May 8, 1945: The Allies accept Germany’s unconditional surrender, thus marking the end of the war in Europe. Despite the fact that the war is not yet over, the world celebrates; there is dancing in the streets of cities from London to Los Angeles. The date becomes known as V-E Day, or “Victory in Europe Day.” Even larger celebrations occur a little over three months later, when the Japanese surrender in mid-August and the war ends completely.
Fast forward almost exactly thirty years, to April 30, 1975: North Vietnamese forces capture Saigon, the capitol of South Vietnam. American military forces struggle to evacuate all remaining military and civilian personnel, along with South Vietnamese civilians who had aided the American forces and whose lives would be at risk with the arrival of the enemy. The city falls to the North Vietnamese, marking the end of the Vietnam War. Unlike V-E Day, there are no newspaper headlines declaring victory, let alone global jubilation.
Given the stark differences between these two momentous events, and the conflicts that they concluded, it’s a bit eerie how proximate they are on the calendar. But, these ends of two wars are more than just dates in April and May, thirty years apart. They involved real people, some of whom have shared their stories with the Veterans History Project (VHP). Their accounts add depth not only to the anniversaries, but also to the overall picture of World War II and the Vietnam War.
V-E Day was a time of celebration not only for American troops, but also for civilians in Europe, who had endured years of occupation and violence. Military servicemen and women stationed in France and England got to witness residents’ responses up close. Captain Charles Marlatt, a radarman stationed in Norwich, England, was an amateur photographer who enjoyed shooting home movies with his 8mm camera. A chance visit to Paris on May 8, 1945, enabled him to shoot footage of the city’s celebrations on V-E Day (the specific footage starts at the beginning of the third segment). First Lieutenant Isabelle V. Cedar Cook was an Army nurse who served in hospitals in Italy, North Africa, and France. On V-E Day, she was in Aix-en-Provence in Southern France, where she participated in the town’s parade–and witnessed their treatment of Nazi collaborators. Stationed in Liverpool, England, Navy Commander Ed Godwin describes the almost frantic nature of the civilians’ jubilation and appreciation of the American forces.
As depicted in Last Days in Vietnam, a 2014 documentary by director Rory Kennedy, the fall of Saigon involved a frenzied race to evacuate South Vietnamese military personnel and civilians along with Americans. The final phase of this evacuation was known as Operation Frequent Wind, in which helicopters were used to transport as many people as possible out of Saigon. The USS Kirk was one of a large assemblage of American ships that received Huey helicopters full of South Vietnamese refugees. Stationed aboard the Kirk, Senior Petty Officer Glenn Craig Bingham recounts the arrival of these helicopters; to make room for incoming pilots to land, they would push the Hueys off the side of the deck after they landed (Bingham’s account of Operation Frequent Wind begins at around 1:39:00).
These collections help expand the meaning of the end of these two wars beyond simply dates on the calendar. In addition to individual collections, VHP offers other related resources, including an online exhibit on V-E Day and a webcast of our 2005 symposium “In Country: The Vietnam War, 30 Years After.” Do you have memories of the end of World War II, or the end of the Vietnam War? Share them in the comments below–or if you’re a military veteran, consider recording your story for the Veterans History Project. Find out more at www.loc.gov/vets.