Seventy-five years ago this week, Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) arrived on Tuesday, May 8, 1945.
World War II ended in Europe with the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allies. On May 7, in a document signed in the schoolhouse turned headquarters of Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight David Eisenhower, who was not present at the signing, German Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl, newly named chief of staff of the German army, signed the surrender document. For the Supreme Allied Command, Lt. Gen. Walter Beddel Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, signed the document. He was joined by Gen. Ivan Susloarov of the USSR and Gen. Francois Sevez of France.
A world away, the small Highland County seat of Hillsboro had been insulated from the horrors — civilian and military — of combat. Regardless, the community was impacted dramatically with loss of life — primarily of young men — and privation. And when the radio announced news of the Nazi surrender, Hillsboro’s citizens poured forth from homes and businesses alike to gather in celebration and relief at the town’s principal intersection, Main and High streets. They cheered. They laughed. They hugged and kissed. They expressed both profound relief and undaunted hope.
After half a decade of death and destruction, their boys had achieved victory — although at a considerable cost.
Three young women with husbands, or soon to be husbands, paused their VE celebration to have their photograph taken, probably by druggist Edwin Billingham Ayres, among a large and festive crowd. They were Clara Elizabeth Ayres Duckworth (married in 1941 to Major Winston H. Duckworth of Greenfield), Lois Jean Roberts of Mowrystown (who was to be married John Buchanan Dragoo in 1946), and Betty Jane Bohl (who was to be married to James Arthur Ryan of Zanesville in 1945). The three were former HHS classmates and lifelong friends, and they most certainly had a special reason to celebrate that day.
When Gen. Eisenhower joined the group soon after this memorial signing, the Germans were asked if they fully understood the terms of the unconditional surrender as well as the terms to be carried out. Yes, they responded.
The conflict officially was to end at 23.01 hours Central European Time, May 8, 1945. (In the Soviet Union, this time differential was May 9, which the USSR thereafter recognized as VE Day.)
The German government of Adolf Hitler had begun World War II on Sept. 1, 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland.
Today, as then, the number of casualties remains uncertain due to the global extent of the war as well as unknown and unreported numbers. Worldwide, estimates suggest that from 70 to 85 million individuals perished — some 3 percent of the world’s total population. The USSR placed deaths in that nation — civilian and military — at 26.6 million. The estimate of Nazi Germany’s deaths is somewhere between 6.9 and 7.4 million dead. The official count of American deaths was about 420,000.
Economic costs similarly were staggering. While difficult to estimate, European costs, on both sides, are estimated to have been about $698 billion. The United States alone spent somewhere around $342 billion — and those are direct costs. Indirect costs as well as costs incurred after the fighting war ended, greatly exceed that amount. For example, the U.S. spent more than $13 billion to aid in Europe’s recovery.
But on that May day 75 years ago Americans rejoiced that European fighting had ceased and that the Allies had emerged victorious.
On VE Day, President Harry Truman had a special reason to celebrate his 61st birthday as he dedicated the victory to his predecessor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
As the nation enjoyed this special day ending European hostilities and the fall of Nazi Germany, President Truman took pause to point out that the war itself was far from over — the defeat of the Japanese empire, linked with the war in Asia, remained. Truman thus declared Germany’s surrender to be “a victory only half won.”
Following FDR’s death, Truman had been briefed on the Manhattan Project, which had developed a powerful and unprecedented atomic bomb. On Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, Truman authorized the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, in hopes of ending the conflict without the necessity of mounting an allied invasion of Japan, which surely would have cost unprecedented Allied and Japanese deaths.
On Aug. 14, 1945, following these bombings, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito announced his nation’s acceptance of the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, effectively ending World War II — 98 days after VE Day.
The largest crowd in the history of New York City’s Times Square gathered to celebrate. No doubt Hillsboro citizens did likewise.
Today, the brave men and women who underwent such want and accepted privation in order to ensure America’s way of life, as well as to ensure their own ways of life, are fading. Only 390,000 of the 16,000,000 who served in World War II were alive at the beginning of 2019, and that number drops daily.
Let us not only hope, but let us also act to ensure that their sacrifice leads to a better world.
Christopher S. Duckworth has family ties to Hillsboro and Greenfield. He spent three decades at the Ohio Historical Society, where he was founding editor of Timeline magazine, followed by another 10 years at the Columbus Museum of Art. Today, he owns his own publishing company, Brevoort Press LLC.