L.A. 're-clenched its fists' on VE Day 70 years ago

L.A. 're-clenched its fists' on VE Day 70 years ago
May 8, 1945: Lockheed employees cheer the allies' victory in Europe. (Los Angeles Times)

Seventy years ago today, the front page of the Los Angeles Times screamed “FULL VICTORY IN EUROPE.”

The war in Europe was over.

The toll had been staggering, and World War II would last three more months.

When the war ended in Europe, more than 100,000 American troops had been killed. Supply shortages and rationing continued. Now the Allies could turn their full focus toward Japan and the war in the Pacific.

How the L.A. Times covered the news

The front page of the Los Angeles Times on VE-Day, 1945.

“Germany surrendered unconditionally,” read the lead story on May 8, 1945, “completing the victory in the European phase of the second World War – the most devastating in history.”

The Germans signed the terms of surrender around 2:41 a.m. on May 7 in a red brick schoolhouse that had served as the headquarters for General Dwight D. Eisenhower in Reims, France.

The news was first reported by Ed Kennedy, the Paris bureau chief for the Associated Press, who was one of 17 reporters allowed to witness the ceremony on the condition that the Allied officials would determine the timing of the announcement.

Once German radio broadcast the cease-fire, though, Kennedy broke the media blackout, announcing the end to the European war nearly 24 hours ahead of the military's plan. The scoop prompted the Allies to temporarily suspend the AP’s ability to send through any news on the wires from Europe.

(Note: Kennedy, who said he refused to obey the embargo because it was put in place for political rather than national security reasons, later lost his job. Dozens of reporters who had obeyed the embargo signed a statement denouncing him as a “double-crosser”; three years ago, the AP apologized for firing Kennedy.)

In Los Angeles, the news spread quickly. Extra editions of The Times pushed the paper to the largest daily press run in its history.

But the celebration was muted on the West Coast.

“Los Angeles paused briefly yesterday to digest the news of victory in Europe,” a front-page story noted, “then turned its eyes westward toward Japan and re-clenched its fists.” Referring to a “savage and unbeaten foe across the Pacific,” the newspaper reported most gathering places deserted, with “only a few persons” in Pershing Square and a slow night for local watering holes.

Schools and businesses would remain open, and, true to form, it was show business as usual for Hollywood movie studios.

“This is not a holiday,” Mayor Fletcher Bowron told citizens. “Remember, our war is not over until Japan is defeated.”

The public was anticipating the end of brownouts – the practice of dimming indoor lights at night to reduce visibility for potential enemy aircraft – and citizens were warned to expect food and other shortages to continue as aid was shifted to relieve war-torn Europe.

Gasoline rations were expected to increase, The Times reported, but dire shortages of shoes, tires and even whiskey and cigarettes were expected to continue “for a long time to come.”

A mass was planned for the morning at St. Vibiana’s Cathedral downtown, as were numerous other church services that “will be short, but frequent.”

The next day, after President Truman’s radio address officially announcing VE-Day, The Times declared the “last shot fired” in the European theater as Stalin also claimed victory over Nazi troops in Berlin.

Red Army troops had reportedly discovered Adolf Hitler’s lifeless body, “bullet-torn and battered” near his bunker, where he was believed to have committed suicide with cyanide and a bullet to the head.

There was some dispute over whether the body was Hitler’s, the report said – one of his servants claimed the body belonged to Hitler’s cook. The body of Joseph Goebbels and his wife were also found, but Goebbel’s corpse was burned beyond recognition.

Private First Class Richard Blust of Michigan surveys the bunker at the German Reichschancellery in Berlin where Adolf Hitler and his wife, Eva Braun, are thought to have committed suicide in late April 1945 (Haacker/Hulton Archive / Getty Images).

In a headline that is offensive today, but used language common at the time, The Times wrote that “Plans for Jap Invasion” were underway.

“I don’t know how much the Japs can take,” Adm. Chester W. Nimitz was quoted as saying. “If they can see the handwriting on the wall they can see what happened to Germany.” The war in the Pacific would last until August, when U.S. forces dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

President Truman proclaimed the following Sunday, also Mother’s Day, to be a day of prayer, and reiterated that there would be no official VE-Day celebration.

“We must work to finish the war,” Truman said in a radio address printed in full in the newspaper’s pages. “Our victory is but half won.”

But in Canada – yes, Canada – there was looting and violence in the port town of Halifax in a VE-Day celebration gone awry. Mobs smashed store windows and battled with police, the paper reported, and at a brewery, people “carried out beer by the case.”

And perhaps it should surprise no one that this story found its way to the L.A. Times front page, even amidst the monumental news from Europe: “Drizzles Due Early Today.”

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