Aug. 14, 1945: Shortly after news of Japan’s impending surrender reached Pittsburgh, pillows and sheets began falling from the sky outside the William Penn Hotel. Bellboys on the street below frantically tried to catch them before they hit the grimy pavement.
Hotel guests, the Post-Gazette learned, had become giddy after realizing a horrific, four-year war was finally coming to an end and decided to express their joy by flinging open the windows of their rooms and tossing out the bedding. It could have been worse. On Webster Avenue, folks hurled furniture from upper floor rooms.
Unofficial word of Japan’s capitulation arrived in the early morning hours of Tuesday, Aug. 14, 1945, and sparked a spontaneous and wildly exuberant celebration unlike any in the city’s history.
People from outlying districts jumped in their cars or hopped on trolleys and headed downtown. By noon, the party was going full-blast. City streets were packed with people blowing into noisemakers, cheering, kissing, praying and dancing. Church bells tolled. A conga line of soldiers and sailors snaked its way along Fifth Avenue while paper and confetti tossed from office windows drifted down onto the revelers.
Motorists drove with one hand on the wheel and one on the horn. “City Celebration Sets Noise Record,” read a Pittsburgh Press headline. A deafening cacophony of sound blared from the Liberty Tubes, which became a sort of super horn, amplifying the toots and blasts from those heading into town.
The celebration alarmed some merchants. They ordered clerks to stow away jewelry and other expensive merchandise. “Shop girls” stood in doorways and watched the festivities, sometimes rushing out to shake hands with passing soldiers. A few store owners, fearing the worst, boarded their windows, but the crowd was bent on celebration, not destruction. Police reported few problems.
A district superintendent of the Liquor Control Board ordered all liquor stores shut down, but the order was soon reversed by a superior, who noted the announcement of Japan’s surrender had yet to become official. That didn’t happen until President Harry Truman took to the airwaves at 7 p.m.
Along the Monongahela River, an unusual silence fell over the region’s mills and factories. The world’s mightiest industrial machine had come to a sudden standstill. Managers anticipated blanket cancellation of all war contracts and a loss of up to 35,000 jobs. At one mill, the Press reported, an entire shift showed up for work too tipsy from drink to do much work. The mills would soon be retooled for peacetime production.
And in McKeesport, garbage truck drivers caught up in the moment simply walked off their jobs to join the celebration. A borough councilman shrugged his shoulders. “I just let them go,” he said. “There wasn’t anything I could do about it.”
That same day, the Press announced the war had taken the lives of 3,201 Allegheny County service men and women.