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Our Rich History: VE-Day, May 8, 1945, was official end of WW II European theater; victory was in reach

Part 6 of our continuing series on the 75th anniversary of the closing stages of World War II and Part 26 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

Seventy-five years ago, on May 8, 1945 (called VE-Day, for “Victory in Europe”), World War II came to an official end in the European theater. The Nazis were defeated. Businesses in Northern Kentucky closed in observation of the occasion, but celebrations were rather subdued. After all, World War II continued to rage on in the Pacific theater. Americans everywhere maintained their vigilance and turned their attention to defeating the Japanese.

As the plaque explains, this monument on the grounds of the Campbell County Courthouse in Newport, Kentucky, commemorates all those who served from the community in World War II. (Photo by Paul A. Tenkotte.)

Nevertheless, VE-Day marked a significant achievement. American and Allied victory in World War II was clearly within reach. The defeat of Hitler was an important step to nearing the final end of this deadly and destructive global war. Success was made possible by a heroic effort of valiant soldiers, the work and sacrifices of ordinary Americans on the Home Front, and the coordination of industry by the federal government. For an article on the Home Front, click here.

Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati played a major role in manufacturing armaments and supplies for World War II. The War Production Board (WPB), established by executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1942, literally coordinated the entire American economy for the duration of the war. Scarce materials, such as rubber, gasoline, and other products, were rationed to the general public in order to supply the troops abroad. Nonessential production, for example of new automobiles, was curtailed so that manufacturing plants could retool to make tanks, airplanes, ships, and armaments. The entire supply chain, from raw materials to production to distribution, was orchestrated for more than $185 billion worth of supplies ($2.65 trillion in 2020 dollars).

Newport and Campbell County, Kentucky were home to many manufacturing plants that were retooled for wartime production. For instance, the Higgin Products Company of Newport, a manufacturer of window shades and venetian blinds, made supplies for the US Navy. Meanwhile, the Andrews’ family’s giant steel facilities, including the Newport Rolling Mill in the city’s West End, and the Andrews Steel Mill in Wilder, Kentucky, employed thousands. In 1942-43, the federal government built a new $5 million ($71.7 million in 2020 dollars), ten-acre alloy steel plant for Andrews in Wilder. In June 1944, when Andrews temporarily curtailed operations at his Wilder plant pending negotiations with authorities, the federal government literally stepped in, rented the plant from him, and began manufacturing artillery shells there (“Steel Plants Will Reopen with Capacity Production,” Kentucky Post, June 24, 1944, p. 1).

World War II monument, Campbell County Courthouse, Newport, Kentucky. (Photo by John Schlipp.)

In nearby Dayton, Kentucky, the Wadsworth Manufacturing Company employed 1,350 in wartime production at its plant at Fifth and Clay Streets. Wadsworth made shell casings, machine guns, and radio parts for the military.

All throughout Northern Kentucky, citizens enrolled in American Red Cross first aid classes, volunteered for the Civilian Defense Council, practiced blackouts (turning off all lights during air raid drills), planted Victory gardens, purchased war bonds, and cooperated with rationing from the federal Office of Price Administration (OPA). Ration books limited supplies of gasoline, meat, cheese, butter, sugar, and other household products. Women gave up their old stockings to make parachutes. Adults and schoolchildren alike collected scrap metal, newspapers, and old tires for recycling.

Hundreds of men and women from Northern Kentucky joined the armed forces, some at the enlisting center at the Fort Thomas Army Post south of Newport. Heroes and heroines abounded, including Dr. Alvin C. Poweleit of Newport (1908-1997), Brig. Gen. Jesse Auton (1904-1952), Lt. Gen. Gerald Johnson (1919-2002), and Rev. Henry Bernard Stober (1901-1945).

Schoolchildren joined the war recycling efforts, as seen here at Sacred Heart School in Bellevue, Kentucky. Source: The Messenger, December 4, 1942, p. 7.

By the end of the war’s phase in Europe, the Kentucky Post checked its files, and determined that “292 local men” (from Boone, Campbell, and Kenton Counties) had died in the war in Europe (“292 Local Men Die in Europe Fighting Area,” Kentucky Post, pp. 1, 7). In an editorial on V-E day, the Post editors rightly expressed the bittersweet moment that had been reached: “It is human nature to feel exuberant over completion of the European phase of the war, but we must remember that that is actually what it is — another phase of the fight to vanquish all our enemies. It is far from being the end of the war” (“Day for Dedication to Victory,” Kentucky Post, May 8, 1945, p. 6).

For prior columns on our closing stages of World War II series, see:

Part 1: D-Day and Normandy heroes

Part 2: Ludlow war heroes

Part 3: Covington soldier in England before D-Day

Part 4: Normandy — survival

Part 5: The Battle of Hurtgen Forest

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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