Here’s why Rhode Island is the only state that observes Victory Day

Since 1970s, no other state has kept official holiday marking end of World War II

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Like Del’s or Saugy dogs, Victory Day is a unique Rhode Island tradition every summer.

Monday is the 69th annual Victory Day in Rhode Island, making the state once again the only one to observe a legal holiday marking the end of World War II. The actual event it commemorates happened on Aug. 14, when Japan’s surrender was announced, but the holiday is always observed on the second Monday in August; this is a rare year when the date of observance actually falls on Aug. 14.

And yes, despite what many residents think, the official name of Rhode Island’s holiday has always been Victory Day – not “V-J Day.”

Experts say Rhode Island has been on its own since 1975, when Arkansas dropped its version of the holiday – dubbed “World War II Memorial Day” there – and reportedly gave state workers their birthdays off as a consolation. (Many websites claim Victory Day used to be a federal holiday, too, but that appears to be a myth – there is no evidence for it in an authoritative 1999 U.S. Senate report on the topic.)

“The tenacity of Rhode Island in celebrating Aug. 14 deserves special attention for its interplay of state, local, national, and even international politics,” Len Travers writes in the “Encyclopedia of American Holidays and National Days.” As far back as the 1950s, The New York Times declared that the holiday – which it called “V-J Day” – was “always a big legal holiday in Rhode Island.”

Sailors in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii celebrate news of Japan's surrender in August 1945. (AP Photo)
Sailors in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii celebrate news of Japan’s surrender in August 1945. (AP Photo)

Victory Day was established here three years after World War II ended, in March 1948, when the General Assembly passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Richard Windsor, a long-serving East Providence Republican, to make Aug. 14 a holiday. (Two decades later, in 1966, the legislature changed the law to set the holiday’s observance on the second Monday in August.)

Rhode Island was always an outlier: in 1953 the AP was already describing it as “the only state in the union that voted to make V-J a legal holiday,” though two years later the news service acknowledged, “Arkansas celebrates the anniversary also, but as World War II Memorial Day.”

However, by the mid-1980s – with Japan’s economic might growing – there was rising controversy about whether continuing to celebrate Victory Day was appropriate. Japanese officials said the holiday was harming trade between the two nations, and a local Chamber of Commerce official called it “embarrassing.” At one point the Rhode Island Japan Society hired lawyers to press a case against the name.

Hiroko Shikashio, a North Providence resident of Japanese descent, told The New York Times in 1990 she felt uncomfortable leaving the house on Victory Day. “Because I am Japanese, I have always felt uneasy about going outside on that day,” she said. “I think it is nice for people to have a holiday, but they should call it something else.”

In response, Gov. Ed DiPrete tried to transform Victory Day into Governor’s Bay Day, and lawmakers made multiple attempts to rename it “Rhode Island Veteran’s Day” or “Peace and Remembrance Day” – none successful.

In an effort to distinguish Victory Day from V-J Day, the General Assembly passed a resolution in June 1990 insisting, “If this holiday had indeed been meant to celebrate annually the subjugation of one nation by another, and if indeed the holiday were officially Victory over Japan Day, then the pleas to change the name of the holiday would be justified. Such is not the case.”

“Victory Day is not and should not be called VJ Day,” the resolution warned, adding, “The most frequently publicized usage of this erroneous and offensive term is in Rhode Island commercial advertising.”

In 1999, after apparently determining the resolution had not been enough, the Assembly passed a new law decreeing: “No state or municipal governmental department or agency shall refer to the second Monday of August, ‘Victory Day’ by any other name in an advertisement paid for by the department or agency.”

A more recent push to eliminate Victory Day, in 2013, had nothing to do with history – the effort was backed by businesses who said they wanted more flexibility in scheduling workers’ hours. The Rhode Island AFL-CIO successfully beat back that effort, arguing that turning Victory Day into a floating holiday would be disrespectful to veterans.

Thus, protests from veterans and traditionalists have always won out over efforts to jettison Victory Day; some have linked it with Rhode Island’s status as the first state to declare independence in 1776. “Should we stop celebrating the Fourth of July because it offends the English?” demanded a VFW official in 1988.

It’s also often been noted that Japan, not the U.S., started hostilities by bombing Pearl Harbor. “Who did the attacking, them or us?” Rene Bobola, a World War II veteran, once asked a reporter. “I don’t think they have any right to tell us they don’t like V-J Day because we won the war.”

Other Rhode Islanders still make an effort to ensure the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan are remembered, though; just last week, a group of peace activists held their second annual Hiroshima/Nagasaki remembrance event in Jamestown.

There’s no question World War II had an enormous impact on Rhode Island. About 92,000 of the state’s residents served in the war – more than one in ten – and almost 2,200 of them were killed, according to Dr. Patrick Conley, the state’s historian laureate.

“During World War II, Rhode Island was an armed camp,” Christian McBurney and Brian Wallin argue in a new book about the state’s experience during the war.

(With Japan’s surrender now more than 70 years in the past – almost as far from today as the Civil War was from Pearl Harbor – the living ranks of those veterans are dwindling fast. The National World War II Museum estimates fewer than 3,000 Rhode Island veterans who served in the war are still alive, down from 8,000 in 2010 and 26,000 in 2000.)

Scott MacKay of Rhode Island Public Radio captured the war’s significance to the state in a 2010 essay:

If ever a state was at the center of the American war effort in World War II, it was Rhode Island. From Westerly to Woonsocket and everywhere in between, Rhode Island was focused on winning what has become known as, in Studs Terkel’s famous words, “The Good War.”

Newport was home to the Atlantic destroyer fleet, where thousands of sailors trained for service abroad. Quonset hosted thousands of troops who built Quonset huts and trained engineers and Seabees to work on ships. PT boats were built in Bristol and the man who was to become the most celebrated PT commander in history, John F. Kennedy, received his training at the Navy’s station at Melville. [Two other future presidents, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, also trained in Rhode Island.] …

But the naval presence was only a small part of the Rhode Island war effort. When Franklin Roosevelt said that the United States would become the arsenal of democracy, he could have been speaking about Rhode Island. A state that suffered through the Depression suddenly blossomed into an industrial powerhouse when war came. Liberty ships were made in Providence, torpedoes in Newport, army blankets and uniforms in textile mills all over the state. The machine shops of the Blackstone Valley thrummed with parts for guns. Even the jewelry makers flourished, turning out medals for the armed forces.

Victory Day still has defenders, too, who see it as more than just a day off.

Local public-relations consultant David Preston, who served in the U.S. Marines, wrote a 1995 Providence Journal op-ed to emphasize that the holiday was never “V-J Day” in Rhode Island. “The fact that it occurred when the Japanese surrendered is merely an accident of history,” he argued. “Had the Germans held on for another four months, the colloquial phrase for the day would be V-E Day, for victory in Europe.”

And Lazar Berman, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, argued in 2011 that there are good reasons to continue commemorating the end of World War II seven decades later – though his use of the name “V-J Day” would likely make Rhode Island lawmakers wince:

V-J Day keeps alive the magnitude of the event, and even those who use the day to sail in Narragansett Bay or visit the beaches in Newport have more awareness of the event it marks than they would if it were abolished. It is easy to forget how difficult and bloody the Pacific war was up until the very end, and the million Allied casualties that would have resulted from an invasion of the home islands. It was a war that opened with humiliating and painful setbacks, but the determination and courage of the U.S. armed forces and citizens slowly but surely turned the tide. …

Were these means justified? Does America still have what it takes to force unconditional surrender? Will we ever face a war quite like WWII again—a conventional clash of major powers, with clear moral lines and a final, and deeply constructive, military and political resolution? These important questions are open to debate, and observance of V-J day reminds us that these questions, as well as the past sacrifice of our fighting men, remain worthy of our reflection and attention today.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

This is a revised version of an article that was previously published.