Like Del’s, Victory Day is a uniquely Rhode Island tradition.
The Ocean State is the only one that still observers an official holiday marking Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. That’s been the case since 1975, when Arkansas dropped the commemoration – which by that point it had already rechristened “World War II Memorial Day” – and, the AP reported, gave state employees their birthdays off to make up for its loss.
“The tenacity of Rhode Island in celebrating August 14 deserves special attention for its interplay of state, local, national, and even international politics,” Len Traveras writes in the “Encyclopedia of American Holidays and National Days.” In the 1980s, Japanese officials said it was harming trade between the two nations; a Chamber of Commerce official called it “embarrassing.”
There have been attempts to rename the holiday, which was established here in 1948, three years after the war ended. Governor DiPrete tried to transform it into Governor’s Bay Day, and others have pushed for “Peace and Remembrance Day” or “Rhode Island Veteran’s Day.” At one point the Rhode Island Japan Society even hired lawyers to press a case against the name. But protests from veterans and traditionalists have always won out.
“Who did the attacking, them or us?” Rene Bobola, a World War II veteran, asked in 1993. “I don’t think they have any right to tell us they don’t like V-J Day because we won the war.”
There’s no question the Second World War had an enormous impact on Rhode Island. More than 100,000 of the state’s residents served in the war, and 10,000 were killed, injured or lost. WRNI’s Scott MacKay captured the war’s significance 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. …
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.
This is an expanded version of a post originally published in 2011.