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On V-J Day, local WWII veterans reflect on what was and what is

Seventy years ago in August 1945, the world erupted in spontaneous celebration

Spanning across nations and time zones, parades and parties spilled into the streets, some lasting for days at a time.

Japan had formally announced its surrender.

On the day the war ended, U.S. servicemen were spread across the world. Tired from fighting, they suddenly shifted their thoughts from combat to coming home.

World War II was finally over on what history would later call V-J Day — or Victory over Japan Day.

Spring Hill: Thomas McCarthy, 91, Navy

When Thomas McCarthy is asked what he remembers most about V-J Day, he just laughs.

It was so long ago, the 91-year-old says. Although he can't tell you where he was or how he heard the news, he remembers the sensation of sweet relief. A year before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, McCarthy — aka "petty officer aviation radioman, second class" — was flying over Iwo Jima in a B24.

McCarthy shot down a Japanese Zero fighter plane in late 1944.

His team's mission was to photograph areas that could be potential landing spots for sorties and then forward the findings to intelligence.

"I had the best view of anyone in the airplane," McCarthy says.

He could look in every which direction, 360 degrees around him. It was exactly the experience he imagined it would be. After his first tour, McCarthy was stationed at Camp Kearney in San Diego. It was there he learned he would have to return to Japan.

But then — the Japanese surrendered.

"I felt that it spared my life," McCarthy says. "I was very pessimistic about surviving a second tour of duty."

Clearwater: Irwin Abelson, 90, Coast Guard

Aboard a Coast Guard vessel somewhere in Manila Bay, Irwin Abelson remembers hiding below deck.

It rained bullet shells above.

But there was no sign of enemy fire. Word was spreading that Japan had surrendered. The end of the war had come.

In celebration, men on other ships trained their guns to the sky and fired away. There was a good chance they were drunk, Abelson recalls, so he hid below.

Before the surrender, Abelson had been slated to be shipped out to Okinawa.

"I've always felt that I'm lucky to be here," he says.

When he eventually docked in Seattle, he and the others planned a victory celebration. Except there was a problem.

"What good is a party if there's no girls there?" someone remarked.

Abselson said he remedied the problem by posting on bulletin boards and storefronts downtown. Problem solved.

New Port Richey: Robert Fastiggi, 89

Aboard his ship near Okinawa, Navy Seaman Robert Fastiggi, 89, remembers the swarm of Japanese dive bombers above.

"They were like flies," he says. "There were so many of them. Skipper told us we got credit for taking three planes down ourselves."

That's the sharpest memory Fastiggi has of his time spent in Okinawa. It's the one that's stayed with him all these years later. It's as vivid as his memory of arriving in Pearl Harbor after Okinawa and learning the atomic bombs had been dropped.

By November, Fastiggi returned to his New Jersey home to reunite with family.

Fastiggi says he doesn't like to talk much about the war. Through muffled sobs, he tries to talk about what his mind won't let him forget.

"I don't talk about the deaths," Fastiggi says. "That's deep in the body. I keep that to myself."

What about the few comrades he served with who survived?

"I don't hear from any of them any more."

Palm Harbor: Blanche Levine, 86, Times Square celebration attendee

Blanche Levine wasn't in the armed services, but that didn't stop her from celebrating en masse the day the war ended.

Working a job in New York City that summer, Levine — who was 16 at the time — met with five girlfriends to catch a showing of Anna Lucasta. When the girls left the theater, a mob had overtaken Times Square.

She remembers the sailors. Lots and lots of sailors. Sailors who hugged and kissed girls left and right. Next thing she knew, Levine says, she was one of those girls.

"We were all excited. I was 16 years old, and I had a bunch of sailors who were hugging and kissing me."

Even the subway ride back to her Brooklyn home resembled "one big house party."

"The times were such that you weren't afraid of anything," she says. "You were just part of the crowd."

Contact Michael Majchrowicz at (813) 226-3374 or mmajchrowicz@tampabay.com. Follow @mjmajchrowicz.

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