Guest Editorial: Remember V-E Day on May 6

The surrender of German forces ended World War II in the European theater, and sparked celebrations across America. The men in the field were pretty happy, too.

“I was absolutely overjoyed when I heard the news,” said the late James Lambeth, an Illinois veteran who was stationed in Germany at the time. “That was one of the most welcome comments that I think I have ever heard.”

May 8 marks the anniversary of the unconditional German capitulation to the Allies, effectively ending the war on the European continent. The event is known as V-E Day, for “Victory in Europe.”

The demise of the German regime was no surprise. The Allies had been closing in for months, and Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945.  The collapse brought an end to a conflict that had begun when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and had included three and a half years of American involvement.

The news of the surrender was welcomed by a weary American public. Church bells rang across the nation, and many businesses shut down for the day as revelers danced in the streets in some cities.

But the celebrations nationwide were tempered by the specter of the war in the Pacific, which was still raging. In an effort to keep the nation’s focus, President Harry Truman declared the following Sunday – Mother’s Day – as a day of prayer, stating “our rejoicing is sobered and subdued by a supreme consciousness of the terrible price we have paid to rid the world of Hitler” and “our victory is only half over.”

Truman’s words were reflected in Bloomington, Ill., where the local Pantagraph reported on May 8 that “most of Illinois observed victory in Europe” with “prayers of thanksgiving.”  Chicago schools, taverns, and liquor stores were closed for the day, though war plants were open.

In Cincinnati, the hometown Enquirer noted the surrender was received with a “minimum of excitement” and that Truman’s declaration came “almost as an anticlimax.”  As in Chicago, many war plants in Cincinnati and elsewhere remained open, as production was still sorely needed.

In the field in Europe, the reaction was also muted. One lieutenant wrote that “most of the men…said something like ‘I’m glad’ and walked away. Perhaps it was a different story in their heart, or perhaps they were too tired, or thinking of home too much, or thinking of their buddies who didn’t live to see the victory, to do much celebrating or merry-making.”

“There really was not too much celebration, since we still had a job to do,” said Lambeth, a member of the 37th Amphibious Combat Engineers, who died in 2021 at age 97. “But we were all very happy.”

Many men were not shipped home for months, remaining in the Army of Occupation to help rebuild Germany. Lambeth was one of them, and did not arrive back the U.S. for over five months. He offers a different view than those who romanticize wartime in America.

“Some people speak well of the 1940s, and talk about the music and all that,” remarked Lambeth, a veteran of both D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. “But for me, I think the only fond memory I have of that time was when they told us the war was over.”   

The Japanese surrender on August 14 finally ended the global conflict, and celebrations were more spirited in the U.S. That day became known as “V-J Day,” for Victory over Japan.

Some anniversary commemorations for V-E Day are scheduled this week in Europe and a handful are set in the U.S. There are now fewer people who remember V-E Day, as the number of surviving World War II veterans is dwindling rapidly.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, of the 16 million Americans who served in the war, only 325,574 were still alive in 2020.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or [email protected].

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