November 29, 2021

V-J Day: August 14, 1945 – The day of peace

The world, and Cortland, cheered and cried, sounded horns and stayed silent when World War II ended with Japan’s surrender

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

The end of World War II, 75 years ago with V-J Day, brought parades and clamour and cheers. And it brought tears after so many years and so many deaths.

The peace had finally come, but at such a cost. By Aug. 14, 1945 — 75 years ago — somewhere between 70 million and 85 million people lay dead around the world.

They died of battle injuries, drowned beneath the waves as their ships sank. They died of starvation and disease and crimes against humanity. Of every 100 people on the planet in 1939, between 3 and 3.7 would never see this day.

London and Berlin lay in ruins. Tokyo and Dresden — little more than ashes. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still smoking from the atomic bombs dropped on them.

Empires devoured themselves to feed the relentless appetite of war. The promises of self-rule and freedom from colonialism created new nations, and new conflicts. Wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, southern Asia and conflicts elsewhere even decades later have direct roots in World War II and its end.

The United States, relatively unscathed, still bore its scars. More than 419,000 people were dead, 12,000 of them civilians. Its fantasy of isolation-created safety was broken by reality.

In Cortland County, 121 men would never come home. Others were maimed, physically and emotionally. What was “minor” in the context of the world was still devastation to families and communities.

But on this day — on this day, there was peace. And for a few short hours, the world — and Cortland — cheered and cried, sounded horns and stayed silent.

Businesses in Cortland closed for the day, and a parade through Cortland was hurriedly cobbled together, of veterans groups and Scouting troops, labor unions and fraternal organizations.

First, though, Cortland’s residents kneeled in churches.

“World Enters Era of Peace Today,” read the banner headline in the Cortland Standard, followed below by “Rationing of Gasoline Ends Today.”

“At 7 last night, as the news was being flashed to the world, the streets of Cortland were quiet,” read the local report. “Few people walked along the sidewalks. All were gathered around the radios, in restaurants, in the homes, in the taverns, anywhere they could find a radio to hear the words they had been waiting so eagerly to hear since December 7, 1941.”

By six minutes after 7, the word had come. So had the celebration. “In just a matter of a few minutes automobiles were rushing up and down Main Street and its tributaries, blowing the horns with joyous abandonment. Composure and decorum were thrown to the wind. The devil with acting like nice refined people, the war was over and they were going to let everyone know it.”

The people of Cortland who remember that day 75 years ago have lived very long lives over the decades. Some were children; others were soldiers and nurses and a young soon-to-be mother. They remember that day. The day of peace.

The soldier

Francis “Fritz” Mullen of Cortland was flying a desk at Stuart Field in Newburgh, helping train West Point cadets how to fly planes on Aug. 14, 1945.

After 32 missions over Europe as a top turret gunner on B-24 Liberator and B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, he was serving temporarily as a clerk-typist, recording information about training flights — names of instructors, trainees, other data.

‘Fritz’ Mullen

The news arrived late that August morning.

“It came over the radio in the barracks that Japan had surrendered,” recalled Mullen, who was 22 years old at the time. “Everything ceased that day.”

He recalled the excitement and relief.

“They said you could go to town,” Mullen said Tuesday in his Cortland home.

He and other airmen went to downtown Newburgh, where the streets were filled with local residents and military people celebrating.

“They were just packed in there like sardines,” he said. “There was no place to sit.”

The local newspapers had printed extra editions and were selling them on the streets of Newburgh. They were selling fast but he and some friends managed to eventually get a copy and read the news about Japan’s surrender.

People were served outside of restaurants and taverns that day.

“You worked your way up and you got your beer or you didn’t,” he said. “After an hour or two, we went back to the base.”

Kevin Conlon/city editor

Francis “Fritz” Mullen of Cortland had returned home after 32 missions over Europe as part of a bomber crew and was training at Stuart Field in Newburgh for duty in the South Pacific when he learned that Japan had surrendered to end World War II.

The war in Europe had ended in May, and Mullen had been awaiting a transfer to the South Pacific when Japan surrendered.

“They said we would be back (in the United States) six months, then go to the South Pacific,” he recalled.

The fighting in Europe was difficult, but the South Pacific would bring new challenges, Mullen said. The flights would be largely over water, giving the crews nowhere to land in an emergency.

Mullen said that before V-J Day, he had only heard rumors about the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan on Aug. 6 and 9. After dropping 500- and 1,000-pound bombs during the war, he was shocked when he later saw images of the explosions from the atomic bombs — each the equivalent to 30,000 or 40,000 of those 1,000-pound bombs.

“You wonder, what is coming?” he thought at the time.

He was later transported to the Rome Air Depot, which later became Griffiss Air Force Base, east of Syracuse. He was discharged there on Oct. 12, 1945, and climbed on the first of two Greyhound buses that would carry him back to Cortland.

“I knew I would have a job when I got back,” he said, a job inspecting gears at IBM in Endicott. “It was a great place to work.”

He earned 65 cents an hour working overnight, good pay at the time. He had been renting a room in a family’s house when he joined the service in 1942.

Mullen went on to work at his family business, Mullen Office Outfitters, which closed in early 2018 after nearly 105 years in business.

Sitting Tuesday in the air-conditioned living room of the house he has lived in since 1957, Mullen, 97, could vividly recall the emotions of that August day in 1945 as the threat of war suddenly ended.

“I felt pretty good that I wasn’t going to the South Pacific,” he said.

The nurse

Stella Vreeland was a Navy nurse at St. Alban’s Veteran’s Hospital in Staten Island on Aug. 14, 1945. The day followed her typical routine of patient care — until the announcement came over the radio.

“There are too many words to describe that day, but I will tell you it was absolutely wonderful,” Vreeland, now 100, said in a phone interview Tuesday morning from Cortland Park Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where she now lives. All she wanted to do was dance a polka.

“It was the best news in the whole world, so I thought dancing would be the most appropriate thing to do at that moment,” she said. Vreeland said she was so completely lost in the news she wasn’t aware of her surroundings. “The excitement came right out of me,” she said. “There wasn’t any disbelief, just relief.” Vreeland wasn’t aware at first that this year is the 75th anniversary of V-J Day. She said she needs to find ways to mark the occasion.

Vreeland

“Maybe I’ll celebrate with a milkshake,” Vreeland said.

A few days after the news, Vreeland felt a sense of normality return. After all those months and years of war, a normal day “felt different, but good.”

“It took quite a bit of time to get there, but it was great to have that feeling of knowing the war was over,” she said.

Vreeland left the Navy in 1947, but she missed the people she worked with and how close they were.

“I’ll never forget the comrades I got to know,” she said.

Vreeland was a nurse from age 16 to 75. She said her experience as a nurse, especially in the Navy, was “very good.”

“There was some good and bad, but mostly good,” she said.

The war taught Vreeland the joy of living: “I’ve always had faith and hope, and that’s what keeps me going.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Stella Vreeland sits behind a window at Crown Park Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in late June as well-wishers and an honor guard salute her 100th birthday.

The younger brother

Jaffrey Harris will never forget the sound of peace.

“It was tremendous,” he said. “They were blowing horns. The fire and police departments were blowing sirens. People were driving around, hanging off running boards. It was just total chaos.”

Harris, who is now 90, was born and raised in Homer, growing up on his family’s farm off North Main Street, about a half-mile from the village center.

Despite being a child growing up in the Great Depression, life was not as bad as it was in big cities, he said. His family had a dairy cow, a beef cow and grew its own vegetables.

“We were self-sufficient,” he said.

When the United States became involved in World War II, life remained relatively quiet, except for the occasional military airplanes that flew over the village. “We were always impressed with any military aircraft that came by,” he said. “We’d run outdoors and watch.” The village also adapted to wartime practices, including adding airplane spotters, establishing a scrap drive and implementing rations. One of his brothers, Robert Theodore “Ted” Harris, trained to be a B-26 pilot in Canada right before the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. After that, he was transferred to the United States Army Air Corps.

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Jaffrey Harris of Homer, 90, flips through a binder of clippings from World War II. Harris was 15 on V-J Day — 75 years ago today. He still remembers the sounds.

Ted Harris flew missions over Germany until he was shot down in 1944 over the Mosel region and taken as a prisoner of war to Stalag Luft 1 near Barth, Germany.

When Jaffrey Harris heard the news he was at a loss for words. He felt even worse for his mother, Marion.

“I watched my mother’s distress and there was no way to help her,” he said. Besides, if the war kept on, he’d be heading into it in a couple of years.

Harris’s family eventually received word from a local bread truck driver that the driver had heard over shortwave radio Ted Harris saying he was all right and that the Germans were treating him well, which Jaffrey Harris said was propaganda.

After Germany surrendered, the Russians liberated Stalag Luft 1 and he was home by the time Japan surrendered in 1945. He came home with no injuries, but a large appetite — food was scarce.

Jaffrey remembers the parade on Homer’s Main Street the day the news broke. Lots of bands — jazz great Spiegle Willcox and his band filled the air with music in downtown Cortland.

A flatbed truck carried an old toilet, Harris added. On it, a sign read “Hirohito’s seat of government,” referring to Japan’s emperor.

In the coming days and weeks, life quieted and returned to normal, despite shortages in supplies and materials, even after rationing ended.

Jaffrey Harris would go on to serve in the Navy during the Korean War, meet and marry his wife, Nadyne, and start his own woodworking business, from which he retired in 1990.

While he didn’t get to actively participate in much of the celebration — which mainly involved alcohol — Harris was happy just to be around the celebrations.

“It was bedlam,” he said.

The older sister

May 27, 1945 I had my points counted and had 94 now all I have to do is find out how to get out. Do you know? At the present time we are staying at a French seminary. The young French boys here are studying for priesthood. Gerrys (German’s) used to be here, guess he didn’t interfere with them.

Inside the letter was a wallet-sized black-and-white photo of Ward Wilson Fuller Jr., otherwise known as Bud, sitting outside the seminary in Belgium. He was 23 and toward the end of service in World War II.

Fuller, the brother of now-101-year-old Helen Kiely of Cortlandville, had enlisted in the Signal Corps at 18, right out of high school, Kiely and her daughter Sue Patterson said Wednesday afternoon.

Kiely sat across the small wooden dining room table, only a few of the hundreds of handwritten cursive letters between her brother, her and her mother — Anna Fuller — spread across the table. It had been years since those letters and the memories had been taken out and talked about.

S.N. Briere/ staff reporter

Helen Kiely, of Cortlandville, reads a letter from her brother Ward Winslow Fuller Jr. — who everyone called Bud. Fuller was in the army, stationed mainly in England during World War II and wrote often to his sister.

Patterson had pulled every letter, hundreds of them, and laid them out across her kitchen counter separated by date.

“It’s really been interesting,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything all day yesterday and the night before because I was reading the 1945 letters.”

They brought back memories for Kiely. The letters didn’t really speak much of what was happening during the war, Kiely said, but rather mundane things.

Kiely was in her mid-20s when America entered the war in 1941 and was 26 working in 1945 for the Cortland Standard, where she proofread items when the war ended.

“As I remember it, we didn’t talk much about the war going on,” she said. “We just did our part, what we were supposed to do.”

Her part, like many others, included rationing sugar, bread and canned items so food could be sent to the soldiers.

When V-J Day came, it was a surprise. Kiely said she and her husband, Patrick, were spending a weekend in New York City with friends. She doesn’t remember much of a celebration happening no parades, no loud cheering, no honking.

“I guess nobody was really prepared,” she said, noting some had thought the war might still last.

In the days following, she went on living life as she did during the war. She continued to correspond with her brother, although she said it seemed like fewer letters had been sent in 1945 than any other year of the war. In particular, she didn’t remember getting as many leading up to V-J Day, perhaps she said, because communications needed to remain quiet.

V-J Day was Aug. 14, but her brother didn’t return home until late September.

“He always said ‘There’s everybody’s way, then there’s the Army’s way,’” Kiely said.

Sept. 2, 1945

“They give us anywhere from four days to three weeks here. It’s all according to the amount of men they can handle at the separation centers. So, you write and tell me who I have letters from. Regards to all and get the hamburgers going.”

That was one of the last letters Fuller wrote to his sister from Greensboro, North Carolina, before he was sent home.

As Kiely recalls, he got to have that hamburger.

S.N. Briere/ staff reporter

Letters home from World War II from Helen Kiely’s brother line the counter of her home in Cortlandville, where she lives with her daughter Sue Patterson. Patterson went through all the letters and separated them by date.

Staff reporters Shenandoah Briere, Kevin L. Smith, Colin Spencer and City Editor Kevin Conlon contributed to this report.