Jubilation — and riots — on Market Street 75 years ago

When President Harry Truman announced the Japanese surrender on August 14, 1945, ending World War II, celebrations erupted around the world. As the primary port of embarkation for US troops headed to the Pacific, San Francisco’s revelry was especially intense.

Market, Fourth, and Stockton Streets, August 14, 1945

By early evening, crowds were pouring onto Market Street, almost like lemmings. Streetcars were jammed, and many celebrants climbed on the roofs of the cars. One was our late historian, Phil Hoffman. He remembered the night this way:

My mother must not have been paying attention, because I was 14 years old and said, ‘Can I go down and see the celebration?’ and in a moment of weakness she said yes…and I began to see people on the roofs of the streetcars. ‘Ha. This is my golden opportunity.’ So I climbed on the roof of Car 86, all the way up Market, until finally the inspector at Van Ness told me to come down, so off I went. I was ’86’d’ from Car 86. (Note to those of a tender age: to ‘Eighty-six’ someone means to eject them, usually from a bar.)

Philip Hoffman

There is some great color film footage of V-J day and other vintage motion picture clips of San Francisco’s streetcar heyday, with interviews from Phil and other transit historians, including the late Arthur Lloyd, in our video production “Take Me Out”, here. A still frame is below.

But there is a much darker side to what was unleashed in San Francisco on V-J (for Victory over Japan) Day, a terrible and ugly side that got almost no public attention then, or in the decades that followed. Here’s how the Chronicle recounted it in a retrospective piece five years ago:

Thousands of frenzied, drunken revelers, an estimated 90 percent of them young Navy enlistees who had not served overseas, embarked on a three-night orgy of vandalism, looting, assault, robbery, rape and murder. By the time the “Peace Riots” burned themselves out on Friday morning, 13 people were dead, at least six women had been raped, 1,059 people were injured, and an incalculable amount of damage had been done to businesses, public buildings, streetcars, cars, traffic lights, signs, barber poles, marquees and everything else the rioters had gotten their hands on. They were the deadliest riots in the city’s history.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 15, 2015

The eye-opening article recounts some horrific and terrible individual crimes, and reports that no action was taken against any of the rioters, either by the military or the civilian authorities. San Francisco District Attorney Edmund G. “Pat” Brown promised an investigation, but both it and a grand jury probe yielded nothing. The city simply swept it, and the many victims, under the rug.

On the roof of a Muni streetcar, Market and Taylor Streets, August 14, 1945. Virginia de Carvalho photo, courtesy San Francisco Chronicle

One of those victims was Joe Georgy, a Muni inspector, killed when a rioter smashed him on the head while he was switching streetcars back at 12th and Market. Georgy was 34.

So, while many lives were saved by the Japanese surrender on this day 75 years ago, including in all probability some of the young sailor rioters, who according to contemporary accounts hadn’t yet been shipped out to the Pacific, too many lives were lost because of unchecked ‘celebration’.

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