In remembrance of the day Japan first agreed to surrender, Aug. 15, the latest article from “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series by The Times that documents lesser-known stories from the war, is a look back by James Stavridis, a retired United States Navy admiral and former supreme Allied Commander of NATO. He imagines how a sailor anchored in Tokyo Bay might have experienced the official surrender ceremony on Sept. 2.
As World War II ended, the huge U.S. and Allied fleets gathered in Tokyo Bay in the days leading up to the surrender ceremony, a carefully orchestrated event that would be held on Sept. 2, 1945, on the deck of the massive battleship U.S.S. Missouri. In the broad reaches of the bay, the U.S. fleet numbered more than 200 warships: fast carriers, huge battleships, powerful heavy cruisers and sleek, fast destroyers, the “greyhounds” of the fleet.
From a distance they looked like gigantic gray machines of war, but inside the steel hulls were tens of thousands of U.S. Navy sailors. They were young men — most in their early or mid-20s — and they would have experienced almost endless days at sea throughout the war years; port calls were very few, and most provisions, ammunition and fuel were simply transferred at sea from supply ships to the carriers, battleships, cruisers and destroyers.
Let’s imagine a gunner’s mate onboard the Missouri. He would have enlisted shortly after Pearl Harbor, as did many of his shipmates. After a few weeks of boot camp, he was sent to gunnery school and taught the basics of maintaining the heavy guns of a big ship. After an assignment or two on other ships in the Pacific Fleet, our gunner’s mate would have been thrilled to be assigned to the Missouri.
On the morning of surrender day, he would have found himself awakened by the scratchy, high-pitched warble of the boatswain’s pipe announcing an early reveille. There was a lot to be done on surrender day, he might have thought, as he hauled out of his canvas bunk and padded to the head, which he shared with 20 other sailors, to shave. He might have whistled to himself as he walked the long steel corridors to the mess decks, thinking about eggs and bacon and wondering when they could all go home. It had been a long war for him.
If he had served on other ships, he probably remembered the monotony of the long cruises, punctuated again and again by battles that were often short but always brutal — from early disasters at Guadalcanal to crucial victories at Midway and eventually the enormous naval battles of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf in the summer and fall of 1944, which sealed the ultimate defeat of the Japanese imperial fleet. But he knew that today was different because the battleship’s captain had addressed the crew yesterday explaining the historical importance of the ceremony and the role each of the sailors would play.
Like his shipmates, he was a young man who worked long and hard. The sailors would have focused their waking hours on only two essential activities: equipment maintenance and watch standing. Every man in the crew would have had specific responsibilities: working on the boilers below decks that drove the propulsion, ensuring the guns were ready to fire at a moment’s notice, maintaining the delicate electronics of that era and regularly scraping and painting the hull and spaces throughout the ship in a fight against endless rust, born of the high heat and humidity of the western Pacific.
Their watch standing would have been boring, owing to long, slow transits from island campaign to campaign. They would have stood those watches in the heat of the engine rooms, which could climb to 120 degrees; on the bridge, where they could at least catch a tropical breeze; cramped into the gun turrets; or buried in the darkened world of the combat information center, where the radar and sonar displays sent their blinking signals.
But always, the sailors would have focused on a desire to find and engage the Japanese fleet. They knew that the hard-fought campaigns in the southwest Pacific, the Marianas Islands and the “Pearl of the Orient,” as Manila, in the Philippines, was known, were the key to defeating the emperor’s forces. As a gunner’s mate, our sailor would have been especially proud to be part of the “main battery” of the battleship, and had a bit of extra status in the crew.
U.S. Navy diesel submarines were plying their trade as well. The ability to cut off fuel, coal, iron, rubber and other supplies was a crucial part of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s strategy of slowly choking the empire while gaining control of the vital islands. By 1945, this “leap frogging” had demoralized the Japanese, and the sailors on those 4,000 U.S. Navy ships would have been well aware that the noose was closing on Japan.
When both Iwo Jima and Okinawa were captured in early 1945 — after brutal hand-to-hand combat by the Marines and the Army, supported by the big guns and aircraft of the fleet — every sailor in the U.S. Pacific Fleet would have known what was coming next: the invasion of the Japanese home islands. They would have gone about their duties worried and anxious, despite all the progress — in part because they knew that dreaded kamikaze attacks would become more frequent as the fleet drew closer and closer to the mainland.
The estimates of the death toll on the beaches of the home islands were staggering, even by the bloody standards of the Pacific war. And then, in what must have seemed an unimaginable miracle for the U.S. Armed Forces, the new atomic bombs were used on Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and on Nagasaki three days later. Even as the huge Pacific fleet continued to sail toward Japan, everything had changed.
In a sudden flurry, the Japanese government shifted from preparing for a nationwide defense of the home islands to accepting unconditional surrender. The sailors would not have known about the internal struggle between the emperor and some of his leaders, or about the possibility of a military coup that might have reversed the course of the surrender. But on Aug. 14, the empire transmitted its acceptance of the surrender to its embassies in Switzerland and Sweden. By the next day, the fleet would have known of the surrender, and an enormous wave of relief would have flowed through the ships, just as enormous joy seized Americans back home.
On the morning of Sept. 2, small boats began early to ferry all the heads of the delegations from the national flagships to the Mighty Mo, as the Missouri was known. Our gunner’s mate would have been topside near his turret, watching the parade of brass arrive. Admirals and generals from Britain, Australia, Canada, China, New Zealand, the Netherlands, the Soviet Union and France would have come aboard well before the 9 a.m. ceremony started, with 11 Japanese representatives arriving shortly afterward. The ceremony was short — just 23 minutes — but was broadcast through the world, including to the vast Pacific fleet. Signing on behalf of the United States of America was Admiral Nimitz, who would have heard the cheers of the fleet as ship after ship received the word.
One special flag was flown on the Missouri that day: the flag of Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry. It had been hoisted on his flagship almost a century earlier, when he sailed the U.S. Navy’s Far East fleet into Tokyo Bay to demand Japan open for trading with the West. It was a day full of symbolism, and for our gunner’s mate, a bit of time for reflection as well.
Foremost in his mind would have been the memories of his shipmates who had died along the way — going back to the attack on Pearl Harbor that had finally been avenged. After the ceremony, the V.I.P.s would have left quickly and headed to their own ships and headquarters. Our gunner’s mate would have been glad to know there would most likely be “holiday routine” the next day, meaning time for relaxation and a stand down of watch stations — after all, the guns would be silent.
He might have hung out on the mess decks for an hour or so, discussing the day with his shipmates and speculating about how soon they would be demobilized. With a yawn, he would have eventually headed to his berthing compartment. By taps that night, the Mighty Mo would have been a quiet warship with a crew satisfied with their part in a hard and necessary job done well that day, but also with their role in winning the war. The gunner’s mate would drift off to sleep in his bunk, hoping above all that the battleship would soon sail for home.
James G. Stavridis is a retired United States Navy admiral who served as commander of the United States European Command and as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for Europe from 2009 to 2013. His ninth book is “Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character.”