By the fall of 1945, 750,000 service personnel were returning to civilian life every month.
For Luverne’s Quentin Aanenson, war’s end came in Atlantic City. “There was an Air Force redistribution base, and it was from there I would have been leaving to go to Okinawa within the next 10 days or so,” he said. “And when V-J Day came along, it was all of the dreams you’ve ever had in your life that were good dreams rolled into one. Everybody loved everybody else. I walked along the boardwalk, and every enlisted man I saw I saluted him. You just hugged everybody.”
Robert Kashiwagi of Sacramento couldn’t get out of the army fast enough.
“All I thought about was I wanted to get home. Never mind this army. I didn’t want any more of it,” he said. “They sent us home by points. And I was getting to the point where I was getting enough points to come home. They said they wanted to hold me over so they could take care of my dental needs. I said, ‘Never mind my dental needs. I’ll do it myself. Just let me get out of here,’ you know.”
“On the way home, I felt like it was simply a dream, that I actually wasn’t coming home,” Sidney Phillips said. “Even after I arrived in Mobile, I kept thinking that I can’t be here, that I’m going to wake up. The feeling that it wasn’t happening was overwhelming. Like you just couldn’t feel like that you had actually survived the war and that you were actually back in your hometown and in your own house. I don’t think I slept for about three days.”
Glenn Frazier, a prisoner of war for more than three years, never expected to see the U.S. again.
“As we approached the pier,” he said, “there was the American flag. Flying high in the breeze over America. And it was the most gratifying thing. ‘Cause we never dreamed that we would ever get back. And there was a bunch of prisoners of war there. And we stood there. Couldn’t even say anything, with tears in our eyes. And, as we docked, I was the second one to get off. And I get down on the ground and I kissed the ground. And one of the prisoners of war that was on that ship got off the gangplank and kissed the ground. And here was a lot of them on that ship that were from New Guinea and fought on up through the islands to the Philippines and they likewise kissed the ground. And our audience out there was just clapping their hands every time, and welcomed us home. And it was the greatest feeling in the world.”
“I remember him well, coming in with his uniform and all of his ribbons and all,” she said. “And I thought, my, you certainly are handsome! I do remember thinking that, how he had grown up. He was no longer that little young friend of my young brother Sidney. I suddenly had these two men in my presence, and I had that feeling about both of ‘em, it was written on their faces. Their faces change. They just no longer looked like boys. They looked like men, which they were. An experience like that would make a man out of any boy.”
Many veterans struggled to adjust to civilian life.
“How can you go out and act normal after you’ve been through all the things we went through?” Frazier said. “And even talking, carry on a normal conversation about the war when they, they couldn’t understand what the sacrifice was and what the cruelty that was imposed upon us.”
“There are internal casualties,” Aaneson said. “We all changed. We went out as a bunch of kids. Wars are fought by kids. And we came back – looked maybe the same, a little older – but inside we were so different. They thought we were just odd, I guess: ‘What’s happened to Quent? What’s wrong?’ And I was feeling that nobody knows, nobody understands, and I am not good enough with words to be able to tell them.”
“When I came out of the war, I could not be recognized,” Paul Fussell said. “I had a terrible time with my family because they had been reading the Saturday Evening Post and Life magazine all during the war and they thought it was a sort of cheerful game that we won. They knew I was in the infantry but they thought that was a branch of the service where you did a lot of running, you know, moving, athletic stuff and so forth. And they had no idea that it was about close up killing. … So, that was impossible for my parents even to understand. I had some notes, fairly bloodthirsty that I had written about the war and I gave them to my dad afterwards and he couldn’t finish them, he said, ‘I can’t read this.’”
“As I strolled the streets of Mobile, civilian life seemed so strange,” Sledge wrote. “People rushed around in a hurry about seemingly insignificant things. Few seemed to realize how blessed they were to be free and untouched by the horrors of war. To them, a veteran was a veteran – all were the same, whether one man had survived the deadliest combat or another had pounded a typewriter while in uniform.”
“You know, people do change in war,” Burnett Miller said. “When you seen people killed every day and people maimed every day pretty soon it — you become hardened, very hardened. I remember I was not affected when a good friend of mine was killed and run over by a tank and it was an awful horror, and I was shocked that it didn’t bother me very much. And I can also remember after the war, about a month after the war a truck ran into one of our trucks and a couple of boys were in the back of the truck and badly mashed and I went down to help get them to a hospital — and I turned sick. So I also humanized very, very fast. I mean, went from being terribly, terribly tough to being normal.”
In spite of their military service, Japanese-American soldiers often encountered the same discrimination they had felt before, as Kashiwagi discovered when he returned to Sacramento and tried to find work at the California Highway Department.
“The prejudice was still there, especially in a governmental position, because those people all served in those places during the war,” he said. “They didn’t go to war. And when I showed up in the shop, this one fellow from the floor went to his foreman, he says, ‘Hey, look. If that Jap is gonna work here,’ he says, ‘I’m quittin’.’ And this foreman told me that. And I says, ‘Well, you know, I passed my test and I served overseas and I think I did what I was supposed to do so I’m gonna hold my position and I’m gonna remain here.’ And I did. I remained there and that’s why he quit. He just didn’t want anymore to be working with me, see? And then everything turned a little bit better as time went on, and it got easier and easier for me. And so I was able to serve 32 years and retire.”
For POW Sascha Weinzheimer, a different kind of adjustment was required.
Maurice Bell, who had survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, found that he missed the excitement of battle. “I’m glad I was there, now that it’s over,” he said. “One time I was sick in the sick bay, down below and we got into a battle out there and I could hardly stand it being down below and couldn’t see what was going on. I wanted to get back topside so I could see what was going on up there. No, I haven’t been that excited since then and I hope I never will be. I wanted a ringside seat to everything that went on. But I didn’t want to get hit.”
For pilot Sam Hynes the war had been a grand adventure. “At the end of the war we felt relief. But also, a kind of sadness. We had been turned into artificial adults for a few years. And we’d lived lives that were full of excitement. And kind of adventurous lives. Lives that we could never have anticipated back in Minneapolis and Bone Steel. Now, it was all over. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who felt, ‘Now I will have to go back to being who I really am, a college undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. How boring that will be. How narrow and limited that will be. What kind of future will I have that will be as much fun as being a pilot in the Marine Corps?’”
Like many veterans, Marine Ray Pittman could not forget those who didn’t come home. “What I went through after the war, there were dreams and everything — it would be just like reality to me,” he said. “And, course, you lose so many friends. But it’s really hard to explain just how you feel because I came home and married and raised a family and lived a real happy life after the war, but so many of them left their blood on the sand on Iwo Jima and Saipan and Tinian and the Marshall Islands. That they didn’t have that chance.”
Most veterans came back home and did their best to pick up their lives where they had left off.
“If you survived it, and if you felt you’d handled yourself reasonably well, it gave you a certain confidence about life that, that I don’t think I would have had otherwise, ” Ward Chamberlin said. “I don’t think that’s true of everybody, but it’s true of most guys that I know. They felt that they’d come through this thing and been lucky to survive. They’d seen a lot of things that were horrible, but they handled it one way or another, and that gave them ‘em a certain confidence as they came back.”
The war gave Aanenson a determination to make the most of civilian life: “I came back with a sense that I don’t believe I’ll ever have another bad day in my life, because nobody will be shooting at me, I will not be killing anybody, I will not see my friends die. And I thought, it can only be sunshine from here on out, and so Iím going to live what’s left of my life and live it very fully, which I have done.”
The War Department initially resisted the idea of bringing home America’s dead because of the scale of the task and its $200 million cost. But on May 16, 1946, Congress enacted Public Law 383, permitting families to request the return of sons and husbands, either to a national cemetery or a private plot. They began coming home in the fall of 1947. It took six years to complete the return and reburial program. Some 93,000 American dead from World War II remain buried in American cemeteries overseas, their families content to allow them to lie among their comrades.
See how the Allies won the war in the “Timeline: Year 1945” »
See all photographs and media on the battles featured in THE WAR in “Search & Explore” »