On the morning of August 6, 1945, many newspaper readers in the Lehigh Valley and around the world had one question: when would Japan surrender and World War II finally end? Few had reasons to be optimistic. Tokyo had been bombed and burned many times. Japan’s overseas empire, not without a fierce struggle that cost thousands of American lives, had been reduced to its home islands. But reports out of that country suggested nothing but defiance. Under the headline “JAPANESE BOAST OF DEFENSES ON KYUSHU,” a United Press article based on a Tokyo newspaper report talked of huge gun emplacement and a spider web of underground tunnels complete with barracks, kitchens, and hospitals for regular army soldiers. There were suicide squads awaiting any U.S. invasion that were said to be ready to fight to the death.
If they could have seen the position papers coming out of the Pentagon, there would have had even fewer reasons for optimism. American casualties in an invasion of Japan were estimated to be at least a million. Optimists gave 1947 as the earliest date for Japan’s surrender. Pessimists claimed it would not be until 1949. But between breakfast and lunch all that would change. At 11 a.m. Eastern War Time, President Harry S Truman announced personally, “that the first atomic bomb had been dropped on an army base of Hiroshima 16 hours before.”
“NEW ATOMIC BOMB DEVASTATES JAPANESE CITY,” read the banner headline on the top of page 1 of the Morning Call the next day. “The most terrible destructive force ever harnessed by man- atomic energy-is now being turned on the islands of Japan by United States bombers,” was how the Associated Press story described. It noted the new bomb had the power of 20,000 tons of TNT, “a wallop more violent than 2,000 B-29 bombers normally could land on an enemy city using old type TNT bombs.”
Exactly what atomic bombs were, most people across the country had not the faintest notion. It would only become clear later that Hiroshima and Nagasaki along with being military targets were also cities full of people. An estimated 70,000 died in Hiroshima from the first blast and roughly 50,000 over the ongoing years from radiation. It was not until New Yorker journalist John Hersey, who managed to get into the city from China and in August 1946 wrote an article for the magazine that later became a book called simply Hiroshima, a world-wide best seller, that many people became aware of radiation and what it could do.
At the time and still for many today it was simple. Japan had started the war at Pearl Harbor. If a new bomb, whatever it was called, could blow them to pieces so that the war was over, and their family members could come home sooner as a result, so much the better. But there were some who understood what atomic power was and what it meant. That person in the Lehigh Valley was the writer of the August 7, 1945 editorial in the Morning Call. It was entitled “MAN MAY MEDDLE TOO MUCH WITH THE ATOM.”
“The news which has come out can be heartening and terrifying at the same time. The hope will be in as much as a sample of this destructive weapon has been dropped upon Japan the Japs will decide to quit and the war will come to an end faster than had been anticipated. The terrifying aspect of this announcement lies in the speculation as to what the scientists can accomplish beyond all this for the destruction of mankind and mankind’s accumulated property in wealth.” The editorial went on to state that the U.S. would probably not be the sole nation to have the knowledge for long. “What may happen if unscrupulous men like Hitler and his gang or a bellicose nation like Japan uncovers the secrets through the work of their scientists and unleash against the world a force even greater than the first “atomic bomb?”
Lacking a crystal ball, the editorial writer had no way of knowing that within five years the secret would be the property of the Soviet Union, at least in part by its spies in the American project itself, and that 75 years later there would be enough nuclear weapons to turn the world to ashes in 20 minutes.
But in 1945 that was all unknown. In the Lehigh Valley and around the world things were moving but no one seemed to know what was going on. On August 8, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan by seizing several northern Japanese islands that are still a bone of contention with Russia and Japan today. But finally on August 14 the word had come that the Imperial Japanese government through the voice of its emperor to his people over the radio, a voice that many had never heard before, had agreed to surrender. It was confirmed at 7 that evening by President Truman. World War II was over. All at once air raid warnings sounded with joy.
Here is what followed, in part in Allentown and the Lehigh Valley according to the local press that evening:
“With a mighty burst Allentown last night let go the emotions it has held in check for three and a half years, eight months and eight days of war to joyously and triumphantly celebrate the greatest day in American history, complete and overwhelming victory and the end of the bloodiest most cruel war the world has ever seen. It took just eight minutes for the impromptu declaration of Japan’s crushing defeat to get under way and less than half an hour for Hamilton Street to be jammed with a gay, happy shouting crowd. By nine o’ clock with the business section of the city packed from building line to building line it had become the greatest demonstration in Allentown’s history. Automobile horns sounded the first notes of a Victory symphony eight minutes after the long -awaited Victory announcement was made. In a matter of seconds more horns swelled the mighty crescendo that kept growing until the press of the crowd made it necessary to close every block to motor traffic. But by this time the shouting, cheering, singing crowd was making enough noise to all but drown out the drum and bugle corps that marched up and down the street…nothing moved but trolley cars and buses and they moved slowly and with difficulty.”
Some of the crowds charged for Zion’s Reformed Church which was filled with those seeking to give thanks in prayer for both victory and peace that would bring their loved ones home at last. Its bell tolled through the evening. No special services were held in Protestant churches, but many were held the next day. In Catholic churches special victory services were held within a half hour of Truman’s announcement, with 3,000 people in Sacred Heart Church’s Rockne Hall.
Groups of boys paraded up and down in the form of tin pan bands adding their bit to the celebration. In front of the library pavement at 9th and Hamilton was someone beating cymbals on the pavement. Paper shreds fell like New York city ticker tape from the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company’s tower building. “One soldier climbed a lamppost and removed one of the small flags placed there by the city,” noted the Morning Call. He quickly replaced it when a policeman “suggested” he do so.
Similar celebrations could be heard in Bethlehem as crowds and cars filled the streets with joy. Bethlehem Steel blew its whistles but production, according to the press, did not stop. The Northampton County Liberty bell rang from Easton’s courthouse for 24 non-consecutive hours.
The actual surrender ceremony took place on September 2nd on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. It fell to John Y. Kohl, Morning Call-Chronicle Sunday editor, to write the editorial. After recalling that he had been on duty when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1st starting the Second World War in Europe, he spoke about the hopes of many that day:
‘ “‘We know now that man on this planet no longer has his frontiers; that the human family is one; that the affairs of any or part of it are the affairs of all. May this immemorable day be a historic day not alone that it marks the end of the world’s greatest war but that it may be recorded as the day that man armed with this knowledge, shall preserve the peace always!”