Professor of History Greg Sumner sheds insight into how the city of Detroit, 75 years ago, experienced the news of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Adapted from his book, Detroit in World War II, Sumner paints a clear picture in the following article:
Celebrating V-J Day in Detroit
By Gregory Sumner
Metro Detroiters were as puzzled as most Americans about the nature of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 summers ago. The immediate, near-universal reaction to the news, however, was relief: they had ended the war, forcing the surrender in mid-August of an implacable enemy. Fathers and sons, husbands and boyfriends — they would be coming home safe, after all.
With the announcement of Japan’s capitulation on the radio, pandemonium erupted all across the nation. As night fell in Detroit horns honked, sirens blared, firecrackers and cherry bombs exploded. Makeshift confetti rained down from second-story windows. In sultry, pre-air conditioned saloons patrons sparred to get the next round. Strangers embraced each other, many with tears in their eyes.
Fifteen-year-old Barbara Williams remembered how she wanted to hop a bus downtown from her home at Six Mile and Wildemere “to kiss a sailor” — any sailor. Her father had other ideas, however, and a last-minute babysitting job sabotaged her plans, to her everlasting chagrin.
Grandparents tossed back shots of whiskey, dancing and reeling as they had not done in years. Heavy-lidded children were allowed to stay up to witness the once-in-a-lifetime revelry. Adults were so giddy that even the youngest sensed something big and very good had happened.
The scene was repeated from Polish Hamtramck to the barrio in Southwest Detroit, from Dearborn’s Middle Eastern enclave to Chinatown and Hastings Street, the center of the city’s black culture. The party continued through the night in Wyandotte, Ferndale, Royal Oak, Warren and St. Clair Shores.
Ration coupons went into the trash, even though austerity rules were still in effect. Lines snaked around neighborhood gas stations and grocery stores as customers demanded what they wanted, without restraint, for the first time in memory. Besieged proprietors did their best to accommodate them.
By the time the sun rose the next day, work crews were already fanning out across the city to clean up the mess. Bells tolled in churches, and the one atop the University of Detroit clock tower sounded 137 times, in tribute to the students who would not be coming back in the fall. It was an invitation to reflect on the reasons all those young men had been sacrificed.
At a ceremony in front of city hall that afternoon, dignitaries stepped one-by-one to the microphone to offer their answers to that question. Supreme Court Justice — and former Detroit mayor — Frank Murphy spoke with special passion and eloquence. Murphy had distinguished himself the previous year with his dissent in the Korematsu case, arguing that the internment of Japanese-Americans violated their constitutional rights.
Thinking of the violence that had plagued his crowded boomtown Detroit during the war — traumas many would just as soon have expunged from their memories — Murphy exhorted his listeners to fight bigotry at home with the same vigor they had brought to vanquishing adversaries overseas. “Unless we cleanse our hearts of hate — racial and religious,” he insisted, “this war will only be half-won.” The sermon drew cheers and robust applause.