Pearl Harbor swept Americans into the vortex of world war. The conflict demanded the best of Americans, summoning the qualities of sacrifice, service and selflessness. The conflict also scarred citizens and soldiers with the specter of violence and loss, despair and destruction.
Families dreaded the stony knock on the door as a Western Union messenger delivered the telegram from the secretary of war saying he "regrets to inform you . . ."
World War II as seen through the lens of St. Petersburg or Tampa is very different from the war viewed through the prism of Warsaw or Berlin. Joseph Stalin understood the calculus of war. "One death is a tragedy," he famously said. "One million deaths is a statistic."
Perspective is needed. The United States suffered 407,000 military losses in World War II. Tarpon Springs lost eight "boys." Greece, the country that sent so many sons and daughters to Tarpon Springs, lost nearly a half million citizens because of famine, the result of Nazi and fascist occupation.
On April 10, 1945, an American soldier wrote a letter to his wife. The letter appeared in the Fort Meade Leader (Polk County). "I've seen the most terrible thing imaginable. You probably read about it in the papers — Buchenwald Concentration Camp No. 22, as the Nazis called it. They killed and tortured people by the thousands. . . . Anything you read about the horrors perpetrated by these fiends is true — and double — I have seen the horrors myself."
A month later, the fighting was over in Europe.
On May 8, 1945, Americans reacted to the surrender of Germany with the somber realization that total victory was not possible until the defeat of Japan. The savagery witnessed at Iwo Jima and Okinawa gave new meaning to the war's catchphrase, "for the duration." Salerno and the Hurtgen Forest, Saipan and Peleliu, also underscored the meaning of a popular adage: God created war so Americans would learn geography.
Strategists prepared Operation Olympia, a daring and costly invasion of Japan.
St. Petersburg Mayor George S. Patterson intoned that V-E Day (Victory in Europe) should be "a solemn occasion because the Japanese phase of the war will not be over and there will be parents thinking of their boys who are fighting and dying in the Pacific."
On Aug. 5, 1945, Col. Paul Tibbets was unknown to most Americans other than his former neighbors at 1716 SW 12th Ave., Miami. His father, a confectioner, had expected his son to become a doctor. After attending the University of Florida in the 1930s, Paul crushed his father's dreams when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. With a sense of certitude and love, Paul's mother insisted, "You go ahead and fly. You will be all right."
Paul Tibbets' first flight occurred in 1926. The 11-year-old joined a barnstorming pilot hired to fly a two-winged aircraft over the Hialeah Race Track. Paul dropped Baby Ruth candy bars affixed with miniature parachutes, each floating invitingly to eager spectators.
By 1945, Tibbets had distinguished himself as a pilot, earning the most significant mission of the war. On the obscure island of Tinian in the Mariannas, technicians and crew carefully loaded a 9,700-pound bomb onto a B-29 Superfortress. The oddly named "Little Boy" was destined to become the most significant bomb ever dropped.
On Aug. 5, 1945, Tibbets stood by the B-29 bomb bay and called for a sign painter. He asked that his mother's given name be painted in foot-high letters. The next day, Enola Gay and the eponymous warplane were to become famous forever. She had, after all, always assured him things would be "all right."
Destination: Hiroshima, Japan. On Aug. 9, American aviators dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
Floridians heard the longed-for news at 7 p.m. on Aug. 14: The war was over! From Pass-a-Grille to Safety Harbor, from Tarpon Springs to Thonotosassa, towns and hamlets across Tampa Bay erupted in rapturous joy.
No place in Tampa Bay escaped the sounds of victory.
The St. Petersburg Times understated, "Last night was a night St. Petersburg will long remember," adding "that even before Times extras with big red headlines hit the streets a few minutes later, a howling, screaming, hysterical mob descended upon Central Avenue."
"Perhaps some other day will be V-J day," proclaimed the St. Petersburg Independent. "But to tens of thousands of St. Petersburg civilians, soldiers and sailors and what seemed like a million children, last night was V-J night and no day hereafter can take its place. For with the sounding of the victory whistles at 7 p.m. came a spontaneous celebration the like of which this city has not seen before."
In Tarpon Springs, the town's siren blared for a full 10 minutes. "Many motorists started their car horns tooting," the Tarpon Springs Leader announced, "and many others to add still more clamor and din to the occasion, tied tubs, cans and boilers to the back of their automobiles."
Residents in 1945 understood the rituals of face-to-face public ceremony in ways today's self-absorbed, selfie society can hardly comprehend. In St. Petersburg, residents rushed to Central Avenue, Williams Park and 22nd Street S. Churches opened their doors.
In Clearwater, thousands jammed Cleveland Street. "It was," observed the Clearwater Sun, "the biggest crowd ever assembled downtown."
In Tampa, Latins flocked to Howard Avenue in West Tampa, Seventh Avenue and the Ybor City firehouse on Eighth Avenue. Tampa's epicenter was Courthouse Square and Franklin Street. Tampa's police chief estimated the downtown crowd at 60,000. The Tampa Daily Times described the social dynamics: "Some officers saluted enlisted men and in front of a drug store a private first class offered a major a drink — and the offer was accepted. Bootblacks, negro and white, gave free shines to every service man who would stop long enough to have the job done."
Everywhere, men and women in uniform reaped the benefits of service, kissing strangers without fear or regret.
The Tampa Tribune reported gingerly, "Young and old joined in the kissing contests. Acquaintance was not necessary, although some girls insisted in kissing only sailors and some servicemen preferred blondes." The Clearwater Sun exclaimed, "Soldiers often were stopped on the street to be kissed by girls and older women."
Arthur T. Walker of Tampa reminisced, "I learned that when the war in Europe was over, my brothers were scheduled to be shipped out to join the war in the Pacific. . . . I went to Union Station to see my brothers off to war. I went to welcome two of them home. What a meeting that was for my mother and father. My brother Roy slipped in on us late at night and slept on the front porch where my father found him the next morning when he went to get the morning paper."
It was the greatest party in Florida history.
Joyce Moore never forgot the moment. When the news broke over the radio, her mother promised "that history was being made." Mrs. Moore's brother had died at Corregidor in the Philippines.
She remembered the celebration on 45th Street N in St. Petersburg. "Modest retirees who hardly ever came out from their cool homes, waved at us as we rode our bicycles up and down the street. Mama had allowed us to wrap white and blue sheets around ourselves, the closest we could come to bunting."
"Over the laughter and screaming of the crowds . . . blasted the ceaseless roar of auto horns, bells and whistles," observed the St. Petersburg Independent. "While, yet the city sirens were raising their raucous cry an A.C.L. (Atlantic Coast Line) train pulled away from the station with an engineer who must have had some loved ones in the war . . . in spite of anything and everything, that engineer was going to have his part in the celebration of the Japanese capitulation . . . so he cut loose with the steam whistle."
Not everyone saw the war through the same nostalgic lens. "What I remember most about the WWII," recalled Chester James Jr. "is that I spent 39 months, 9 days, 14 hours and 32 seconds fighting for second-class citizenship."
James was stationed at MacDill Army Air Field in Tampa. "Naturally, I was happy too the war was over and we were the winners. But like millions of other African-American military men, I was wondering if the 'good ol' buddy system we'd established with whites during the emergency would last. It didn't, When most of us came back home, it was back to the same old."
In October 1944, a poem by Spencer Griffin appeared in the Pinellas Negro Weekly. Only a single copy of the paper survives. Griffin worked as an incinerator foreman at MacDill Air Field. His poem read:
We of the so-called Minority race
Have often been told to stay in our place
Our place in the world is wherever we choose
Be an upright citizen we have nothing to lose.
News of V-J Day quickly reached the thousands of local servicemen overseas.
Capt. Sam Gibbons was at Bar-le-Huc in France. He had survived one of the war's greatest events, having parachuted onto Normandy and then battled across France. "On V-J Day," he reminisced, "I was headed for the invasion of Japan. We partied for a week!"
Frank T. Hurley Jr. of Pass-a-Grille recalled: "Shortly after daylight turned dusk, word trickled down to Machinato Air Strip on Okinawa that the war was over." He continued his improbable tale: "I heard the news while I was in my tent reading a book my grandmother sent me about a war in the Fourth Century B.C. — Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian Wars. The incongruity did not soak in until later."
Apparently Hurley's grandmother, concerned that soldiers were developing bad habits, decided to send her favorite nephew a carton of classical literature. And what happened after the news of peace? "Sheer madness. Sanity and good sense evaporated like mud puddles in the Gobi Desert. Men shouted, cheered, yelled, even cried."
Fittingly, Hurley soon began reading the greatest homecoming story ever written: Homer's the Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer wrote about the act of coming home, "Then was the gathering broken up, and the folk scattered, each man to go to his own ship. The rest looked forward to sweet sleep . . . but Achilles wept, ever remembering his dear comrade."
Not everyone danced or read homecoming stories. Lost in the tumult of confetti were families who had lost someone they had deeply loved. Hundreds of thousands of gold stars still hung from windows.
Like Odysseus, Jack Bell, a veteran of the European Theater, returned home safely. He, too, wondered what had changed, whether the home folk could understand his sacrifices.
A reporter for the Miami Herald, Bell was covering the story of a lifetime: V-J Day. Surveying the humanity on Flagler Street, he spotted a solitary woman, covered in black. He followed her into a church, where she knelt beside a "giant master sergeant," before an altar to the Virgin Mary.
She fumbled with the candle, a task finished by the sergeant. "This one is for Edgar, my youngest," she explained. "He was killed in Germany. Edgar was my favorite son, my baby. And he doesn't know."
Gary R. Mormino is the Frank E. Duckwall professor emeritus at USF St. Petersburg. He was honored with the 2015 Lifetime Literary Achievement Award by the Florida Humanities Council. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.