Japan had surrendered, ending war in the Pacific theater. Reeling from years of sacrifices for the war effort, Baltimoreans rushed to downtown streets after hearing the unconfirmed report and began celebrating.

It wasn't until Aug. 14 that President Harry Truman officially announced Japan's surrender from the White House.

But, in Baltimore, within hours of the bogus report on Aug. 12, thousands of people flocked to the downtown area. They came by bus, streetcar, automobile, bicycle and on foot. They carried cowbells, American flags, horns, whistles and confetti. The center of activity was Sun Square, at Charles and Baltimore streets, where the Translux sign on The Sun's building blinked out the news in lights.

At Light and Baltimore streets, a sailor grabbed a young woman around the waist and said: "I came all the way from Okinawa for a kiss from you!" She said: "Help yourself!"

Streetcars had to be rerouted to avoid the sea of humanity. Gov. Herbert R. O'Conor called out the National Guard just in case any disturbances erupted. He ordered all bars closed for 24 hours and announced that all state offices would be closed on Aug. 15, "Victory Over Japan Day."

All over town, juke boxes were moved onto sidewalks, where crowds danced the night away. Owners of Carlin's Amusement Park told police the park could no longer handle the crowds, and was shutting down. From the harbor (now the Inner Harbor) came the clanging of bells and whistles from every ship afloat.

It was a big celebration, but it had been a long war . . .

If you were on the home front in Baltimore in the years leading up to this night of nights, you were happy to see the war end. After all, if you hadn't fought in the war yourself, you probably knew someone who had. The end of the war meant that news about reports of the dead and injured from the war would end too.

The war's end also meant the end of many small sacrifices: No more long lines for butter, sugar, film, cigarettes -- all items rationed due to the war. During the war, some commonplace things became so hard to get that when people saw a line forming anywhere they got into it -- and bought whatever was being sold.

During the war, you may have been one of those jostling with crowds of fellow war workers at Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyards, where you built Liberty ships; or at Glenn L. Martin, where you built Mars Flying Boats.

You scavenged for ration stamps (there was a flourishing black market), for shoes, meat (a pound of hamburger could go for seven points), gasoline, hosiery. A 1944 newspaper picture shows a long line at Lexington and Liberty streets queuing up for ration stamps good for nylon stockings.

You worked at civilian "filter stations" plotting aircraft movements, or at the Red Cross, serving soldiers and sailors between trains at Pennsylvania and Camden stations.

Or maybe you were an air-raid warden, with white helmet and armband, going house to house with a flashlight, checking to see that blinds were drawn.

You grew a victory garden.

But back to the night of Aug. 12, 1945, in Baltimore.

If you were here then, you likely joined the crowds that swarmed downtown. According to those who were there, it was a night of delirium and singing and dancing in the streets.

And as you took in the whole improbable scene, you may have realized that in coming downtown to forget, you had created a night to remember . . .

I must note that these recollections are drawn from old newspaper clippings and anecdotes from those who were here. I was far from Baltimore the day Japan surrendered, serving as a navigator in the Navy. I was in Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, aboard a Liberty-class transport outfitted for amphibious landings. Behind us: Guadalcanal, Kwajalein, Tarawa, Guam, Saipan. A rumor swept our ranks on Aug. 14, 1945: We were being readied for the invasion of Japan -- the target, Kyushu. I got the news of Japan's surrender about 8 p.m. -- while watching a movie on deck. In minutes every ship in the anchorage -- and there must have been hundreds, including aircraft carriers, battleships, destroyers and support ships -- broke out their pyrotechnics. In what seemed like only seconds, literally hundreds of thousands of flares of every color were shooting through the night sky. The celebration lasted well into the early morning of the next day.

Within days we were on our way to Los Angeles; from there we were ordered to Panama; from there, to Norfolk, Va. And from there -- believe it or not -- after being in the South Pacific for almost two years -- our orders were to report to Baltimore's Port Covington. We did. The next morning (Dec. 5, 1945) I got up and took the bus home. The war was finally over for me.

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