Army Sgt. Linwood Wells had just survived months of fighting in Europe — long enough to see Germany surrender in World War II — when he learned he was to be sent to the Pacific for an Allied invasion of Japan.
The Baltimore native was aghast. He knew the fighting in the Pacific had been the war's bloodiest. He'd heard the Japanese fighters were even crueler than the Nazis.
As his ship made for Asia, he took a dire precaution.
"I thought if I was captured by the Germans, I'd survive," he recalls, "But if I was captured by the Japanese, you know, they tortured their prisoners, pulled their fingernails off.
"I saved one bullet for myself."
Seventy years ago, he got his reprieve.
At 7 p.m. Eastern time on Aug. 14, 1945, President Harry S. Truman announced that Japan, chastened by the Americans' use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had agreed to surrender. The news sparked cheers on Wells' troop ship, celebrations across Maryland and the United States, and jubilation worldwide.
The first unofficial V-J Day — for Victory over Japan — was underway.
Seven decades later, Americans still aren't quite sure when to mark V-J Day, the end of World War II. Is it Aug. 15, the date in Tokyo when Japan surrendered? The 14th, the date back in Washington when Truman announced the news? Or Sept. 2 — the date recognized by the U.S. government — when Japanese leaders signed the surrender papers aboard the USS Missouri?
Each side has its backers, but Marylanders who were in the Pacific theater at the time — including Wells, now 93 — agree that the surprise turn of events probably saved their lives.
Nowadays, they recall the cost of reaching that day even more clearly.
Fighting for life
At 89, Marvin Meyer still works, at times, at Cy's Swim of Catonsville, a shop he and his family own. He lives in the same retirement complex as Wells, a fellow member of the local post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
In hindsight, Meyer can't believe how green he was at 18, when he enlisted — let alone that he'd go on to survive some of the deadliest fighting of the war, see it come to an end, and return to Baltimore to enjoy a long, prosperous life.
"I was a coward," he says. "There were times all I wanted was my mommy. I'm amazed my luck never ran out."
Meyer enlisted in 1944, choosing the Navy because he didn't want to carry a rucksack. After basic training, he was sent to California, then assigned to the USS Phoenix, a 608-foot light cruiser used to escort battleship convoys.
He sounds like a teen when recalling events that struck him, early on, as the greatest experiences a man could have — visiting Melbourne in southern Australia, seeing a volcano erupt, helping pinpoint targets on Borneo for gunners to destroy.
"You can't imagine how elated we'd be. It was like a football game, and our team scored. 'That's the end of [them]!'" he cries.
In late 1944 and early 1945, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur massed forces to recapture lost positions in the Philippines, the Phoenix — part of Allied Combined Task Force 74 – played a major role.
Meyer's job: to sit in a swaying turret eight stories high, watching for foes and using his sighting gear to aim banks of guns.
One day, a kamikaze plane came out of the sky so fast and low the crew nearly missed it. Phoenix gunners opened fire. Meyer says he saw the pilot's grinning face as the aircraft passed over the ship, shed a wing and crashed 100 yards away.
"The whole thing lasted maybe three minutes. It felt like three and a half hours," he says. He and his crewmates survived scores of kamikaze attacks as the Phoenix escorted destroyers at the Battle of Surigao Strait and battles to recapture Bataan and Corregidor — part of the U.S.-led push toward Japan.
He recalls having two full meals a week for months at a time, the constant roar of the ship's hundreds of guns, the dismembered bodies of sailors floating in the water.
"But for the grace of God, that could be me," he remembers thinking.
Meyer says the Phoenix was so lucky — every boat it escorted was hit or sank — that crew members became sure they'd be next. "It was a matter of when," he says grimly.
Germany surrendered in Europe on May 8, V-E Day, but the Japanese were still fighting hard in the Pacific. The Allies massed forces from around the world to invade the island nation.
U.S. commanders notified 150,000 men in Europe that they'd be sent directly to the Pacific. Units in the Philippines and elsewhere were already training for the offensive, an operation analysts predicted could cause 500,000 American and 5 million Japanese deaths.
Such figures would have made it the deadliest battle in history.
Its first phase, Operation Olympic, was scheduled to begin Nov. 1.
Baltimorean Joe Moscati shipped from the United States to Okinawa after the worst of the fighting on that island was over, recalls performing "mop-up duty" with his unit, the 27th Infantry Division, lobbing mortar shells into the hills as requested.
They later trained in hand-to-hand combat techniques for the planned invasion.
At 18, Moscati says, he's not sure he understood the savagery that awaited. He was "apprehensive" but "excited we'd finally have the chance to put all of our training to use."
One day in early August, as he and his buddies guzzled moonshine while off-duty, an announcer came on Armed Forces radio to say the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Japan.
Until then, the weapon was a closely guarded secret. Moscati and his friends were baffled.
"We looked at each other: 'What's an atomic bomb?'"
In time, they understood the implications.
"It was the bomb that saved us," says Moscati, 88, of Perry Hall.
Meyer was in the chow line aboard the Phoenix when the loudspeaker blared news of the attack on Hiroshima, and speculation the war might soon end.
To Meyer, the information did not compute.
"A week ago, we're fighting for our lives every day, and this guy says it's over?" he says. "I thought he was crazy!"
Three days later, the same announcer said a second bomb had been dropped.
Estimates of the dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki approach 250,000, most of them civilians.
With the second bomb, the message began to sink in. Meyer recalls no one celebrating.
"There was no joking, no frivolity, no whiskey," he says. "We could see it meant the war was over. After all that time, it was a hard thing to understand."
Few Marylanders remain who were fighting in the Pacific on V-J Day. But the recollections of some who have died live on.
Essex native Emil Thon joined the Navy in 1942. Assigned to the USS Bull, a light destroyer transport, he saw action in some of the Pacific's most important battles.
Thon died in 1993. But one day last week his daughter, Annette Burkindine, opened his old trunk in her Perry Hall living room and produced a U.S. flag, some photo albums and a logbook he kept.
She never knew much of his days in combat, she says, but as the 70th anniversary of V-J Day approached, she decided to "become the keeper of the papers" and read the journal for the first time.
"I'm so glad I know this part of his life," she says.
She used a finger to trace the typed text across sheets of faded paper. On Jan. 10, 1945, Thon wrote, a kamikaze fighter attacked the Bull, only to go down in a hail of bullets.
The next day, he wrote, "a dead [Japanese sailor] floated by … he fell apart every time our grappling hook caught him."
Early on Feb. 16, the Bull was moored at Iwo Jima, where it opened fire to "soften the beach" for a U.S. invasion. Then, at 4:45 p.m.: "ALL HELL IS BREAKING LOOSE."
Midday on the 17th: The Japanese "are knocking out our [landing craft] as fast as we can send them in. We can plainly hear wounded men screaming and crying for help."
Two days later, "we are hitting them hard with everything we have — tanks, naval guns, artillery, infantry, strafing, but there doesn't seem to be much visible damage."
By the time U.S. forces had triumphed on March 26, nearly 25,000 Japanese and American men lay dead.
Thon offered less detail as time went on. One leave inspired five words: "LIBERTY .. LIBERTY .. AND MORE LIBERTY."
His final entry, on Aug. 14, was simpler.
"WAR IS OVER," he typed, "ALL HANDS WENT TO CELEBRATE."
Farewell to arms
On Aug. 14 and 15, 1945, depending on one's time zone, a party like no other in history spread around the globe.
In Baltimore, The Sun reported, "downtown streets were flooded with a cheering, singing, dancing, shouting crowd of more than 200,000 persons and pranksters" — within an hour of Truman's announcement.
"Baltimore Cuts Loose With A Bang," the headline read.
Similar scenes unfolded in towns across the state.
The largest crowd in Times Square history gathered in New York, a scene photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt immortalized with his image of a sailor kissing a nurse. Allied soldiers danced in London and hit the streets of Paris. Revelers in San Francisco, Honolulu and Manila unfurled flags, showered streets with confetti and sang the "Star-Spangled Banner."
The world still hadn't taken the measure of its most awful war.
At least 48 million were dead worldwide, including about 400,000 Americans and 2.4 million Japanese.
Wells, a 1939 graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, left the 3186th Signal Service Battalion to return to his hometown, where he spent 35 years with the phone company and got married four times. Moscati says he values all he learned. Thon lives on in his logs.
And as V-J Day approaches, Meyer marvels that the Phoenix never lost a man in combat. Stranger still, he says, is something he remembers from the end of the war.
When the crew brought the cruiser home, through the Panama Canal and up the East Coast, they pulled her into port in Philadelphia, where they watched in silence as workmen removed its guns and ammunition for the last time.
To Meyer, the moment was as bittersweet as V-J Day itself.
"This may sound crazy, but it was like watching a family member leave," he says. "I was sad to see it go."