A few hundred miles off the coast of Japan, on August 6, 1945, John Plain, my grandfather’s brother, was on a Navy destroyer when he felt the largest wave of his life push its way quickly past the boat he was on and rush farther out to sea.
“We’d been through the worst Pacific storms and this was nothing like it,” he told me. “We didn’t know what it was, but it was much different than anything else we ever felt.”
That wave he felt was actually the aftershock of the single most destructive action in the history of the human race. We had unleashed an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
Then, three days later we did it again. A day after that, Japan had begun to negotiate their surrender, and on August 15, 1945 it became official. World War II was over.
My grandfather was stationed in the Pacific then as well, and both George and John Plain were ready for a Normandy-style invasion of Japan. Instead, they were coming home. My grandfather would reunite with his wife and his infant daughter, and soon thereafter he and my Nana had my dad.
Those two bombs may very well have saved my grandfather’s life, and thus made me and much of my family’s very existence possible. To that end, it’s easy for me and the rest of the Plain clan to view the end of the war as a victory. But there are untold more whose fate was changed in a different way by the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
More than a quarter million Japanese residents died. Two cities were destroyed. Recalling the events, Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic age, famously recalled the first atomic explosion by saying, “We knew the world would not be the same.” Then he went on to quote the Hindu god Vishnu: “‘Now I have become death, destroyer of worlds.’” I suppose we all felt like that, one way or another.”
In Rhode Island, we call it Victory Day.
Probably mostly because it serves as a nice shot in the arm to our summertime tourist economy, Rhode Island is the last state in the nation to continue to celebrate the holiday that used to be known as Victory Over Japan Day.
I think we can all agree that a midsummer day off is a good thing. I think we can also agree that we should remember and honor the end of World War II, and that we prevailed to beat back some pretty nasty nation-states. I’d even go so far as to say that we can agree that we should never forget the fury we wrought on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
So what’s wrong with calling the holiday something that encompasses all those things?
Rhode Island should keep its midsummer holiday, but it should change the name of it to honor all that we should be remembering about the end of World War II.