Like Del’s, Victory Day is a uniquely Rhode Island tradition.
Rhode Island is the only state that still observes an official holiday marking Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. It’s been that way since 1975, when Arkansas dropped the holiday – having already rechristened it “World War II Memorial Day” – and reportedly gave state workers their birthdays off as a consolation.
“The tenacity of Rhode Island in celebrating August 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.” Indeed, The New York Times reported as far back as 1957 that “V-J Day” was “always a big legal holiday in Rhode Island.”
The holiday was established here in 1948, three years after World War II ended, but by the mid-1980s – with Japan’s economic might growing – there was a lively debate about whether it should be scrapped. Japanese officials said Victory Day was harming trade between the two nations, and a local Chamber of Commerce official called the holiday “embarrassing.”
Gov. Ed DiPrete tried to transform Victory Day into Governor’s Bay Day, and former Barrington Rep. Sandra Barone pushed to rename it “Rhode Island Veteran’s Day” or “Peace and Remembrance Day.” At one point the Rhode Island Japan Society even hired lawyers to press a case against the name, and in 1990 lawmakers passed a resolution saying “Victory Day is not a day to express satisfaction in the destruction and death caused by nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Still, protests from veterans and traditionalists have always won out over efforts to jettison the holiday. “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.”
Indeed, this past General Assembly session saw the AFL-CIO union argue successfully that passing a bill to make Victory Day a floating holiday would be disrespectful to veterans, despite lobbying by businesses who said they wanted more flexibility in scheduling workers’ hours.
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.
Scott MacKay of Rhode Island Public Radio captured the war’s local 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.
Lazar Berman, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, argued in 2011 that there are good reasons to continue to commemorate the end of World War II seven decades later:
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.
But David Preston, in a 1995 op-ed, explained that the holiday was never “V-J Day” in Rhode Island:
Victory Day’s problems, not surprisingly, also spring from inaccurate reporting in the local media. Intent on ginning up controversy, they erroneously refer to the holiday as V-J Day, year after year, portraying it as some anachronism from a less enlightened (read: less politically sensitive) era.
But that has never been its name. It has always been, since its inception in 1948, referred to in the Rhode Island General Laws as simply “Victory Day.” The fact that it occurred when the Japanese surrendered is merely an accident of history. Had the Germans held on for another four months, the colloquial phrase for the day would be V-E Day, for victory in Europe.
Rhode Island has 416 Japanese residents, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Japan was Rhode Island’s eight-biggest trading partner in 2012, with $78 million worth of exports flowing from Rhode Island to the Land of the Rising Sun last year and $198 million worth of imports sent back, federal data shows.
For more, check out this report my colleague Andrew Adamson filed for Friday evening’s newscast:
This is an expanded version of a post that was originally published in 2012.
• WPRI.com Photo Gallery: The end of World War II