The explosion of joy had not yet erupted. But there, on one city street in London, darkness was strangely absent. A stream of light illuminated almost an entire city block.
Some happy soul had raised a blackout shade. And for the first time in nearly six years, it was done without fear of inviting an air raid warden’s citation or German bombs.
That marvelous moment, foretelling the end of Europe’s deadliest period, has stayed with me all these years. The date was May 7, 1945.
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I was 20 then, and on a three-day pass from my B-24 air base outside of Norwich, a five-hour train ride away. On an underground train en route to Piccadilly Circus, I got the picture after spotting a newspaper headline. “Unconditional Surrender Imminent” it screamed in thick black letters. The lighted street confirmed 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 Winston Churchill flashed his usual V sign. This time, though, his usual “V” for victory , was no symbolic promise. The hostilities with Germany were over.
“This is your victory,” he told a huge crowd that had gathered.
Cheers grew into one helluva party. People poured into the streets, shouting, dancing, embracing. They mounted double-decker buses and utility poles, waved flags, started bonfires and danced the hokey pokey around a statue of Queen Victoria.. Sirens blared, car horns honked and church bells pealed.
In four neat one-syllable words, a newspaper headline expressed the mood of the country: “Our Day of Days.”
I found myself drawn to 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 Prime Minister 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 Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament for the first time since the Battle of Britain began in 1939. And Big Ben’s toll, signaling the official 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.
U.S. military personnel passes were extended for two days because of the mass transit breakdown.
Great, except for the fact that the Red Cross servicemen’s hotel and other hotels had no vacancies, and my money had run out. I wasn’t alone and joined hundreds of others, spending a damp, chilly night trying to keep warm and sleep near one of the bonfires in St. James 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, that was her name, said her mother had come to London to celebrate the end of World War I and met and married a Yank.
She couldn’t wait for the end of rationing, she said, especially for the day when nylon stockings would be available in England. Back in the States several months later, I answered her prayers, and mailed her three pairs of nylon stockings. The anticipated thank-you note never arrived, though.
Memories of those tumultuous days will be rekindled as England observes the 70th anniversary of VE-Day on Friday, May 8. and the end of World War II .in Europe.
I’ll be there in spirit, recalling the joy and that chilly night in St. James Park. This time, though, I’ll be with my wife of nearly 66 lucky years. And on that day, as the only surviving member, I’ll drink a toast to the eight departed members of my fun-loving, B-24 bomber crew.
‘Til we meet again.