The long-awaited news arrived in Lewiston on a steamy Tuesday afternoon, 75 years ago this week.
After weeks of nearly nonstop naval bombardments, air attacks and two devastating atomic bomb blasts, Japan announced its unconditional surrender. World War II, “history’s greatest flood of death and destruction,” was finally over.
“PEACE!” blared the Lewiston Tribune’s front page on Aug. 15, 1945. “War Ends. Ecstasy Rocks World.”
The paper’s editorial page that day noted that there was “a deep and abiding sense of relief that the long nightmare is ended, that our sons at last are spared the blood and misery of battle — that the lights may now go on again all over the earth.”
That was tempered, however, by the ever-present sorrow “at the terrible human cost of this victory, which we cannot celebrate without remembering the maimed and the dead. We have won nothing that we have not paid for dearly.”
Casualty lists published in 1946 indicate more than 300 servicemen from north central Idaho and southeastern Washington died during the war. Hundreds more served in uniform, while thousands contributed on the homefront. No one was untouched.
Today, the men and women of that generation are worn down by age, if they’re still alive at all. After uniting to preserve liberty and defeat fascism around the world, their light has begun to fade.
Three-quarters of a century after their greatest triumph, it is “altogether fitting and proper,” as Abraham Lincoln once so famously said, that we remember and honor their service and sacrifice.
It all started with ‘that bloody Sunday’
As Tribune reporter R.L. Holbrook noted in the paper’s Aug. 15, 1945, edition, it was the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that “put Lewiston on a war footing.”
“It has been a long time — three years, eight months and eight days — since the Japanese launched their sneak attack,” Holbrook wrote. “And it’s hard today, with victory ours, to recall the dazed, incredible reaction residents experienced on that bloody Sunday.”
As news of the attack spread, Holbrook said, “it was met with a rising anger. … Nothing could have united the people of this district — and the United States — with greater speed.”
But there was fear as well.
“People were terrified Japan was going to invade the West Coast,” said Genesee historian Earl Bennett, who was about 3 years old when the war ended. “My dad told me the military only had one man for every 5 miles of coastline, and they didn’t have any ammo.”
In Lewiston, Holbrook wrote, “rifle-bearing guards were posted at both ends of the Interstate Bridge, to patrol against sabotage.”
John Bannister, vice president of the Troy Historical Society, remembers blackout drills as a boy, when families pulled the window curtains shut and turned out any lights, to prevent enemy bombers from identifying landmarks.
“It was kind of exciting for a little kid,” said Bannister, who was 4 years old when the war started. “I also remember ration stamps. Everyone had them — even children — although their parents kept control of them.”
Rationing and price controls were pervasive throughout the war, affecting everything from food stocks to transportation. One Tribune story, for example, noted that there were community canneries in Clarkston and Lewiston, where “patrons saved 250,000 ration shares” by canning their own fruits, vegetables and meats.
Richard Morgan said there was plenty of bartering as well, particularly with local farmers.
Morgan’s uncle, Leo Morgan, joined the Lewiston City Council in 1943 and was elected mayor in 1945. The family ran a retail grocery store in downtown Lewiston, as well as a wholesale grocery operation for many years before and after the war.
“After school, I’d come down and work at the store,” said Morgan, who was about 11 years old when the war started. “When a farmer brought in a bunch of eggs to trade for groceries, I had to go down to the basement and candle them, to make sure they were OK to sell.”
At the time, grocery stores regularly delivered goods to customers’ homes. With so many able-bodied men drafted for the war effort, though, the job eventually fell to Morgan.
“We had a 1938 Ford panel truck,” he recalled. “Pretty soon there wasn’t anyone around to drive it, so when I was 13 I started (doing the deliveries). The chief of police came over and talked with my dad, and then wrote out a piece of paper saying, ‘It’s OK for this boy to drive.’ So I got my first driver’s license from the chief of police.”
New and used tires were rationed, and most civilians only qualified for 3 or 4 gallons of gasoline per week. At the Lewiston airport, commercial flights through Zimmerly Air Transport were so limited the Tribune regularly listed arriving and departing passengers by name.
And in an age when the median household income was about $2,000 per year, Nez Perce County residents purchased more than $10.4 million in war bonds — part of the $185 billion the American public loaned the federal government to help finance the war.
‘We regret to inform you ... .’
But whatever the local struggles, they were nothing compared to the human cost of the war.
Casualty lists and battle reports offered a horrible lesson in the geography of death. Men and women who may never have strayed far from home as civilians died all across the globe, from the beaches of Normandy to the dunes of North Africa, from Pacific island jungles to barren ocean depths.
“Sgt. Edwin J. Baumeister, infantry, lost in action in the battle of Luzon in the Philippines, on Feb. 24, 1943,” noted one list of Asotin County casualties. “Flight Officer Dale R. Code, glider pilot of the army air corps, lost in action in the Normandy invasion on June 7, 1944. … S-Sgt. Clarence W. Morgan, army infantry, lost in action in the battle of Anguar, Palau islands, Oct. 12, 1944. … Lt. Clarence Z. Snyder, photo reconnaissance pilot, lost when his plane crashed near Luliang, China, and was buried at Kunming, China.”
In tiny Colton, Wash., eight men died during the war, at a time when it was even smaller than it is today. Among them was Capt. Albert Rooks, commander of the heavy cruiser USS Houston, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1910, served in World War I and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor after his ship was sunk in the Battle of Sunda Strait.
Dustin Johnson, who has done research on the Colton war heroes, also mentioned Theodore Watanabe, whose father worked for the local railroad.
Watanabe and his family were among the nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans who were interned as security risks during the war, Johnson said. Nevertheless, he volunteered for the Army and was killed in Italy while serving with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit of the entire war.
“It just blows me away that so many kids from Colton served during the war, and that so many were killed,” Johnson said.
For Mrs. Bessie Felton, formerly of Troy and the Lewiston Orchards, the horrors of war arrived on Jan. 28, 1942, with a telegram saying her son, Seaman 2nd Class Melvin Felton, was missing in action in the Philippines.
On March 7, she got a second telegram, saying Melvin was “officially declared to have lost his life in the service of his country.”
It wasn’t until the summer of 1943, nearly 15 months later, that she learned her boy was still alive. Felton had been captured when Allied forces surrendered on the island of Corregidor. He was 23 at the time, and spent the next 39 months in prisoner of war camps, performing slave labor and struggling to survive.
“It was the sixth day of May, 1942, that we were forced to surrender,” wrote Felton, who somehow managed to keep a diary throughout his time in captivity. “We put up a good fight for six months under continuous bombing and shelling.”
Dreaming of Mom’s apple pie
Felton’s family ran a small sawmill near Troy for a time, before they moved to Lewiston Orchards.
As part of its effort to document local residents who served in the military, the Troy Historical Society published Felton’s diary in book form in 2011. Bannister was able to interview him in 2004, about six months before he died.
“I think the family mill had closed by the time Melvin was growing up, but they still had a farm in the area,” Bannister recalled. “The old mill pond, Felton’s Pond, was a popular place for swimming.”
Although Felton kept most of his diary in notebooks, he sometimes had to resort to using split-open cigarette packages.
“Most of the time the Japanese guards would look the other way (if they saw a prisoner writing in a diary),” Bannister said. “They never thought they’d lose, so there were no consequences. It wasn’t until near the end of the war that his diary was confiscated, but he was able to steal it back.”
Heidi Wright, Felton’s daughter, grew up in Clarkston after the war. She remembers her father having very tiny handwriting.
One of the things he wrote about most, she said, was food. The rations he and other POWs received were often monotonous and, at times, barely more nutritious than flavored water. So he became obsessed with memories of his favorite foods.
“He wrote these elaborate recipes,” Wright said. “He had his mom’s apple pie recipe, and drink recipes, even though he didn’t drink much.”
He would write out monthlong lunch menus, listing such favorites as “spare ribs, scalloped potatoes, brown bread (and) pickles … chili con carne … veal, pork and chicken pot pie (with) candied sweet potatoes … fried soft-shelled crab.”
By the time the war ended, Wright said, her father only weighed 113 pounds.
“He had so many diseases, the doctor told him he probably wouldn’t survive six months,” she said.
Melvin Felton and his fellow prisoners of war were finally liberated on Sept. 4, 1945 — two days after Japan formally signed the surrender documents that brought World War II hostilities to an end.
“It was a rainy day, but one of the happiest,” he wrote on Sept. 1 of that year. “Around 10:00, six American P.B. planes off the USS Randolph came zooming over the mountains. It gave us a feeling I can’t describe in this diary. It was hard to hold back the tears.”
‘The town literally exploded’
That sentiment was shared on the home front as well.
Although the war in the Pacific had been running in the Allies’ favor since the Battle of Midway in 1942, the end still came with shocking suddenness.
At the beginning of August 1945, the U.S. Army was planning for the invasion of Japan’s home islands. The expectation was that a ground war would require upwards of 7 million soldiers. Troops were being sent home on leave, in preparation for another year of bloody, step-by-step fighting.
Then came the Aug. 6 atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima.
“The most terrible destructive force ever harnessed by man — atomic energy — is now being turned on the islands of Japan by U.S. bombers,” noted a story in the Lewiston Tribune. “The Japanese face a threat of utter desolation, and their capitulation may be greatly sped up.”
The science behind “the bomb” was poorly understood — one news story, for example, complained that military leaders refused to explain “how the atoms are stored for the moment of explosion” — but it was clearly a weapon of extraordinary power. It immediately raised hopes for a quick end to the war.
Those hopes reached even greater heights on Aug. 9, when a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and opened a new front in Manchuria.
“The great climatic moment that has been so long anticipated in the war in the Pacific has now arrived,” noted the Tribune’s editorial page that day. “For Japan, 12 o’clock is about to strike: It can get out of the war now or take the consequences.”
The Lewiston Chamber of Commerce made detailed plans for how businesses would shut down once news of the surrender arrived. Mayor Leo Morgan issued a proclamation encouraging people “to keep the celebrating in bounds.”
“People in their jubilant mood should respect the property of the other fellow,” Morgan said. “We don’t want uncalled for destruction of property, such as resulted at the close of World War I.”
That all went by the wayside when the news flash announcing the surrender finally arrived at 4:03 p.m. on Aug. 14.
“In stunned silence and almost unbelieving wonder, Lewiston residents heard the momentous news, that the war was over,” the Tribune reported the next day. “People waited, and then, as the (fire) sirens shrieked and fire truck No. 1 made a round trip down Main Street, the town literally exploded.”
In New York City, more than 2 million people gathered in Times Square to celebrate the victory. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, “a mob of several hundred attempted to storm a liquor store” and had to be beaten back by truncheon-wielding police. In Honolulu, the same air raid sirens that signaled the attack on Pearl Harbor at the start of the war “sounded the end of the struggle, setting off a celebration of gigantic proportions.”
In Lewiston, almost every business on Main Street closed within 20 minutes, so excited patrons and staff could pour into the street.
“Streams of automobiles, filled with those who had waited nearly four years for the war to end, jammed Main Street with horns adding to the bedlam,” the paper said. “Streamers and confetti floated from downtown windows, as employees rushed to windows and rooftops to add their bit to the hilarity. People gathered on street corners to shout for pure joy. At the corner of Fifth and Main, a curly haired 3-year-old girl stopped everyone and said in a lisping voice, ‘Say, you know what? The war is over!’ ”
Keeping the memories alive
And then the world moved on. The end became a new beginning. The streets were swept clean of confetti, and life returned to something close to normal, only with more food and better opportunities.
“Fancy sitting down to a breakfast of striped brown bacon and eggs, and toast that’s buttered to the corners,” waxed one editorial in the Oregon Journal. “Think of leisurely dressing for work because the car is in good repair and full of gasoline. … Imagine going home at night to a warm fireside and finding there all the family, including the man who’s back from overseas. … Give us this last and you may have all the rest. But the satisfying thing is that all are part of that postwar life that is at our fingertips. They all go together and add up to peace.”
But for the adults who lived through it, and for their children in the baby-boom generation, World War II remained a constant presence in their lives, a lodestone that affected their outlook and moral compass.
“By the time I was old enough to understand anything about the war, it was still part of the consciousness of the country,” said Steve Juve, who was born in 1948. “I identified with World War II. It was a pervasive part of the (postwar) culture.”
That remained the case even into the 1960s, but sometime after that its force began to wane. By 1970, with America mired in Vietnam and armed conflicts occurring all around the world, the 25th anniversary of V-J Day was largely ignored.
There was greater fanfare in 1995, for the 50th anniversary, but since then many of the veterans from that era have passed away. Their stories have been lost.
As was the case with many baby-boom children, Heidi Wright said her father never really discussed his experiences as a prisoner of war.
“It wasn’t hidden, but it wasn’t something we talked about,” she said.
Only later in life did she begin to get a sense of what he’d endured.
“The debt of gratitude we owe to the veterans of WWII can never adequately be articulated or repaid,” Wright wrote in the foreword to “Melvin’s Journey,” the Troy Historical Society book about her father’s diary. “Over 16 million men and women went to war for our country and, if they survived, they came home, put the war behind them and carried on with their lives.”
Three-quarters of a century later, she said, “we have such peripheral memories of the greatest generation. We owe it to them to keep those memories alive.”
Spence may be contacted at email@example.com or (208)-791-9168.