PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Like Del’s Lemonade or the Gaspee parade, Victory Day is one of the Ocean State’s unique summertime traditions.
Monday is Rhode Island’s 74th annual Victory Day, continuing the state’s custom of being the only place in America that honors the end of World War II with a legal holiday.
While the actual event that Victory Day commemorates happened on Aug. 14 — when Japan’s surrender was announced in the United States — the holiday is today observed on the second Monday in August. And despite what many residents believe, the legal name of Rhode Island’s holiday was never “V-J Day” (short for “Victory Over Japan”). It has always been called “Victory Day” on the statute books, going all the way back to its establishment in 1948.
Rhode Island has been an outlier with Victory Day since 1975, the year Arkansas lawmakers adopted a new list of legal holidays that left off the state’s Aug. 14 commemoration, which had been adopted back in 1949, according to state historian David Ware. (Arkansas state employees were given their own birthdays off.) While some websites claim Victory Day used to be a federal holiday, too, that appears to be a myth – there is no mention of it in an authoritative 1999 U.S. Senate report on the topic.
As far back as the 1950s, The New York Times wrote that Victory Day – which the paper, like many news outlets then and now, referred to as “V-J Day” – was “always a big legal holiday in Rhode Island.” Author Len Travers, in his “Encyclopedia of American Holidays and National Days,” remarks: “The tenacity of Rhode Island in celebrating Aug. 14 deserves special attention for its interplay of state, local, national, and even international politics.”
1 in 10 Rhode Islanders went to war
Rhode Island established Victory Day in March 1948, almost three years after the end of World War II, when the General Assembly passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Richard Windsor, a long-serving East Providence Republican, to designate Aug. 14 as a state holiday. (The legislature changed the law in the late 1960s to set the holiday as the second Monday in August.)
Veterans groups had been pushing for a World War II holiday since as early as 1946, the year after the war ended, and Windsor’s bill had initially passed the House in March 1947 with bipartisan support. But not everyone liked the idea: The Providence Journal’s editorial board argued Rhode Island lawmakers should cancel an existing holiday rather than add a ninth in the form of Victory Day.
“Every day added to the list we now have imposes a very serious handicap on industry, by increasing its costs, decreasing its production, and making it more difficult than ever for it to survive in competition with industries in other States that have fewer holidays,” The Journal warned. It suggested combining the holiday for World War II with Armistice Day, Nov. 11, which marked the end of World War I. (Congress did just that at the federal level in 1954, rechristening Armistice Day as Veterans Day.)
The editorialists’ argument fell on deaf ears in the Senate, and the upper chamber passed the measure creating Victory Day the following year. Republican Majority Leader William Thompson said that while there “may be merit” to the economic concerns about creating another holiday, “we certainly can set aside a day to honor the men who won the greatest war in history.”
Indeed, the rationale may have seemed obvious considering how much the war had affected Rhode Island. About 92,000 Rhode Islanders served in the war – more than one out of every 10 residents – and almost 2,200 of them were killed, according to Dr. Patrick Conley, the state’s historian laureate.
“If ever a state was at the center of the American war effort in World War II, it was Rhode Island,” veteran political reporter Scott MacKay wrote in a 2010 essay. “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.’”
The Navy had a huge presence in Rhode Island during the conflict, and three future presidents — John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush — all did some of their training in the state. “During World War II, Rhode Island was an armed camp,” Christian McBurney and Brian Wallin argue in a recent book about the state during the war.
The local manufacturing industry also went into overdrive, supplying everything from ships and blankets to medals.
A proposed alternative: Good Friday
Rhode Island was always an outlier by observing Victory Day: 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 that “Arkansas celebrates the anniversary also.”
In 1963, one state lawmaker argued Rhode Island was just ahead of the curve, predicting that Victory Day would eventually become a national holiday. But Congress never took that step, apparently viewing Memorial Day (for the war dead) and Veterans Day (for all who served) as sufficient.
Meanwhile, local pushback against the holiday started early.
In 1957, state Sen. Edward Gallogly, a future Democratic nominee for governor, proposed eliminating Victory Day as a legal state holiday and replacing it with Good Friday — an idea with obvious appeal in heavily Catholic Rhode Island. The following year, a different legislator proposed eliminating Victory Day on the grounds that it put border-town businesses at a disadvantage against their competitors in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
A decade later, in 1968, proponents succeeded in permanently setting the holiday as the second Monday in August. That move mirrored a law passed by Congress that year, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which ensured Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Columbus Day would all fall on a Monday each year. (Veterans Day was moved back to Nov. 11 in 1975.)
Efforts have often been made to remind Rhode Islanders of the reason for the holiday, but frequently in vain. Just six years after the end of World War II, in 1951, veterans groups were already complaining about low attendance at parades, and the Newport Daily News reported that Victory Day was generally “observed in Sunday fashion, most people heading for the beaches or taking an afternoon ride.”
Later that decade, a Daily News editorial complained of “general apathy” surrounding Victory Day, asking, “When will Rhode Island, compelled to observe the day as a holiday, remember those who made the supreme sacrifice?” Such complaints only grew over subsequent years as the war receded further into the past.
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‘I have always felt uneasy’
By the mid-1980s there was a new source of controversy surrounding Victory Day: its connection with the defeat of Japan. Some questioned whether it was appropriate to continue celebrating Victory Day in light of growing economic ties between the U.S. and Japan, particularly since so many persisted in calling it “V-J Day.”
Japanese officials said the holiday was harming trade between the two nations; a local Chamber of Commerce official called it “embarrassing.” At one point the Rhode Island Japan Society even hired lawyers to press a case against the name.
Hiroko Shikashio, a North Providence resident of Japanese descent, told The New York Times in 1990 she felt uncomfortable leaving the house on Victory Day. “Because I am Japanese, I have always felt uneasy about going outside on that day,” she said. “I think it is nice for people to have a holiday, but they should call it something else.”
In response, then-Gov. Ed DiPrete tried to transform Victory Day into Governor’s Bay Day, and lawmakers made multiple attempts to rename it “Rhode Island Veterans Day” or “Peace and Remembrance Day” – all unsuccessful. (Governor’s Bay Day is still proclaimed annually but is not a legal holiday.)
In recent years, peace activists have sometimes counterprogrammed Victory Day with an event in Jamestown remembering the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and last year an online petition urging state leaders to change the holiday’s name garnered 278 signatures.
In an effort to distinguish Victory Day from “V-J Day,” the General Assembly passed a resolution in June 1990 which insisted, “If this holiday had indeed been meant to celebrate annually the subjugation of one nation by another, and if indeed the holiday were officially Victory over Japan Day, then the pleas to change the name of the holiday would be justified. Such is not the case.”
“Victory Day is not and should not be called VJ Day,” the resolution warned, adding pointedly, “The most frequently publicized usage of this erroneous and offensive term is in Rhode Island commercial advertising.”
In 1999, the Assembly apparently determined the first resolution had not been enough, so lawmakers passed a new law decreeing: “No state or municipal governmental department or agency shall refer to the second Monday of August, ‘Victory Day’ by any other name in an advertisement paid for by the department or agency.”
A more recent push to eliminate Victory Day, in 2013, had nothing to do with history – the effort was backed by businesses who said they wanted more flexibility in scheduling workers’ hours. But the Rhode Island AFL-CIO successfully beat back that effort, arguing that it would be respectful to veterans to turn Victory Day into a floating holiday.
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And so it has gone for decades in Rhode Island, as protests from military groups and traditionalists – not to mention the general desire for a day off in August – thwarted attempts to jettison Victory Day. Some have even linked the celebration with the state’s status as the first to declare independence in 1776.
“Should we stop celebrating the Fourth of July because it offends the English?” one VFW official asked in 1988.
Defenders have also frequently noted that Japan, not the U.S., started hostilities by bombing Pearl Harbor. “Who did the attacking, them or us?” Rene Bobola, a World War II veteran, once asked a reporter. “I don’t think they have any right to tell us they don’t like V-J Day because we won the war.” Others have pointed out that if Germany had been defeated after Japan rather than the other way around, the colloquial name would be “V-E Day” (short for “Victory in Europe”).
Fewer than 2,000 RI WWII vets still alive
Lazar Berman, a journalist at The Times of Israel, argued in 2011 that there were good reasons to continue commemorating the end of World War II seven decades later (though even he used the wrong name).
“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,” Berman wrote. “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.”
He continued, “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.”
One thing that has changed about Victory Day: the conflict it recalls is no longer in living memory for the vast majority of Rhode Islanders. Japan’s surrender is now 76 years in the past – exactly as far from today as the attack on Pearl Harbor was from the end of the Civil War.
And with the passage of time, the ranks of those who actually fought the war continue to dwindle. The National World War II Museum estimates only 1,262 of the Rhode Islanders who served in the war were still alive as of last year, down from 8,000 in 2010 and 26,000 in 2000.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook