A nation celebrates war's end
By Si Liberman The explosion of joy had not yet erupted. But there, in the heart of London, darkness was strangely absent on one city street. A stream of light illuminated almost an entire city block.
By Si Liberman
The explosion of joy had not yet erupted. But there, in the heart of London, darkness was strangely absent on one city street. A stream of light illuminated almost an entire city block.
Some happy soul had raised a blackout shade. For the first time in nearly six years, light shone without fear of inviting an air raid warden's citation or German bombs.
That marvelous lighted scene - on May 7, 1945 - foretelling the end of Europe's deadliest period, has stayed with me all these years.
I was 20 and on a three-day pass from my air base outside Norwich, a five-hour train ride away. Earlier, on an underground train en route to Piccadilly Circus, I had spotted a newspaper headline. "Unconditional Surrender Imminent," it screamed in thick, black letters. The lighted street seemed to confirm the headline. By 3 p.m. the next day, it was official.
Standing on the War Ministry balcony above Whitehall at that hour, a beaming Prime Minister Winston Churchill flashed his usual "V" sign, though this time it was not a mere symbol. The hostilities with Germany were over.
"This is your victory," he told the huge crowd that had gathered.
Cheers grew into one gigantic party. People poured into the streets, shouting, dancing, embracing. They mounted double-decker buses and utility poles, waved flags, started bonfires, and danced around a statue of Queen Victoria. Sirens blared, car horns honked, and church bells pealed.
One headline expressed the mood of the country: "Our Day of Days."
Later, at Buckingham Palace, a roar from the crowd and wild applause greeted the appearance of persons on the balcony.
From where I stood among a mass of humanity, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, their princess daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, and Churchill were a distant blur. The next day, newspaper pictures showed them responding to the crowd's adulation with smiles and waves.
That night, floodlights illuminated the palace and Parliament for the first time since the Battle of Britain had begun in 1939. Big Ben's toll, signaling the end of the war in Europe, was greeted by exploding fireworks and screaming sirens.
The celebration went on for two days. Bus and train service in and out of London was halted, and thousands who had flocked to the city to witness and participate in these historic moments jammed hotels and parks.
Passes for U.S. military personnel were extended for two days because of the mass transit breakdown.
Great, except that the Red Cross servicemen's hotel and others had no vacancies, and my money had run out. I wasn't alone. I joined hundreds of others who spent a damp, chilly night trying to keep warm and sleep near one of the bonfires in St. James's Park.
A thin, dark-haired girl I met also was left out in the cold - unable to return to her suburban home because trains weren't running. Doreen told me her mother had come to London to celebrate the end of World War I, and she met and married a Yank.
Doreen couldn't wait for rationing to end, especially for the day when nylon stockings would be available again in England. Several months later, from the States, I answered her prayers and mailed her three pairs of nylons. The anticipated thank-you note never arrived, though.
Memories of those tumultuous days will be rekindled as England observes the 69th anniversary of V-E Day this week. I'll be there in spirit, recalling the joy and that chilly night in St. James's Park. This time, though, I'll be with my wife of nearly 65 lucky years. And I'll probably also call Larry Baker in Ohio, the only other surviving member of our fun-loving, nine-member B-24 bomber crew.