PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Like Del’s, Victory Day is a uniquely Rhode Island tradition.
Monday is the 68th annual Victory Day in Rhode Island, making the state yet again the only one to observe a legal holiday marking the end of World War II. The actual event it commemorates happened on Aug. 14, when Japan’s surrender was announced, but the holiday is always observed on the second Monday in August.
(And yes, the official name of Rhode Island’s holiday has always been Victory Day, not “V-J Day,” despite what many residents think.)
Experts say Rhode Island has been on its own since 1975, when Arkansas dropped its version of the holiday – known as “World War II Memorial Day” there – and reportedly gave state workers their birthdays off as a consolation.
“The tenacity of Rhode Island in celebrating Aug. 14 deserves special attention for its interplay of state, local, national, and even international politics,” Len Travers writes in the “Encyclopedia of American Holidays and National Days.” As far back as the 1950s, The New York Times declared that the holiday – which it called “V-J Day” – was “always a big legal holiday in Rhode Island.”
- Photos: The End of WWII »
Victory Day was established here by lawmakers in the spring of 1948, three years after World War II ended. Rhode Island was always an outlier: in 1953 the AP described it as “the only state in the union that voted to make V-J a legal holiday,” though two years later the news service acknowledged, “Arkansas celebrates the anniversary also, but as World War II Memorial Day.”
However, by the mid-1980s – with Japan’s economic might growing – there was a lively debate about whether Victory Day should be scrapped. Japanese officials said it was harming trade between the two nations, and a local Chamber of Commerce official called the holiday “embarrassing.” At one point the Rhode Island Japan Society hired lawyers to press a case against the name.
In response, Gov. Ed DiPrete tried to transform Victory Day into Governor’s Bay Day, and one lawmaker pushed to rename it “Rhode Island Veteran’s Day” or “Peace and Remembrance Day.” In an effort to further distance Victory Day from V-J Day, state lawmakers passed a resolution in 1990 saying “Victory Day is not a day to express satisfaction in the destruction and death caused by nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Another more recent push to eliminate Victory Day, in 2013, failed despite lobbying by businesses who said they wanted more flexibility in scheduling workers’ hours. The Rhode Island AFL-CIO argued successfully that turning it into a floating holiday would be disrespectful to veterans.
Indeed, protests from veterans and traditionalists have always won out over efforts to jettison Victory Day; some have linked it with Rhode Island’s status as the first state to declare independence in 1776. “Should we stop celebrating the Fourth of July because it offends the English?” demanded a VFW official in 1988.
It’s also often been noted that Japan, not the U.S., started the war by bombing Pearl Harbor. “Who did the attacking, them or us?” Rene Bobola, a World War II veteran, asked a reporter a few years later. “I don’t think they have any right to tell us they don’t like V-J Day because we won the war.”
There’s no question that World War II had an enormous impact on Rhode Island. About 92,000 of the state’s residents served in the war – more than one in ten – and almost 2,200 of them were killed, according to Dr. Pat Conley, the state’s historian laureate.
(With Japan’s surrender now more than 70 years in the past – almost as far from today as the Civil War was from Pearl Harbor – the living ranks of those veterans are dwindling fast. The National World War II Museum estimates fewer than 3,000 Rhode Island veterans who served in the war are still alive, down from 8,000 in 2010 and 26,000 in 2000.)
Scott MacKay of Rhode Island Public Radio captured the war’s local significance in a 2010 essay:
If ever a state was at the center of the American war effort in World War II, it was Rhode Island. From Westerly to Woonsocket and everywhere in between, Rhode Island was focused on winning what has become known as, in Studs Terkel’s famous words, “The Good War.”
Newport was home to the Atlantic destroyer fleet, where thousands of sailors trained for service abroad. Quonset hosted thousands of troops who built Quonset huts and trained engineers and Seabees to work on ships. PT boats were built in Bristol and the man who was to become the most celebrated PT commander in history, John F. Kennedy, received his training at the Navy’s station at Melville. [And another future president, George H.W. Bush, trained at a Navy station in Charlestown.] …
But the naval presence was only a small part of the Rhode Island war effort. When Franklin Roosevelt said that the United States would become the arsenal of democracy, he could have been speaking about Rhode Island. A state that suffered through the Depression suddenly blossomed into an industrial powerhouse when war came. Liberty ships were made in Providence, torpedoes in Newport, army blankets and uniforms in textile mills all over the state. The machine shops of the Blackstone Valley thrummed with parts for guns. Even the jewelry makers flourished, turning out medals for the armed forces.
Victory Day still has defenders, too, who see it as more than just a day off.
Lazar Berman, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, argued in 2011 that there are good reasons to continue to commemorate the end of World War II seven decades later:
V-J Day keeps alive the magnitude of the event, and even those who use the day to sail in Narragansett Bay or visit the beaches in Newport have more awareness of the event it marks than they would if it were abolished. It is easy to forget how difficult and bloody the Pacific war was up until the very end, and the million Allied casualties that would have resulted from an invasion of the home islands. It was a war that opened with humiliating and painful setbacks, but the determination and courage of the U.S. armed forces and citizens slowly but surely turned the tide. …
Were these means justified? Does America still have what it takes to force unconditional surrender? Will we ever face a war quite like WWII again—a conventional clash of major powers, with clear moral lines and a final, and deeply constructive, military and political resolution? These important questions are open to debate, and observance of V-J day reminds us that these questions, as well as the past sacrifice of our fighting men, remain worthy of our reflection and attention today.
Local public-relations consultant David Preston, who served in the U.S. Marines, also supported keeping the holiday. In a 1995 Providence Journal op-ed, he took pains to explain that the holiday was never “V-J Day” in Rhode Island:
Victory Day’s problems, not surprisingly, also spring from inaccurate reporting in the local media. Intent on ginning up controversy, they erroneously refer to the holiday as V-J Day, year after year, portraying it as some anachronism from a less enlightened (read: less politically sensitive) era.
But that has never been its name. It has always been, since its inception in 1948, referred to in the Rhode Island General Laws as simply “Victory Day.” The fact that it occurred when the Japanese surrendered is merely an accident of history. Had the Germans held on for another four months, the colloquial phrase for the day would be V-E Day, for victory in Europe.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and InstagramThis is a revised version of a piece that was previously published.