'That's it!': How a world war ends

Story highlights

  • Val Lauder recalls how news of the end of the war with Japan was greeted 70 years ago in Chicago
  • It was a night for ticker tape -- and celebration

Val Lauder, a former reporter for the Chicago Daily News and lecturer at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of "The Back Page: The Personal Face of History." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

(CNN)The Number 1 Associated Press Teletype machine at the Chicago Daily News was more audio than video -- the mechanical clicking as the ribbon bar moved up and down, up and down, behind the plastic face on the black, oversized, first cousin to a typewriter.

Up and down. Up and down. No letters. No words.
Then --
    WASHNGTON -- (AP) -- President Truman --
    "That's it!" cried Telegraph Editor George Dodge.
    -- announced at 6:00 p.m. (Chicago Time) tonight --
    "That's it!" He fairly whooped.
    --Japanese acceptance of surrender terms.
    The roller ratcheted up, so he could tear off the bulletin. He turned, stepped back out into the city room, to the copy desk some 4 feet away. Dropping the almost square piece of copy on the desk, he edited it, handed it off to the copy desk chief, and the headline was written -- a 240 point "boxcar" headline.
    WAR ENDS
    Two words. Writ large, for those who lived through World War II. "The greatest cataclysm in history," in the words of Ken Burns, in his Introduction for the companion book to his PBS documentary, "THE WAR."
    "In the killing that engulfed the world from 1939 to 1945," he wrote, "between 50 and 60 million people died, so many and in so many places that the real number will never be known. More than 85 million men and women served in uniform, but the overwhelming majority of those who perished were civilians -- men, women, and children, obliterated by the arithmetic of war."
    And now it was over.
    Val Lauder
    The years, the battles, the casualties, the rationing, the sacrifices. The figures -- 16 million American servicemen taken away from jobs and colleges, homes and towns, farms and ranches, to fight on far off battlefields -- were part of it. The other part, for those of us back home: The war was always there. Everywhere. All the time. Like the weather. You couldn't get away from it. Or do anything about it. Just do what you did each day.
    And that afternoon in the city room of the Chicago Daily News, a newspaper had to be put out. A late edition. So late in the day it just barely fell into the period allotted afternoon newspapers to publish. An EXTRA edition after the long day of waiting for the news that everyone thought would come that day, but couldn't be sure until it did.
    That long ago Tuesday: August 14, 1945.
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    Although I was no longer a copygirl -- I was now an assistant on the picture desk -- I moved over to the city desk to help answer the flood of calls. The usual statements from local officials and leaders were starting to come in. Beat reporters on their way home from the courts and city offices they covered, staffers not back from assignments, called in with what was happening where they were. One staffer was on vacation in Wisconsin, and had a story on the reaction there.
    About 7:30 p.m., when all was quiet -- copies of the EXTRA lay in small stacks on the desks about the city room and the calls had eased -- when I would otherwise have left for home (far later than usual), I realized I couldn't get home. There was no way but through the Loop, where thousands had gathered to celebrate.
    Dinner became not only an immediate but a nearby matter. I walked over to the Northwestern Railroad terminal, which was connected to the lobby in the Daily News Building by an enclosed overpass. Soldiers and sailors with their duffel bags passed me. Others sat on the wooden benches in the waiting room. Officers were seated at tables in the dining room.
    I ordered, settled back.
    Time to reflect.
    The war had touched me less than most. No one in my family was of an age to serve, and although at my high school senior class picnic the June after Pearl Harbor I knew many of the guys enjoying the potato salad and hot dogs would soon be off to war, I moved away right after commencement, and never did know who went or who was among the 400,000 who never came back.
    My second year at Stephens Junior College, a girl on my floor was allowed a late date with her boyfriend, a Navy pilot, when he stopped to see her before shipping out. When she returned, she showed us her engagement ring. I remember she had stars in her eyes. He was killed in action.
    When I was at Northwestern for a semester, one of my friends had lost her fiancé at Anzio. The name of the bloody landing in Italy hadn't pierced the cocoon of life at Stephens. Yet it changed hers.
    When I started at the Daily News in December 1944, most of the copyboys had dates with their draft boards. Apparently, that's why I was hired, and so quickly -- "Can you start tomorrow? -- and became the first copygirl at the Daily News.
    The war did touch me when I was assigned to the city desk. As one of my duties, I took the casualty lists that came in each week and pasted the printed form on a sheet of copy paper to be edited. I also called the local office of the U.S. Weather Bureau and got the temperatures for each hour, and the forecast. COOLER. FAIR. WARM. No high (or low) pressure systems. Weather systems move west to east, and while Chicago is a long way from the French coast or Rhine River, knowledge of what the weather might be there a few days later could aid the enemy.
    The war also touched me the morning of February 1, 1945, when I was assigned to put in alphabetical order the names of the POWs rescued in "The Great Raid" -- each name on the latest Associated Press streamer a man who had been a prisoner of the Japanese for almost three years, most of them survivors of the Bataan Death March.
    When I returned to the city room after dinner, someone said folks were gathering outside. The Chicago Daily News building was a long, rectangular building, with architectural recesses at each end at the sixth floor, creating a "terrace" outside the windows of the art department and photo department. A door in the photo studio, used for portrait photos (press cards and writers' columns), opened onto this roof area.
    I stepped out the open door into one of the memorable times of my life -- those few minutes wrapped in the soft summer night, warm and embracing, it being mid-August in Chicago and going on 10 o'clock. Granted, it was a very special evening, but I remember that soft warmth of late summer as being, to summer evenings, what velvet is to corduroy.
    There was a gentle breeze, and I moved toward the others near the edge overlooking the Chicago River. Sounds of the celebration in the Loop four blocks away could be heard. The honking horns, shouts, cries of joy, exhilaration, exultation.
    The war was over!
    Then it got better. Someone had remembered the ticker tape in the business department, found the rolls, and was passing out strips. I took a handful. And, one by one, I threw them up, out and away. The breeze caught the strips, and they turned, twisted, curled ever so gently as they drifted up and away, some down toward the river.
    People came and went, but in a lingering way. No hustle, in-out. It was a moment to savor, and the people who'd seen it all -- the others far more than I had, being a relative newcomer -- sensed it too.
    And so we stood on the terrace that night -- in my eight years at the Daily News I never saw people out there again -- and threw the strips of ticker tape up into the night, against the backdrop of the sounds of the celebration in the Loop.
    That, too, was it!