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“A Solemn but Glorious Hour” – Remembering VE-Day

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The following is a guest blog post by Justina Moloney, archivist with the Veterans History Project, and Kerry Ward, liaison specialist. 

Seventy-five years ago, bells rang out around the world as Nazi Germany surrendered its armed forces – ending the war in Europe. The days following the surrender were filled with celebration, but the thought of the unknown lingered as the war in the Pacific raged on.  Would these American soldiers, medical and military personnel be sent to the Pacific? Would the war continue for days, months or years?  Would they make it home, and if so, when?

Black and white photo of two men in military uniform standing in front of large weapon and reading a newspaper that says "VICTORY" on it.
(1945) William R. Wilson right and brother Cpl. Jack Wilson left standing by a German 88 mm gun at Verdun, France on VE-Day. France Verdun, 1945. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
Like those of us sheltering in place, these men and women weren’t sure what tomorrow would bring.  All they could do…was wait.

Color studio portrait of man in brown service uniform, cap and wire glasses.  Man is smiling.
Sgt. Edward W. Hopkins around 1944, when stationed at Camp Croft, near Spartanburg, S.C. Photo by Bryn-Alan studios, Spartanburg. Edward W. Hopkins Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/00001.

It made sense for celebrations to pop up in Trafalgar Square, Paris, China and even Times Square, but what if you were an American troop near Germany? Edward Wallace Hopkins was attached to Patton’s Third Army with the 411th Anti-Aircraft Artillery. When the war ended in Europe, Hopkins was located in Passau, along the German-Austrian border.  The unit listened to President Truman’s radio program announcing the end of the war in Europe saying, “The job ahead is no less important, no less urgent, than the task which now happily is done.”  At that moment, four to five German planes soared over the skies. He and his crew weren’t going to take any chances. They shot the plane down and went to recover the pilots for questioning. As the day marched on, Hopkins’ focus shifted to numbers.  If this was the end of the war in Europe, could he go home? While he didn’t have the points to head home, serendipity presented itself to him, more than once, as he waited to return to “normal life.” Hopkins took leave to visit Paris and his little brother’s grave.  Reed Hopkins was killed in action during the war – causing terrible grief for the entire family.  Edward Hopkins realized that he, nor his parents, would probably ever have the opportunity again. Realizing he had to carry on, Hopkins went on to Biarritz, France, where he attend a GI university during the wait to go home. Attending college was something Hopkins assumed was not in the cards due to the war and his age, and the completion of three college courses enabled him to attend Colgate University upon his return to New York.

Black and white photo of smiling woman in service uniform.
Isabelle Cedar Cook. Isabelle V. Cedar Cook Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/00028.

Another individual who recalled VE -Day vividly during her VHP oral history was Isabelle Cook. Cook had recently graduated nursing school when war was declared, and immediately signed up to be an Army nurse. She served in a General Hospital unit in North Africa, Italy, and was in Aix-en-Provence when VE-Day was declared. Aix-en-Provence held a parade, and Cook along with her fellow troops were thrilled to participate in the celebrations. Like Hopkins, her VE-Day was also punctuated with the realities of war as she witnessed what would ripple throughout much of Europe following VE-Day: the punishment of collaborators with the Germans. Cook’s VE-Day was also plagued with uncertainty in the fallout of the war. Since it was unlikely she would get sent home, Cook elected to train as a nurse anesthetist in Paris, expanding on her skills as a nurse and taking advantage of her “waiting” in Paris by exploring everything the city had to offer at the time. Once such experience was serving as a bridesmaid for a fellow nurse who was married in a historic synagogue of Paris, which had been closed during the German Occupation. Cook finally received her orders to return home in September 1945.

These personal stories reveal a deeper, more nuanced view of VE-day, and what it meant for those who served. Though we are in the middle of our time of waiting and uncertainty, we believe, like Cook and Hopkins, we can find our silver-linings, whatever they may be, as we remember VE-Day, 75 years ago.

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