PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Monday is Rhode Island’s 74th annual Victory Day, continuing the state’s custom of being the only place in America that honors the end of World War II with a legal holiday.
While the actual event that Victory Day commemorates happened on Aug. 14 — when Japan’s surrender was announced in the United States — the holiday is observed on the second Monday in August. And despite what many residents believe, the legal name of Rhode Island’s holiday was never “V-J Day” (short for “Victory Over Japan”). It has always been called “Victory Day” on the statute books, going all the way back to its establishment in 1948.
Rhode Island has been an outlier with Victory Day since 1975, the year Arkansas lawmakers adopted a new list of legal holidays that left off the state’s Aug. 14 commemoration, which had been adopted back in 1949, according to state historian David Ware. (Arkansas state employees were given their own birthdays off.) While some websites claim Victory Day used to be a federal holiday, too, that appears to be a myth – there is no mention of it in an authoritative 1999 U.S. Senate report on the topic.
As far back as the 1950s, The New York Times wrote that Victory Day – which the paper, like many news outlets then and now, referred to as “V-J Day” – was “always a big legal holiday in Rhode Island.” Author Len Travers, in his “Encyclopedia of American Holidays and National Days,” remarks: “The tenacity of Rhode Island in celebrating Aug. 14 deserves special attention for its interplay of state, local, national, and even international politics.”
1 in 10 Rhode Islanders went to war
Rhode Island established Victory Day in March 1948, almost three years after the end of World War II. Veterans groups had been pushing for a World War II holiday since as early as 1946, the year after the war ended. But not everyone liked the idea: The Providence Journal’s editorial board argued Rhode Island lawmakers should cancel an existing holiday rather than add a ninth in the form of Victory Day.
“Every day added to the list we now have imposes a very serious handicap on industry, by increasing its costs, decreasing its production, and making it more difficult than ever for it to survive in competition with industries in other States that have fewer holidays,” the Journal warned.
The editorialists’ argument fell on deaf ears in the Senate, and the upper chamber passed the measure creating Victory Day the following year.
Indeed, the rationale may have seemed obvious considering how much the war had affected Rhode Island. About 92,000 Rhode Islanders served in the war – more than one out of every 10 residents – and almost 2,200 of them were killed, according to Dr. Patrick Conley, the state’s historian laureate.
“If ever a state was at the center of the American war effort in World War II, it was Rhode Island,” veteran political reporter Scott MacKay wrote in a 2010 essay.
The Navy had a huge presence in Rhode Island during the conflict, and three future presidents — John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush — all did some of their training in the state. “During World War II, Rhode Island was an armed camp,” Christian McBurney and Brian Wallin argue in a recent book about the state during the war.
The local manufacturing industry also went into overdrive, supplying everything from ships and blankets to medals.
A proposed alternative: Good Friday
Rhode Island was always an outlier by observing Victory Day: in 1953 the AP described it as “the only state in the union that voted to make V-J a legal holiday,” though two years later the news service acknowledged that “Arkansas celebrates the anniversary also.”
Meanwhile, local pushback against the holiday started early. In 1957, state Sen. Edward Gallogly, a future Democratic nominee for governor, proposed eliminating Victory Day as a legal state holiday and replacing it with Good Friday — an idea with obvious appeal in heavily Catholic Rhode Island. The following year, a different legislator proposed eliminating Victory Day on the grounds that it put border-town businesses at a disadvantage against their competitors in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Efforts have often been made to remind Rhode Islanders of the reason for the holiday, but frequently in vain. Just six years after the end of World War II, in 1951, veterans groups were already complaining about low attendance at parades, and the Newport Daily News reported that Victory Day was generally “observed in Sunday fashion, most people heading for the beaches or taking an afternoon ride.”
Later that decade, a Daily News editorial complained of “general apathy” surrounding Victory Day, asking, “When will Rhode Island, compelled to observe the day as a holiday, remember those who made the supreme sacrifice?” Such complaints only grew over subsequent years as the war receded further into the past.
‘I have always felt uneasy’
By the mid-1980s there was a new source of controversy surrounding Victory Day: its connection with the defeat of Japan. Some questioned whether it was appropriate to continue celebrating Victory Day in light of growing economic ties between the U.S. and Japan, particularly since so many persisted in calling it “V-J Day.”
Japanese officials said the holiday was harming trade between the two nations; a local Chamber of Commerce official called it “embarrassing.” At one point the Rhode Island Japan Society even hired lawyers to press a case against the name.
Hiroko Shikashio, a North Providence resident of Japanese descent, told The New York Times in 1990 she felt uncomfortable leaving the house on Victory Day. “Because I am Japanese, I have always felt uneasy about going outside on that day,” she said. “I think it is nice for people to have a holiday, but they should call it something else.”
In response, then-Gov. Ed DiPrete tried to transform Victory Day into Governor’s Bay Day, and lawmakers made multiple attempts to rename it “Rhode Island Veterans Day” or “Peace and Remembrance Day” – all unsuccessful. (Governor’s Bay Day is still proclaimed annually but is not a legal holiday.)
In an effort to distinguish Victory Day from “V-J Day,” the General Assembly passed a resolution in June 1990. “Victory Day is not and should not be called VJ Day,” the resolution warned.
And so it has gone for decades in Rhode Island, as protests from military groups and traditionalists – not to mention the general desire for a day off in August – thwarted attempts to jettison Victory Day. Some have even linked the celebration with the state’s status as the first to declare independence in 1776.
“Should we stop celebrating the Fourth of July because it offends the English?” one VFW official asked in 1988.
Fewer than 1,300 RI WWII vets still alive
Lazar Berman, a journalist at The Times of Israel, argued in 2011 that there were good reasons to continue commemorating the end of World War II seven decades later (though even he used the wrong name).
“It is easy to forget how difficult and bloody the Pacific war was up until the very end, and the million Allied casualties that would have resulted from an invasion of the home islands. It was a war that opened with humiliating and painful setbacks, but the determination and courage of the U.S. armed forces and citizens slowly but surely turned the tide,” Berman wrote.
One thing that has changed about Victory Day: the conflict it recalls is no longer in living memory for the vast majority of Rhode Islanders. Japan’s surrender is now 76 years in the past – exactly as far from today as the attack on Pearl Harbor was from the end of the Civil War.
And with the passage of time, the ranks of those who actually fought the war continue to dwindle. The National World War II Museum estimates only 1,262 of the Rhode Islanders who served in the war were still alive as of last year, down from 8,000 in 2010 and 26,000 in 2000.