Friday, May 8 marks the 70th anniversary of VE-Day--the euphoric celebration that erupted when people learned that WWII in Europe was finally over. Even though the unfinished war against Japan still loomed for those who were fighting, the surrender of Nazi Germany brought years of brutal and exhausting conflict to a long-awaited end.
There was spontaneous elation of a sort rarely seen. When news of the German surrender reached New York City, Times Square was closed to traffic for six hours as hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets. The city’s telephone company reported the busiest day in its history and the subway had to rush extra trains into service to accommodate the crowds. Ticker-tape rained down in the canyons of Wall Street.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said news of the German surrender was “the signal for the greatest outburst of joy in the history of mankind,” and it was hard to disagree. Many soldiers in the field witnessed the joy firsthand. “You could hear the champagne corks going off all day long,” said a sergeant with the storied 101st Airborne Division who, after the news broke, watched his buddies distribute the wine from Hermann Goering’s liberated wine cellar.
The lights in cities and in army camps everywhere suddenly went back on. Most soldiers who had fought their way across France and into Germany hadn’t seen any lights lit at night since before D-Day. As dawn broke that morning over a Europe at peace for the first time in years, the first thing General Omar Bradley did was tear the blackout curtains from the windows at his headquarters.
For others, however, the feeling that set in was of a great weariness, a level of utter exhaustion both mental and physical that before the war they wouldn’t have thought possible for a person to feel. The heroes, the bravest of the brave, weren’t immune to it either. Having achieved distinctive things, perhaps they felt it even more profoundly.
When news of the peace came, U.S. Army First Lieutenant Audie Murphy was headed to the south of France for some rest and recuperation away from the front. While the young Texan who had not yet turned 20 was still unknown outside the army, within his division at least tales of his valor were spreading. Earlier that year he had won the Medal of Honor for a heroic stand atop a burning tank, holding off an entire German attack with the tank’s machine gun. When Murphy was in the front lines, said one soldier from his unit, the guys in the rear areas could go to sleep.
The announcement of the German surrender was one of the first times since joining the army in 1942 that Murphy felt truly isolated. From his hotel room in Cannes, he heard the people jubilantly celebrating the end of the war in the streets below. It was here that he first experienced that gulf that veterans of combat often feel exists between themselves and civilians. He would grow very familiar with the sensation. But for now he took a hot bath, put on his tie, and went out to see the celebration. “In the streets, crowded with merrymakers, I feel only a vague irritation,” he remembered later. “I want company, and I want to be alone. I want to talk, and I want to be silent. I want to sit, and I want to walk. There is VE-Day without, but no peace within.”
There is no bigger triumph in American military history than that over Nazi Germany 70 years ago. It is a day of celebration, a day of victory over tyranny. But even as the memory of why it was once worth celebrating fades, so too does the memory of what that celebration cost in people’s lives. “It is as though a fire had roared through this human house,” Murphy said somberly, “leaving only the charred hulk of something that was once green.”
Should VE-Day be a national holiday? No. But neither should it be overlooked. It’s a day to reflect on the price paid by those who brought it about. For many in our culture today, 70 years ago may as well be back in the Middle Ages. And unless one lived through it, perhaps there really is no way to appreciate the joy, relief, and hope that the day brought. But we can train ourselves to remember. We can train ourselves to acknowledge our debt to the past by the simple habit of doing it.
David A. Smith is author of a new biography about America's Most Decorated Hero of World War II, Audie Murphy,"The Price of Valor: The Life of Audie Murphy, America's Most Decorated Hero of World War II" (Regnery April 2015).