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Recalling an American Riot on V-J Day

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The surrender of Japan brought jubilation and relief and euphoria to America as nearly four years of war came to an end. The iconic image of V-J Day in this country was the one captured by Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstadt: a sailor kissing a woman in Times Square, a joyous celebration. In San Francisco, the reaction was very different. Charles Fracchia is the founder of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society and the author of "City by the Bay," a history of San Francisco since 1945.

Mr. Fracchia, what happened in San Francisco following the announcement of Japan's surrender?

Mr. CHARLES FRACCHIA (Founder, San Francisco Museum and Historical Society; Author, "City by the Bay"): Well, there was a spontaneous howl of delight that went throughout the city, people hugging each other, you know, laughing, singing. But there was another aspect of this, too, and that was probably the worst riot in San Francisco history. It resulted in several people being killed, a number of women being raped, destruction of property. That was just a sudden outburst, a spontaneous outburst on the part of the military personnel--many of the military personnel in San Francisco on that day.

SIEGEL: If you put us back 60 years here, San Francisco had a huge naval presence at that time.

Mr. FRACCHIA: It did. San Francisco was the largest port of embarkation possibly in the country; 1.6 million personnel went out of San Francisco Bay during the time of World War II, so the Bay area literally had all sorts of naval, Air Force, military bases for the war on Japan. And particularly in 1945, as the war in Europe ground down and there was going to be much more emphasis on the war in Asia, that personnel skyrocketed. And as I said, suddenly--however it started, nobody seems to know. But suddenly, servicemen were just running amok.

SIEGEL: Do you think hundreds, thousands were running amok?

Mr. FRACCHIA: I would say certainly hundreds. The devastation, the city was totally unprepared to cope with this riot. Finally a combination of the police plus the military police coming, being--got everybody back to their bases and ended the riot on this next day.

SIEGEL: On the next, day, though?

Mr. FRACCHIA: Yeah.

SIEGEL: It went on for an entire day?

Mr. FRACCHIA: No, no, no. There was--when the news came out, it went throughout that day, into the evening and into the next day.

SIEGEL: We assume these were heavily lubricated servicemen who were doing this.

Mr. FRACCHIA: Yes, yes. The city probably should have stopped the sale of alcoholic beverages. They didn't, and as a result of that, the drunkenness was pretty pervasive.

SIEGEL: Were there many people put on court-martial for this, or tried?

Mr. FRACCHIA: You know, the answer is no. There were no court-martials, and there was no punishment for any of the people who accomplished this.

SIEGEL: This is not a proud moment in San Francisco's history. It's not something the city plays up much in its...

Mr. FRACCHIA: No, it's not. You know, it's something which has been understandably buried historically. People don't want to go back and remember this.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you very much for unearthing it for us a bit, Mr. Fracchia.

Mr. FRACCHIA: Yeah, not at all. You have a good day.

SIEGEL: OK. Charles Fracchia is a founder of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, talking with us about V-J Day in San Francisco 60 years ago.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.