Santa Rosa was wild with joy. Every store and business downtown closed immediately as people flooded into the streets, some shouting, some crying, some laughing; to an outsider it would have looked like everyone in town had suddenly gone barking mad. Nothing like that had ever occurred before and probably will never happen again. So once they invent a time machine, rush down to the atavachron station and buy a ticket for Tuesday, Aug. 14, 1945 at 3:10 in the afternoon. It was V-J Day.

“Almost before the radio and newspaper flashes had been recorded, automobile horns added their din to the sirens’ wail and hundreds of cars raced around the courthouse and up and down business streets – serpentine [party streamers] appeared from nowhere and wastebaskets were emptied from second and third-story windows,” reported the Press Democrat. “Exuberant youngsters raided the paper balers at the rear of The Press Democrat office, hurled the contents into the street and scattered paper ribbons from rooftops…Streets were littered with paper that backed up into the gutters and overflowed onto the courthouse lawn.” There was so much paper in the streets that it looked like the town was hit by a freak snowstorm.

“Fire trucks, flag-bedecked, raced through downtown streets, followed by countless cars, motorcycles, bicycles and shouting pedestrians,” the PD noted. Anyone in a vehicle with a horn leaned on it. “Once in a while you see a perfectly sane-appearing person driving by, not honking the horn on his car, and he looks sort of silly,” someone told the paper. Probably every kid with a stash of firecrackers – banned by the government since 1943 – gathered on the courthouse steps and earnestly went to work trying to maim themselves.

“Weeping women, many of them wives or mothers of servicemen in the Pacific, stood in doorways and offered their thanks to God…Tears streamed down their cheeks as they mingled with the milling throngs – grief-stricken by their own losses and thankful, along with the rest, that the lives of other sons have been spared.” The toll had been terrible; 82 Santa Rosa had been killed in the war with another 19 missing. Another 200 from the county were also dead.

The priest from St. Rose and several ministers tried to organize a thanksgiving ceremony in front of the courthouse but the crowd wasn’t in the mood: “the din of auto horns, sirens, backfires and firecrackers exploding in the streets drowned out the voices of the clergymen,” the PD noted. Giving up, Father Raters returned to his car and tried to leave, only to find himself trapped in the traffic jam. “The St. Rose pastor made the best of things, honking the horn of his car with the rest ot the hundreds that jammed Fourth street,” according to the PD.

The Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce had published a set of rules about what was supposed to happen once the announcement came (see “THE DAY BEFORE THE GREATEST DAY“), including a decree that the bars, along with all other businesses, were supposed to immediately close. One entrepreneurial barkeep apparently “forgot” about that and kept his doors open. A reporter from the PD found “the lone exception was swamped with servicemen and civilians until Police Chief Melvin Flohr and other officers ‘cracked down’ at 5:30 o’clock.”

After that, out came the bottles purchased during the “peace jitters” of the previous four days. There were “numberless house parties where friends gathered to jointly celebrate the greatest day in the history of the United States and the world.”

Another part of the best-laid plans was a parade, but the Chamber and Parade Marshal decided to put it off until the next day, after efforts failed “to form a parade from the aimless mass of motorcars.”

Front of the Sonoma County courthouse covered in confetti and waste paper on Aug. 15, 1945. The little building in front of the steps was the "Victory House" built in 1944 to sell war bonds and stamps. Photo by U.S. Naval Air Station/Santa Rosa
Front of the Sonoma County courthouse covered in confetti and waste paper on Aug. 15, 1945. The little building in front of the steps was the “Victory House” built in 1944 to sell war bonds and stamps. Photo by U.S. Naval Air Station/Santa Rosa

Petaluma – always the mature Lisa Simpson to Santa Rosa’s callow Bart – managed to celebrate and still have a nice parade. The Argus-Courier wrote “hundreds of automobiles, both from the city and rural areas, with the drivers leaning heavily and continually on the horns, joined in the downtown area in an informal, noisy, but orderly parade…hundreds of people lined the streets to participate in the rejoicing and witness the parade.” Afterward, the Police Chief “complimented the drivers for the orderly way in which they handled their vehicles.”

Santa Rosa’s parade the next afternoon was another blowout: “…everyone, participants and spectators alike, having the time of their young lives.” From the Press Democrat:

…[it was] one of the noisiest and certainly the most spontaneous parades in the old town’s history. Servicemen and civilians, members of every veteran organization, all war services and fraternal organizations marched through the business district, past cheering spectators, to the music of the Petaluma Municipal Band and the screaming of just about every siren in the community. Every piece of fire equipment in the city, manned by uniformed fire-eaters, police cars, state highway patrol “prowl” cars and motorcycles, official Sonoma county automobiles all added to the general din with sirens held “wide open” for the event.

There were several wonderful staff photos showing the parade and some happy scenes from the day before – but alas, it seems likely they were destroyed. When the PD offices were remodeled much of the paper’s archives from before 1960 were tossed in the dumpster. The images never have been reprinted on any anniversary of V-J Day. A message left for the paper’s Director of Photography was not returned.

Descriptions in the paper, however, pointed out a common sight from both days: “The unbiquitous jeep the universal military vehicle was greatly in evidence in the parade but carrying feminine cargoes of strictly unmilitary nature. Almost every one was crowded to the gunwales with cheering Santa Rosa girls, sailors, soldiers and just plain civilians, all intent on telling the world how happy they were over the end of war.” For the parade, the Army airbase sent a caravan of military trucks. There were two floats with kids dressed up as Liberty and Uncle Sam.

The Chamber’s grand plan for all businesses to be closed during the holiday overlooked a little problem – with thousands of people packed into the downtown for an entire summer afternoon, some of them would want something to eat or drink. A few restaurants bucked the rules and opened their doors, but according to the Press Democrat “…they were more than swamped with customers and most of them sold out everything they had in stock. Hungry Santa Rosans roamed the streets in vain looking for something to eat, the only handicap to an otherwise glorious holiday.”

A few bars reopened at 5 o’clock and likewise found the hordes descend upon them. Although they could legally stay open until midnight, all closed hours earlier after struggling to push out the crowds after they had drunk the places dry and smashed glassware.

During all this, the streets were still deep in confetti and paper from the previous day. At the end of the parade someone tossed a match on an effigy of Japanese Emperor Hirohito, “setting off a fire in the litter of paper that covered gutters and plaza ankle-deep. The fire department already in the parade ‘countermarched’ to put this out, for the only incident of the day.”

Santa Rosa’s victory party was raucous, but nothing compared to what happened in San Francisco, where the celebration turned into three nights of deadly riots. Thousands of servicemen – mostly teenagers – rampaged on Market street, looting stores, destroying streetcars (and killing one worker), fighting each other and women were raped. The riot left over 1,000 injured and eleven dead, including 20 year-old William Flaherty of Petaluma, who died of a skull fracture after being struck.

The grand party over, in the following days the town glowed with a newfound spirit of optimism and energy to get things done. The proposal to build Memorial Hospital (then called the War Memorial Hospital) was dusted off; the Board of Supervisors began discussing ambitious plans to create meaningful war memorials in every community; and the Press Democrat published plans by architect Cal Caulkins to redesign downtown Santa Rosa – a revision of the layout which would have completely transformed our town’s future.

But we can also argue the celebration didn’t really end on August 15. At the end of the month the Naval Auxiliary Air Station out on Wright Road threw itself a 32nd “birthday party” that drew thousands. The crowds watched simulated dogfights, although there was nearly a disaster when two Helldiver bombers collided in midair. Both landed safely, but not before one headed directly for the air control tower. PD reporter Mike Pardee wrote he and others in the tower instinctively “ducked for places of dubious safety.”

The excitement probably didn’t really calm down until after September 22-23 and the Sonoma County “Victory Fair.” Over 10,000 packed into the fairgrounds each of those days, as told in “THE LOST HISTORY OF THE SONOMA COUNTY FAIR.” With thousands of soldiers and sailors returning to the Bay Area nearly every day there were thousands of renewed reasons to celebrate.

There is a a wonderful word in Portuguese, “Saudade,” which means a deeply-felt melancholy for an experience which will never come again, and reading those issues of the Press Democrat from August, 1945 can’t help but stir such emotions. The joy from those days leaps off the pages; you cheer along with them as everyone let loose after years of worry and hardship. And as the PD excerpts show, they were aware those would be unforgettable moments in their lives, days of utterly unclouded happiness.

Press Democrat, September 22 1945
Press Democrat, September 22 1945

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