MODESTO — Tuesday, Aug. 14, 1945, started as most days had in Modesto during the Second World War.
People went about their business; gas stations fueled cars, though only to the government-imposed ration limit; offices downtown went through their daily routine; military men did their duties at Hammond General Hospital on Blue Gum Road; liquor stores and bars opened; and people shopped and moved about town. Then, at 4 p.m., President Harry Truman announced to the nation that the Japanese government had surrendered to the Allies and World War II was over.
According to the next day's Bee, people were stunned at the news and "it seemed to require minutes for the human reactions to come."
Then it dawned on people that the world had just become a much better place to live. The war was over. Families would soon see their sons, fathers and brothers who had been serving.
Then the more simple things were understood. Gas rationing was over, so gas stations in the next few hours were overwhelmed with customers requesting something unheard of during the war: "Fill 'er up."
Modesto's police went around town ordering liquor stores and bars to close immediately because the next human instinct might be to get as much booze as possible to celebrate. A liquor store on Ninth Street didn't hear the word and was soon overwhelmed by customers until the police arrived to shut it down. Attempts at getting liquor by smashing the liquor store's window display went well until the thief realized the bottle he pulled from the display was just that a display bottle.
The newspaper reported: "Ordinarily staid office workers, men and women embraced, kissed and danced in ring around the rosy fashion." Even "a few customers ran from stores, not caring at all about completing purchase. (There was a girl trying on an abbreviated sun suit who was left with just parts of it.)"
Before long, people were pouring into the streets downtown as businesses closed and the party became a citywide affair.
According to the Lodi News-Sentinel of Aug. 15, 1945, "in Stockton, scenes of wild pandemonium prevailed." In Riverbank, sirens sounded, and from the Victory Homes, adults and children poured out to celebrate the end of the war.
Downtown Modesto soon was packed with more people than had ever been there before. The Fire Department began receiving false alarm calls. To keep up, double crews were put on duty. If a fire broke out in downtown that night, there would be some difficulty in getting a fire engine through the mob.
At nightfall, fireworks began to go off from the roof of the Hotel Hughson where Tenth Street Place is now located. Torn-up papers, letters and confetti were being tossed out of the Hughson's and Hotel Covell's windows onto the crowd below. Some were lighting the papers on fire before they dropped them toward the sidewalks.
A few minutes before 6 p.m., a fire broke out at the Maze Drug Store at 10th and H streets and threatened the State Hotel above the store. The fire engine that was sent struggled to get to the scene but finally arrived, and firefighters put out the blaze before it spread to the hotel. Still, damage at the drugstore was estimated to be about $1,000.
At 10:15 p.m., a fire started at the Hotel Hughson because of those lit newspapers being thrown out of the hotel windows, one of which landed on the hotel's marquee.
As the night went on, the celebrations continued with no letup. Bee writer James Roach gave an impressionistic account of the night. He described "a soldier on crutches, standing on a street corner, tears running down his cheeks, unashamedly. A middle-aged man, swaying down 11th Street, his pockets bulging with bottles, stopping strangers offering them a drink with 'My boy's in Berlin and now he's coming home here, have one and help me celebrate.' "
Roach also wrote of a "little boy who walked up to a policeman and said, 'See, there's a curfew, but you can't arrest me tonight!' "
At Hammond Military Hospital, celebrations also were held. "Some patients in traction managed to get out of bed and join as best they could in the festivities," Roach reported.
Pfc. Stephen Torres, who had a shell fragment in his left arm, said: "Now maybe I'll be able to see my brother again. We met the last time in New Guinea, after not seeing each other for three years."
There were plenty of military personnel downtown that night, and many, according to the paper, looked at the civilians in their street clothes and now all they could think of was when they could get rid of their uniforms and dress like civilians again.
By dawn, the party had ended and the gutters of downtown Modesto were lined with bottles, many broken. The streets were covered with a thick lining of paper, at least those that weren't set afire. While there were plenty of hangovers, there were no regrets about the celebrations of the night before, because World War II was over.
Sources: The Modesto Bee, Aug. 15, 1945; The Lodi News-Sentinel, Aug. 15, 1945.
James McAndrews Jr. is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.