PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Like Del’s Lemonade or Saugy dogs, Victory Day is a unique summertime tradition in the Ocean State.
Monday is Rhode Island’s 71st annual Victory Day, continuing the state’s custom of being the only one that observes a legal holiday to mark the end of World War II. While the actual event it commemorates happened on Aug. 14, when Japan’s surrender was announced here, the holiday is now observed on the second Monday in August.
And no, 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 back to its establishment in 1948.
Rhode Island has apparently been on its own since the late 1960s or ’70s, when Arkansas dropped its version of Victory Day — known there as “World War II Memorial Day” — and reportedly gave state workers their birthdays off as a consolation. (While some websites claim Victory Day used to be a federal holiday, too, that appears to be a myth – there is no evidence for 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.” In the “Encyclopedia of American Holidays and National Days,” author Len Travers 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.) The American Legion had been pushing the idea since as early as 1946.
For Rhode Island, the rationale may have seemed obvious considering how much the war had affected the state. “If ever a state was at the center of the American war effort in World War II, it was Rhode Island,” Scott MacKay wrote in a 2010 RIPR 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.’”
About 92,000 Rhode Island residents served in the war – more than one in ten – and almost 2,200 of them were killed, according to Dr. Patrick Conley, the state’s historian laureate.
The Navy had a huge presence in Rhode Island during World War II, 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
Victory Day always made Rhode Island 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 that “Arkansas celebrates the anniversary also.” In 1963, a state lawmaker argued Rhode Island was actually ahead of the curve, predicting Victory Day would eventually become a national holiday. But Congress never did.
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. 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.
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, 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,” and veterans groups were already complaining about low parade attendance.
Later in the ’50s, a Daily News editorial complained of “general apathy” surrounding Victory Day. “When will Rhode Island, compelled to observe the day as a holiday, remember those who made the supreme sacrifice?” the paper asked. Such complaints only grew over subsequent years as the war receded further into the past.
‘I have always felt uneasy’
By the mid-1980s there was rising controversy about whether it was appropriate to continue celebrating Victory Day in light of growing economic ties between the U.S. and Japan. 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, Gov. Ed DiPrete tried to transform Victory Day into Governor’s Bay Day, and lawmakers made multiple attempts to rename it “Rhode Island Veteran’s Day” or “Peace and Remembrance Day” – all unsuccessful. In recent years, peace activists have counterprogrammed with an event in Jamestown remembering the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
In an effort to distinguish Victory Day from “V-J Day,” the General Assembly passed a resolution in June 1990 insisting, “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, “The most frequently publicized usage of this erroneous and offensive term is in Rhode Island commercial advertising.”
In 1999, after apparently determining the resolution had not been enough, the Assembly 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. The Rhode Island AFL-CIO successfully beat back that effort, arguing that turning Victory Day into a floating holiday would be disrespectful to veterans.
And so it has gone for decades, 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 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.
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 said that if Japan had been defeated before Germany rather than the other way around, the colloquial name would be “V-E Day.”
Barely 2,000 RI WWII vets still alive
Lazar Berman, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, argued in 2011 that there are 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 majority of Rhode Islanders, as the ranks of those who actually fought it continue to dwindle.
Japan’s surrender is now more than 70 years in the past – almost as far from today as the Civil War was from Pearl Harbor. The National World War II Museum estimates barely 2,000 Rhode Island veterans who served in the war are still alive, down from 8,000 in 2010 and 26,000 in 2000.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook
This is a revised version of an article that was previously published.