Strange as it may seem, I cannot recall precisely where I was on V-E Day.
It may have been on the aircraft carrier Intrepid, immobilized briefly at the Navy repair station in the Ulithi atoll after a Japanese suicide pilot dove down its main elevator.
It may have been at Tarawa or some other way stop as our group of 12 Washington journalists, homeward bound from a 30-day tour of Navy supply systems, completed the three-day flight from Guam to the nation's capital.
My files don't help. My collected letters home taper off on May 4, 1945. I can find only one of the base newspapers that I brought back. It is two legal-size sheets mimeographed on both sides, stapled together, dated May 3, 1945. A hand-traced Page 1 headline reports: "Nazis say Hitler died a hero." Under the masthead is the disclosure: "Circulation 3,400." The censor had razored out the identity of the base where it was published.
In the Pacific, everyone was preoccupied with the prospect of a blood bath when the time came to invade Japan. V-E Day-May 8, 1945-was good news. Now they could expect help from the armies and bombers that had crushed Hitler's legions.
Our trip had included a stop at Iwo Jima. It was 68 days after U.S. troops had invaded the island, and Japanese were still holding out in the caves, fighting to the last man. It was easy to understand why men in the Pacific anticipated an Armageddon with the invasion of Japan.
The memory from that day on Iwo Jima, and the damage that the suicide pilot did to the Intrepid, are still my points of reference in the debates over Harry Truman's decisions to drop an atomic bomb unannounced on Hiroshima.
I was 25 years old, two years out of the Journalism School at Columbia University, and disqualified physically for military service. On the Intrepid I discovered why the military services were not interested in the severely visually handicapped. On a necessary midnight errand I stumbled over sleeping men and might easily have plunged down an open hatch. Since I was their guest, they politely passed me from man to man until I was safely back in my bed roll.
Advertising Age had hired me in mid-1943 as its Washington editor to replace John Crichton, later its editor and eventually president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. John had no physical disqualifications and was off for a wartime career in the Navy.
The nation's entire industrial economy was mobilized for war under regulations written and administered almost entirely by businessmen temporarily wearing government hats. An all-embracing system of priorities ensured that only those things were made which the War Production Board regarded as useful to the war.
Inevitably the agencies organizing these programs seethed with intrigue and rivalries, and Congress became a sounding board for those who felt they got a raw deal: wives who felt it was wrong to draft fathers; small businessmen who wanted faster approval of their applications for price increases; farmers who wanted more gasoline.
While there was endless bickering, it was nothing to the venom that we experience today. Miriam Ottenberg of the Washington Star could pinpoint the incongruities in draft regulations without implying that they were related to Manpower Chief Paul V. McNutt's unsavory political past in Indiana. And McNutt could absorb her worst thrusts with aplomb. At one news conference, when Miriam's questions cut painfully close to the quick, he brought down the house: "Miriam," he chided, "I don't see why you take these things so seriously. We are not going to draft women."
In something this big involving so many people, the overzealous pinhead is an inevitable hazard. In the summer of 1944, as the Allies drove the Germans back toward their homeland, an official of the Commerce Department told me of a booklet being prepared for returning servicemen after the war, talking of postwar business opportunities. Despite the shortage horror stories in the press, the bureaucracy had in fact put together an industrial mechanism that outstripped expectations. It produced so much that long before victory it would have been possible to resume some production of civilian goods. But the nation's leaders were haunted by fear this would divert attention from the sacrifices servicemen were making abroad.
So the Commerce Department official said I couldn't report on this booklet; we couldn't yet talk about peacetime. I wrote a letter to the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was especially concerned about returning servicemen, and said I thought this bit of censorship was silly. Some time later a general from the Pentagon phoned and said, "Come over and let's talk." He eventually said, "Go ahead and print it."
As early as December 1943, I was writing that industrial mobilization had passed its crest and the next problem would be how to taper off without giving some companies a head start in postwar markets. Weeks before D-Day I reported that reconversion was now a burning issue. Inventories of weaponry had reached such levels that production was cut back.
In March 1944 I wrote about a meeting where the leaders of the War Advertising Council, which organized advertising industry support for war information programs, stressed that the advertising industry had earned respect for its contributions. But it will all be lost, the industry was warned, if advertisers return prematurely to competitive messages.
On the eve of D-Day, Elmer Davis, head of the Office of War Information, warned that it would be poor taste to exploit D-Day for commercial purposes. One of the victims of his edict was the Treasury Department, which was ready to go with a heart-tugging theme for its Fifth War Bond campaign.
On this 50th anniversary of V-E Day I think first of those who gave their lives; I rejoice in warm memories of a people coming together in our nation's hour of peril; the prevailing civility as we coped with waiting lines, shortages and personal tragedies; and the freedom we exercised under a government strong enough to run the war and wise enough to respect the processes of a democracy.
My memories were sharpened this year when my stepson phoned from Oklahoma City where he is part of the Justice Department investigating team. V-E Day celebrates a period when a united people performed miracles. How far today's angry and violent America has drifted from the sense of community that was our secret weapon.M
Mr. Cohen was Advertising Age's Washington editor from 1943 to 1987. He lives in Bethesda, Md.