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Those who were there look back 70 years to V-J Day

By DIANNE FRANCES D. POWELL | The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Ind. | Published: August 14, 2015

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (Tribune News Service) — As a young soldiers based on the Okinawa Island of Japan during World War II, Ben Stoelting and his comrades were gearing up for an invasion when the news of Japan’s surrender was announced.

Then 23 years old and serving in the Army military police, he was both happy and relieved when he heard the news that ended almost four years of the United States’ involvement in the war.

Stoelting, now 93, recalled possibly hearing the announcement over a speaker at the military base and perhaps, like other soldiers, reacted by shouting with joy. While these details are unclear, he could vividly remember how significant the occasion was.

To him — and to many other soldiers — it meant no more fighting and no more death. 

“Couldn’t be happier,” he said. “It meant that we didn’t have any more killing or being killed or exposed to the enemy,” he continued, with some tears slowly forming in his eyes.

Stoelting was living in Indianapolis when he was selected for service at age 22, he said. Inside his southern Vigo County home on Thursday, almost exactly 70 years after the surrender — now called Victory over Japan Day — he sifted through a box of old photographs from this time period as he shared some of his memories. He had photos taken with some of his fellow soldiers at the base and with some of the residents he met during his stay.

He said that after the declaration, his unit stayed in Okinawa to organize before going to Japan’s main island to do some peacekeeping work. 

“Our soldiers [the Allied forces] began to move right away into Japan,” he remembered. Some residents accepted the soldiers as if they were friends, but others “did not want to see our faces,” he said.

“It’s understandable,” he added. Eleven months later, Stoelting went home to Indianapolis.

Another World War II veteran, Leighton Willhite — a member of the division that fought in the battle of Iwo Jima — remembers being about 100 miles from Japan, “loaded and ready” to “hit the southern island” when the historic surrender happened. The 90-year-old Parke County resident said, “We went on in after they surrendered” and he left Japan on Sept. 23, 1945, a few weeks after the formal ceremony that ended the war.

Victory over Japan Day (V-J Day), also known as Victory in the Pacific Day, refers to the day of Japan’s surrender, which put an end to World War II. The announcement was made on the afternoon of Aug. 15, 1945, in Japan, but due to time zone differences, it was heard in the United States and the Eastern Pacific Islands on Aug. 14, 1945 — 70 years ago today.

About a week before that, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Soviet Union also declared war on Japan. A document was signed on Sept. 2, 1945 during a formal surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay, Japan, aboard the battleship USS Missouri.

The event and its anniversary are significant  to veterans and also to many Americans who supported the war effort at home. 

Terre Haute resident Marylee Hagan was only 9 years old when President Harry S. Truman shared the news with Americans through a nationwide broadcast. Although she was young, Hagan said she often heard her parents talk about the war, and she grew up aware of the rationing of resources during the conflict. More significantly, her uncle served in Europe. 

Hagan, the executive director of the Vigo County Historical Society Museum, has fond memories of V-J Day celebrations in her hometown of Robinson, Ill. After the broadcast, a loud siren coming from a large oil refinery was heard in town. Soon, “everybody rushed” downtown crying, honking horns, cheering and “congratulating one another that it was finally all over,” she said. 

Little Marylee walked with her family about four blocks to downtown carrying a pan and a spoon, items she used to “make noise.”

“Like a drum, I was pounding on that,” she said during a phone interview on Wednesday. “It was a huge gathering,” she said, “almost everybody in town came down to celebrate.”

Despite the number of years that have passed, it is still important to remember this part of history, Stoelting said. Commemorating V-J Day and other war-related anniversaries are important not only to constantly remind people of these significant sacrifices but also to examine the present and reflect for the future ahead. 

“It’s our history and that’s the way we’ll remember it,” he said. “But consider 70 years later, look at today what’s going on in the world, around the world.”

“Terrible, terrible,” he said while shaking his head. “We’re just killing people after another and no good reason for it.”

dianne.powell@tribstar.com

©2015 The Tribune-Star (Terre Haute, Ind.)
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