August 15, 1945, was VJ Day — the day that World War II ended in the Pacific Theatre. VJ is an acronym for Victory Japan. Victory in Europe, VE Day, was declared the previous April.
VJ Day is affiliated with a series of images that students of U.S. history should recognize; these images tell much of the story of the day and the events of the weeks leading up to it.
The most famous image is Alfred Eisenstadt’s photograph of an exuberant sailor kissing a swept-off-her-feet- for-the-moment nurse in Times Square, New York City. This is one of the most famous photographs from the most famous photographer from Life Magazine:
Eisenstadt coolly titled his photo “VJ Day, Times Square.” It came to be known as The Smack Seen ‘Round the World. It was fitting that the photo would be taken by Eisenstadt, since his work came to be a symbol of Henry Luce’s Life Magazine in a pre-television era when photography magazines like Life and Look were key news organs for the nation.
Before the victory celebration, there had to be a victory. Japan asked for conditional surrender discussions, but the Allied forces insisted on unconditional surrender. Japanese military officials were rather certain that, if the Soviet Union entered the Pacific War, Allied victory would be assured. Japan hoped to either get a conditional surrender agreement, according to some sources, or inflict heavy losses on Allied forces to get better surrender conditions, but before Russia entered the war. Russia and Japan had long-standing grudges against one another dating from before their earlier war in the first decade of the 20th century.
U.S. soldiers from Europe hoped to go home after VE Day. Thousands of them were diverted to the Pacific, however, anticipating brutal, bloody and costly invasions of islands including the larger islands of Japan, considering Allied experiences in places like Iwo Jima, Saipan, and Okinawa. Japanese soldiers refused to surrender when surrounded, as German soldiers had done. Instead, they tended to fight to the death, killing or wounding as many Allied soldiers as possible. So U.S. forces were unhappy at the near-suicide nature of the assignment they saw coming.
On July 18 the U.S. successfully tested a nuclear bomb at White Sands, New Mexico. The test was secret, of course, from even most of the Allied Nations. President Harry Truman, a veteran of the trench warfare in World War I, worried about the effect on morale of the troops and their families, of invasions of the Japanese island strongholds, which would surely produce enormous casualties. High officials of the U.S. military debated how atomic weapons could be used, with the consensus calling for detonation of a device near the beaches to be stormed almost immediately by U.S. soldiers.
Truman ultimately made the call to use one weapon on a Japanese military installation, and then demand unconditional surrender. If those terms were not accepted, another weapon would be used on another Japanese military installation. It is unclear whether the U.S. had more than the two devices used, ready for such tactics; new bombs could be created if necessary.
The first atomic bomb used in warfare fell on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, a city loaded with military manufacturers. The Gembaku Dome was left unrestored, and is now a focus point for Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial.
Allies demanded unconditional surrender. For various reasons, Japan did not answer quickly enough (there is one line of reasoning that says a telegram saying Japan was considering surrender was misinterpreted as “no” in Washington).
The second atomic bomb used in war fell on Nagasaki, another military target, on August 9.
In both cities, thousands of civilians were killed. President Truman’s calculations were that fewer soldiers and civilians would die with use of the bombs than would die in an invasion. One of the airmen aboard the B-29 that delivered the bomb snapped the famous photo of the mushroom cloud, which quickly rose to 60,000 feet over the devastated city. This photo is a symbol of the use of atomic weapons in warfare.
Japan announced the nation’s accepting of the terms for unconditional surrender on August 15. The formal surrender ceremonies were conducted aboard the U.S.S. Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay on September 2. There are several commonly used photos of U.S. military officers, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz in particular. Two images students should recognize are the Japanese officials signing the documents, and Admiral Nimitz’ signing the same documents.
- Caption from U.S. Navy: General Yoshijiro Umezu, Chief of the Army General Staff, signs the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of Japanese Imperial General Headquarters, on board USS Missouri Watching from across the table are Lieutenant General Richard K. Sutherland and General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. Representatives of the Allied powers are behind General MacArthur. Photographed from atop Missouri‘s 16-inch gun turret # 2. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. (BB-63), 2 September 1945.
- Caption from the Navy: Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN, signs the Instrument of Surrender as United States Representative, on board USS Missouri (BB-63), 2 September 1945. Standing directly behind him are (left-to-right): General of the Army Douglas MacArthur; Admiral William F. Halsey, USN, and Rear Admiral Forrest Sherman, USN. In front row, background, are (left to right): Rear Admiral Frederick C. Sherman, USN; Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, USN; Vice Admiral John S. McCain, USN; Vice Admiral John H. Towers, USN; Admiral Richmond K. Turner, USN; Rear Admiral Robert B. Carney, USN; General Walter C. Krueger, U.S. Army; General Robert L. Eichelberger, U.S. Army and General Carl A. Spaatz, USAAF. Others identified behind the front row include (in no order): Brigadier General Joseph H. Fellows, USMC; Captain Tom B. Hill, USN; Commodore J.C. Cronin, USN; Rear Admiral Ingram C. Sowell, USN; Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, USN; Rear Admiral Howard F. Kingman, USN; Rear Admiral Lloyd J. Wiltsie, USN; Rear Admiral J. Cary Jones, USN; Captain John S. Thach, USN and Commodore Joel T. Boone, USN(MC). Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.
These images tell a story of the end of World War II in the Pacific. Students will see these images often in their lifetime, and they should be familiar enough with them to be able to identify them with some accuracy.
Resources for teachers and students
Lesson plans: Three days of lesson plans from the Minnesota Historical Society, “The Greatest Generation in Their Own Words, including how to conduct oral history interviews, conducting an interview, study with primary and secondary documents of why those who fought in the war are called the “Greatest Generation,” and how to put together a written narrative.
Newspaper headlines: Again from the Minnesota Historical Society, a collection of newspaper front pages from around Minnesota on August 14 and 15, 1945, in high quality .pdf format; additional photos and original documents are included.
Images from the Library of Congress Veterans’ History Project, covering much of the history of the war, especially on the home front, available for downloading.
Radio broadcasts from August 15, 1945
U.S. Naval Historical Center materials on the formal surrender of Japan, September 2, 1945