An air raid siren atop The Times building howled the news out across Downtown Los Angeles. Upper-floor windows were flung open throughout the Civic Center, and confetti fluttered down on the throngs that burst from doorways and took over the streets.
It was 4 p.m., Pacific War Time, on Aug. 14, 1945. The Japanese Empire had agreed to surrender unconditionally to the Allied Forces, bringing to an end the most devastating conflict in history.
For some, it was a time of ambivalent reflection, of happiness tempered by lingering uncertainties and by the loss of loved ones.
“It was a quiet time,” recalled Phylis Rider, now 74. “A time to think about the future.”
But for others, such as Leo Nasser, now 82, it was a noisy moment of unbridled exultation.
“We were all jumping and yelling and screaming and whistling,” he said.
Impromptu parades sprang up on Broadway between 1st and 7th streets. Strangers linked arms along Hollywood Boulevard in a joyous, writhing snake dance that stretched from Western Avenue to Vine Street.
Stalled by the amiable chaos, truck drivers and streetcar motormen added their horns and bells to the din. Telephone fuses blew as circuits overloaded with celebratory messages. Soldiers and civilians traded neckties. Children pounded on gongs that had been placed on posts to warn of poison gas attacks.
“Servicemen kissed every pretty girl they met,” an unnamed Times reporter wrote. “And the girls kissed back.”
Mayor Fletcher Bowron decided that everyone was entitled to a good time.
“We are not going to try to hold the lid down,” he announced.
Although liquor stores and bars were ordered closed, booze--often so scarce during the long years of World War II--appeared miraculously and flowed in abundance. Cops were tolerant, asking only that the merrymakers refrain from fighting and vandalizing.
A few windows were broken, servicemen swiped some of Hollywood Boulevard’s street signs for souvenirs, a couple of liquor stores were looted and a few storefront awnings--common in those days--were ripped from their moorings.
“A lone sailor, waving a bottle, wandered along Main Street with nothing on but his jersey blouse,” the Times reporter wrote.
Several celebrants stumbled into emergency rooms with cuts and bruises from thrown punches and hurled booze bottles.
But for the most part, the mood was jovial. Even though Police Chief C. B. Horrall had felt it necessary to mobilize his entire 2,100-member force, few arrests were made.
It was a warm summer evening that belonged to the people in the streets--Southern Californians tearing free of more than 3 1/2 years of wartime restraint.
“Every emotion was displayed,” a Times reporter wrote. “Some threw their hats in the air and screamed. Some slipped to their knees to murmur thanks. . . . While the throng shrieked nearby, a young woman with a service pin in her lapel huddled in a store doorway and wept.”
Frank Sinatra’s maroon convertible, halted momentarily by a red light at Hollywood and Vine, was mobbed by a dozen enthralled hitchhikers before the light turned green. To the bobby-soxers’ delight, the grinning singer gave them all a triumphant ride.
Marion Witbeck was a 22-year-old photographer for the now long-defunct Los Angeles Daily News--not to be confused with the current paper of the same name. Unable to get an overview from street level, she clambered up a fire escape on a Downtown office building to take a picture of the crowds milling below.
“It was terribly exciting,” she said recently. “I had gotten my job because of the war, replacing some cameraman who had to go into the service.”
Leon Gilberti and his girlfriend of the moment, Marie Clampett, leaped fully clothed into a fountain in Pershing Square. An unidentified man set up a card table in front of 700 Hill St. and started pouring free drinks for passersby from five bottles of bourbon. Entertainer Carmen Miranda and a sailor performed an impromptu rumba in the street in front of the USO’s fabled Hollywood canteen.
“People began to laugh . . . and cry . . . and mostly laugh,” wrote Milt Phinney, a Daily News reporter. “They laughed, and looked very happily at each other, and said inane things like, ‘It’s over, ain’t it?’ and ‘This is it, huh?’. . . .
At a servicemen’s center across from the Biltmore Hotel, someone woke napping Army Pvt. Willis Gates--late of the storied “Merrill’s Marauders” combat group in Burma--to tell him that the Japanese had surrendered. “Don’t you believe it!” Gates snarled, before rolling over and going back to sleep.
Churches opened their doors for impromptu services. Firecrackers crackled in the alleys of Chinatown. A pair of Army Air Corps fighter planes circled over Union Station. A small man--dressed impeccably in a white suit--danced quietly by himself in an empty intersection on Hill Street.
In Pasadena, Winnie Dennis, 20, stood on her head at the corner of Colorado Boulevard and Arroyo Parkway, paying off her bet with her boyfriend, Don Royer, that the war wouldn’t end for another three days.
In East Los Angeles, Betty Bronstein, whose daughter was one of the first infants born after the surrender was announced, named the girl Berna Marilyn Bronstein in honor of the victory.
When the news came through to Azusa, “we all ran up to the main intersection in town--Azusa Avenue and Highway 66--where the World War I memorial was,” said Leo Nasser, who has run a menswear shop in town for more than 60 years.
“Lots of people showed up at the memorial, and pretty soon we’d stopped all the traffic,” Nasser said. “The people on the highway got out to ask what was going on, and when we told them, they joined right in. . . . Hell, nobody went home all night.”
In the harbor, vessels of every description cut loose with blasts from their whistles, punctuated by a thunderous salute from several 155-millimeter cannons at Ft. MacArthur.
The hubbub was misinterpreted in some quarters as a warning of enemy attack, and several thousand war plant employees scurried for cover in air raid shelters.
Gretl Mulder--then a 9-year-old resident of Covina--heard the news while attending a two-week Girl Scout and Brownie camp at Jenks Lake, in the San Bernardino National Forest.
“I’d never been to camp before, so to me it seemed like part of the whole camp thing,” she recalled. “But everyone else seemed to think it was wonderful, so I thought it was wonderful too.”
For people such as Margaret Scott Meier, then living in rural Glendora, it was a day of wrenching ambivalence.
“It was wonderful, because it meant that my husband [Hebert Meier, now 79] would be coming home,” she said. “But it was very difficult too, because we had learned that my brother would never be coming home.”
Her brother--John Scott--captured by the Japanese during the fall of the Philippines in 1942, had survived the infamous Bataan Death March only to die later in a prisoner-of-war camp.
Phylis Rider, then a 29-year-old housewife in San Marino, remembers “everyone telephoning everyone else. . . .
“But it wasn’t partying,” she said. “It was a feeling of tremendous relief that the terrible war was over. . . .”
We didn’t know it yet, but for those of us who were children, Japan’s capitulation meant an end to things we thought had been going on forever--ration books, defense stamps, air raid drills, acres of camouflage netting draped over Southern California’s aircraft plants, saving up bacon fat, a 35-m.p.h. speed limit and the wooden lookout tower in our Azusa schoolyard where wardens watched for enemy planes.
It also meant an end to an impertinent rejoinder, snarled through clenched teeth at anyone complaining about the chronic shortage of consumer goods: “Don’tcha know there’s a war on?”