It was a reunion of correspondents for what has been called The Last Good War, held on the 40th aniversary of V-J Day. For many, it was the first time together since then, and their high spirits made the victory seem fresh and new.
Organized by wartime correspondents Robert Sherrod, Howard Handleman, Max Desfor, Joe Laitin, Edgar Allen Poe, Jessie Stearns, Don Larrabee, L. Edgar Prina, Bert Mills and Bryson Rash, last night's reception and dinner at the National Press club reunited correspondents and military officers who had participated in the Pacific war theater.
Reminiscences and memories flooded the dinner and reception rooms, as correspondents spoke of their wartime experiences. They told mostly of the joy of victory.
"Sheer exuberance, sheer excitement," said Bryson Rash, who covered President Truman's announcement of the surrender. "The town just went crazy. Just went nuts. Streets were clogged, everyone kissing each other and drinking in doorways."
"It was a great feeling," said Jessie Stearns (then with Armed Forces Radio), who was in Manila at the time. Together with eight other war correspondents, "we had a dinner and toasted the end of the war."
This was all before the revisionist perceptions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
"The only thing about V-J Day was getting the goddamn war over with. Through. Finished," said Bryson Rash, who covered the war effort for WMAL Radio. "You knew it was atomic, but it didn't mean anything except that [the bomb] made a big explosion. There were none of the social significances."
"There's one fact always left out," said former submarine commander Charles Rush. "The Japanese were working on making a bomb and we knew it . . .[President Truman's] motive was to end the war. His motive was good, therefore [the bombing] was good."
"There are two sides to the story," said Barney Nelson, referring to recent negative press coverage of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki legacy. The press, he said, "should have organized a Japanese contingent to visit Pearl Harbor and walk with the Bataan Death March ghosts."
Memories were spurred by newsreel footage of the war's victory highlights, from MacArthur arriving in Japan to Marshal Pe'tain being tried for treason. Col. Barney Oldfield, whose job was to accredit the wartime correspondents, displayed a list of all 1,828 names. Photographs of the surrender on board the USS Missouri were on display.
"It was a very gray morning when [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur opened the proceedings," said Max Desfor, an Associated Press photographer for 45 years, who was on board for the surrender and took one of the well-known photographs of the event. "He was about to start the ceremony when the sun broke through. I thought how symbolic it was."
"We lost an awful lot of friends [during Pearl Harbor]," said Lt. Gen. Donn Robertson (then a lieutenant colonel with the 27th Marines). Robertson was stationed in Hawaii at the time of the surrender. "There was a feeling of relief for many. Joy for some. But most of us were apprehensive; we knew we'd be going to Japan [for the occupation]. We still had a job to do."
National Press Club president David Hess delivered a message from President Reagan, who called the war "the most terrible of human contests ever recorded in human history" and lauded those who had made "the ultimate sacrifice for freedom and dignity."
There were light ironies here and there. When guests toasted the war's survivors, many of their glasses contained sake, bottles of which were on every table. One of the dinner entrees was a Spam dish dolled up with pineapples and barbecue sauce.
And for some, there was a lesson in the memories.
Rear Adm. Harold B. Miller, whose postwar job was to talk to Japanese high commanders to find out why they had attacked the United States, said he was told, " 'Our perception . . . was that you wouldn't fight.' "
Referring obliquely to the upcoming talks between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he said, "The point is, what constitutes deterrence is really the perception of the leadership of the potential [enemy]. That's what it's all about." He warned the group against letting out the signal that "we don't have the will and we don't have the capability."
The event ended with Bryson Rash repeating the words of Gen. MacArthur after the Sept. 2 surrender pact: "The proceedings are closed."