Moment of history
In the Oval Office in the late afternoon hours of Aug. 14, 1945, amid a horde of reporters and photographers from the wire services and many of the nation’s largest dailies waiting for President Truman to announce the Japanese surrender, The Independence Examiner happened to have first-hand representation.
Sue Gentry, the longtime Examiner journalist who had been promoted to city editor during World War II, provided local readers the next day – 75 years ago today – with an inside view of the White House atmosphere.
Gentry, who worked at The Examiner for 44 years and then continued with a column for decades more until her death in 2004 at age 99, had been visiting cousins in Washington on a vacation planned two months prior. Certainly, she had not planned to be in the Oval Office for V-J Day. But she had a good rapport with the Trumans, as she started covering the future president in his days as a county judge and then U.S. senator.
The morning of Aug. 14, Gentry wrote, “As we listened to the radio every hour we decided that this must surely be the day.” Knowing that Bess Truman had made her a standing offer to visit if she ever happened to be in the capital, she dialed the White House and was quickly connected to the first lady, who said she would arrange for Gentry to get a pass.
“She just got to know them by covering them,” Sheila Davis, former executive editor of The Examiner, said in recalling Gentry’s tale. “She was obviously quite proud of the fact she was there, and she very much had a sense of the history being made.”
Gentry wrote a first-person account, describing the scenes and her feelings as her taxi neared the White House, she was fingerprinted to receive her pass, and she saw the waiting media in the press room.
“We sailed past the crowds clamoring for ‘news,’ a vigil which many of them, I am told, had kept since Friday,” she wrote. Inside, in the press room next to Press Secretary Charlie Ross’ office, “Reporters, radio commentators, and cameramen sat, stood, lolled, slept, read, played cards, worked cross word puzzles and did everything to kill time.”
Gentry wrote about having tea with Bess Truman on the South Portico, and that the first lady encouraged her to take a couple more pieces of cake with her as she kept vigil with the press. The first lady’s secretary then offered Gentry her room as she “straightened my hat and powdered my nose” to wait for the big moment, and they passed the president on his way to the pool for a quick swim, with Margaret’s dog at his heels. After introductions to some fellow Missourians and various members of the media, everyone crowded into the Oval Office for the surrender announcement.
After she absorbed the scene of joyous handshakes and reporters rushing off to file stories, Rose Conway, President Truman’s executive assistant, found a place for Gentry to write her story “because I knew I couldn’t fight the old timers.”
“From the streets we could hear the crowds shouting, horns and whistles blowing,” she wrote. “In a few moments the President and Mrs. Truman were walking out on the White House lawns to acknowledge a giant ovation from the crowds, a magnificent and democratic gesture for the nation’s chief executive and his First Lady.”
Gentry then walked more than two blocks “through a surging joy-mad mob” to the Western Union office.
“The streets are ankle deep with paper, traffic moves only spasmodically and service men and women celebrate in gay abandon,” she wrote. “The White House guard said, ‘Watch your purse and keep in the center of the street, and you’ll be all right.’”
“She just hung out, trying to be inconspicuous,” Davis said. “Everyone was doodling as fast as they could, then hurried to the press room. Sue was looking around and the secretary came and said, ‘Sue you can use my office, you can use my typewriter.’”
“She took the different tack to it, gave ‘The Local Gentry’ tack, instead of the news angle,” Davis said, referring to the society column Gentry wrote even after she retired in 1973. “Colonel” William Southern, the paper’s publisher, soothed her concerns about whatever cost there would be to wire the story to Independence, and he certainly preferred the colorful first-person account.
“If she had sent in a story that he could get anywhere, the colonel would’ve just filleted her alive,” Davis said.
In conclusion, Gentry wrote, “The war is over even if the official documents are yet to be signed.”
“And by the way, the White House is getting its first coat of paint since Pearl Harbor.”
Excerpts from Sue Gentry’s story, headlined “Joy rides on wings of victory,” in The Independence Examiner on Aug. 15, 1945:
You have heard the words the world has been waiting for – Japan’s unconditional surrender – from the United Press, but I thought you might like to know that The Examiner’s city editor was present to hear President Truman read those magic words which has stopped the world’s bloodiest holocaust.
When I chose the vacation date the “second week” of August nearly two months ago simply because a friend in Colorado had invited me to spend my holidays there, I had no way of knowing that my destination would be Washington and the time would be the dramatic moment when Japan was ready to “call quits.”
I am visiting my cousins, Mr. and Mrs. Richard H. Stout, and this morning as we listened to the radio every hour we decided that this must surely be the day. Mrs. Truman had told me that I might call her when and if I ever came to Washington again (she had seen that I got passes to the important things in 1940 when I first visited here and her husband was our senator.) I ventured a call to the White House, giving my name and address and some way in a moment Mrs. Truman was on the other end of the wire with a genuine welcome to Washington.
I explained that I would love to attend the press conferences in view of the anticipating events and she promised to “get you a card right away.” In several hours a call came through from the White House asking me to come down to “the northeast entrances as soon as possible.”
Did I ever get in a hurry? I know Mr. Rucker wishes I could do that in the mornings. I dashed to Connecticut Avenue (we are 3100NW) and hailed a taxi and tried to hide my excitement when I calmly announced to the driver, “White House, please, northeast entrance.” At the entrance, I explained to the guard that I had an appointment and sure enough my name was on the list and we sailed past the crowds clamoring for “news,” a vigil which many of them, I am told, had kept since Friday.
When we arrived at the east White House entrance, the gentleman I was told to see, had my name and let me through several corridors and up several flights of stairs and finally I was in the secret service rooms talking to a very pleasant young woman, who was extra nice to me, maybe because I was from the President’s home town.
I gave my life history and was finger printed and then was issued a White House grounds pass which admitted me to the press rooms. The young lady herself took me to the wing where the President has his executive offices and to the lobby where the press was gathered. Here, they were tired, hollow-eyed, and hungry, waiting for the story they knew might break any moment.
The famous big round table where the correspondents lay their hats and coats, centers the lobby. Presidential Secretary Ross’ office opens off this lobby and also the press room where the correspondents file their stories. Reporters, radio commentators, and cameramen sat, stood, lolled, slept, read, played cards, worked cross word puzzles and did everything to kill time.
At 6:45 p.m., Presidential Secretary Ross appeared at his office door and said the President would have an announcement at 7 p.m. Bob White warned me to stick with him, that I might get killed in the rush. “Get to the back of the room,” he said, “and away from the door. You can hear just as well and if you want to stay after it is over, well, all right.”
We hustled into the President’s office. Everyone was tense. Mr. Truman read the message from the Japanese government and said the mimeographed copies were available for newsmen. There was a moment of rejoicing and then newsmen who had editions to make rushed for phones. Those of us who could hung around and greeted the President. I shook his hand again and he was jubilant and remarked that I had “made it” and did I see Mrs. Truman. I looked around and there she was shaking hands with Mr. Hull, Mr. Byrnes, Admiral Leahy and others, and I spoke to her again and thanked her.
Judge Sam Roseman, one of the President’s advisers, pointed out to me the cabinet officers.
The news reels and cameras were clicking all the time the President was talking and afterward we patiently posed again, this time for the sound men. In a few minutes Bob Hannegan, the new Postmaster General, came rushing in. All of the cabinet then was there with the exception of Henry Wallace, Secretary of Commerce.
As busy as the President was, he was thoughtful enough to invite Cordell Hull, former Secretary of State, to sit in on the grand finale.
The cabinet members seemed to be enjoying themselves and Secretary Byrnes and Secretary Schwellenbach had a little joke about an “honest horse thief” which they chuckled over last they left the Presidential suite. From the streets we could hear the crowds shouting, horns and whistles blowing.
In a few moments the President and Mrs. Truman were walking out on the White House lawns to acknowledge a giant ovation from the crowds, a magnificent and democratic gesture for the nation’s chief executive and his First Lady.
I made arrangements with Miss Conway to use a typewriter in her office, because I knew I couldn’t fight the old timers.
I have just talked two blocks and a half from the White House to the Western Union office through a surging joy-mad mob. The streets are ankle deep with paper, traffic moves only spasmodically and service men and women celebrate in gay abandon. The White House guard said, “Watch your purse and keep in the center of the street and you’ll be all right.”
The war is over even if the official documents are yet to be signed.
And by the way, the White House is getting its first coat of paint since Pearl Harbor.
Sue Gentry’s full story from Aug. 15, 1945 can be found at www.examiner.net.