Here’s something few Rhode Islanders say: “Have a meaningful Victory Day.”
Victory Day is something of an orphan holiday, a vestige of V-J (or Victory Over Japan) Day. Victory Day does not share the stature of America's national holidays that are derived from military ventures — Memorial Day, Veterans Day or Independence Day. It is observed in Rhode Island on the second Monday of August, though no other states treat it as a holiday.
Whether Rhode Island should continue to celebrate Victory Day is a subject for a different conversation — one that would involve the voices of public employees unions, nationalists, globalists, veterans, Japanese-Americans and historians. This year, we simply pause to reflect on the meaning of the occasion, and why it was celebrated in the first place.
During World War II, Rhode Island played an important role in the American war effort. The people of the Ocean State built ships and trained sailors and members of construction battalions known as Seabees. They also imprisoned German war captives and churned out torpedoes. As historian Christian McBurney put it, Rhode Island’s contribution to World War II vastly exceeded its small size.
Rhode Island, like many places, was all in for World War II. The state’s efforts exemplified the unity of a country that had suffered an unprovoked attack at Pearl Harbor, and ended up sending young men from virtually every city and hamlet to fight fearsome wars on two continents.
By August 1945, Germany had surrendered, but the fighting in the Pacific roared on, as allied troops fell by the thousands fighting exhausting battles through Pacific islands.
Then American bombers dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9. Japan soon surrendered, ending the war that, according to the National Archives, killed more than 1,600 Rhode Islanders. President Harry Truman declared Sept. 2 Victory Over Japan Day.
The mood in America — indeed, in countries from New Zealand to Belgium — was jubilant. The war had dragged on for nearly four years, emptying workplaces and communities, diverting people and resources and preoccupying Americans, who correctly viewed it as a struggle for the future of the civilized world.
The war was a staggering and costly undertaking, and it is appropriate to remember and celebrate American sacrifice and resilience that helped make victory possible.
Of course, Americans have always recognized that there were casualties on both sides, including in Japan, which today is one of our staunchest allies. The bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima took a dreadful toll, taking the lives of thousands of civilian men, women and children. They were such a devastating pair of blows that they not only forced Japan to stop fighting — sparing an invasion of Japan that would have claimed a huge number of American and Japanese lives — but also led nations ever since to restrict and restrain the use of atomic weapons.
Here we are, 73 years later, enjoying what is often celebrated as a day at the beach. It is a holiday born of unimaginable sacrifice and suffering, and the world has shifted in innumerable ways since. Perhaps few Rhode Islanders today ponder the significance of Victory Day, but we would do well to recall how it came to be a fixture on our August calendars.
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