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In the Wake of the War

A young newsman from the Class of '36 reflects on World War II while covering the Japanese surrender.

By Frank Tremaine

It's Sunday morning, September 2, 1945—three long years, eight months and 25 days since Japan sucker-punched us at Pearl Harbor on another Sunday morning. It seems like a lifetime since December 7, 1941. For millions of men, women and children, too, it was the end of a lifetime.

Now I'm perched on a forward gun turret on the battleship Missouri,my feet dangling over the edge. Dozens of other news correspondents share this space on the huge turret, which houses three of the Missouri’s largest weapons, as we wait to cover Japan’s formal surrender. We’re at anchor in Tokyo Bay, about 35 miles south of the devastated capital city and about six miles offshore from Yokosuka, the Japanese naval base where I landed with our Marines only three days ago. Surrounding us are scores of ships of the U.S. 3rd Fleet. Many of them, like the 45,000-ton Missouri,have been built in that comparatively brief time since the Japanese thought they had knocked us out at Pearl Harbor. The aircraft carriers are out of sight at sea, while their fighters patrol overhead, maintaining a careful watch even at this time of surrender.

We have a mixture of sun and clouds here this morning. The sun pokes through holes in the ceiling overhead, but clouds hang low in the west, hiding Mount Fujiyama as though to shroud that symbol of Japan from this scene of national shame.

In my mind’s eye, I see another shameful scene: the battered, smoking ships on Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor. There is the Arizona twisted and broken, the Oklahoma bottom up, five others saved from sinking only by the shallow mud in which they rest. I was there, running the Honolulu bureau of United Press, when it happened.

It is a far different scene here this morning. Flags fly gaily from the more than 100 ships spread for miles around the Missouri.Sailors are dressed in their whites, Marines and Army in freshly pressed suntans. On the Missouri,the flags of all the Allies flutter in the breeze.

There is a sense of celebration here, of great happiness that at last this war—which has cost more in lives and wealth than any in history—is over and we’ve won. But it is not the hat-throwing, hugging-and-kissing sort of celebration that had exploded earlier at home on V-E and V-J days. The mood here is different. It’s reflected in smiles, laughter, some gloating, but there is a feeling of seriousness, too. There is weighty business at hand.

At 8 a.m., the ship's band plays “The Star Spangled Banner.” A detail raises an American flag, the same one that flew over the Capitol in Washington on that Sunday in 1941. The Missouri’s mighty 16-inch guns point toward the sky, elevated to 45 degrees. Sailors and Marines crowd the decks and hang from every vantage point on her superstructure. Scattered among them are 238 news correspondents, including five of us who covered the story at Pearl Harbor.

Twenty feet below me, high-ranking American officers mill about on the veranda deck, where the ceremony will begin at 9. The veranda deck is a small area forward and starboard of the bridge, which towers high above us. It’s a few feet above the starboard main deck and open to the sea on that side. Our gun turret is its inboard wall.

This is the flagship of Fleet Adm. William F. Halsey Jr., and at the aft end of the deck, a door leads to his quarters. Just to the left of the door, hanging on the bulkhead, is a simple black frame encasing the flag flown by Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 when he sailed into Tokyo Bay to open Japan to American trading ships. It’s tattered now, but its 31 stars are clearly visible.

Beneath my feet, Halsey and Vice Adm. Jock McCain, his fast-carrier task force commander (and the grandfather of Sen. John McCain of Arizona), are chatting happily. It was Halsey who had said early in the war that he was going to ride Emperor Hirohito’s white horse down Tokyo’s Ginza. That was late in 1942, when the Guadalcanal campaign was going so badly, and he said it then to buck up his flagging troops. Now he’s just glad to be here, horse or no horse.

Suddenly, McCain breaks into a joyous little dance step and grabs Halsey by the arm. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but they grin like a couple of kids just out of school. Four days later, McCain will die of a heart attack.

At 8:05, Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, supreme commander of Allied forces in the Pacific Ocean areas, is piped aboard. It was he who flew from Washington to Pearl late in December 1941 to take command of the shattered fleet. A former submariner, he took over in a ceremony the day after Christmas, under a dark and gloomy sky, on the deck of a submarine berth near his headquarters building. Less than six months later, that fleet—still only a shadow of what it was to become—wrecked a Japanese armada near Midway Island. This was the first major turning point of the war in the Pacific. Then Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of forces in the Southwest Pacific areas, stopped the Japanese in New Guinea, while Nimitz’s forces (with Halsey in command on the scene) took Guadalcanal away from them in the Solomon Islands. Japanese resistance at Guadalcanal ended on February 9, 1943, after some of the most bitter fighting of the war.

A few weeks from now, I will interview Adm. Mitsumasa Yonai, Japan’s navy minister and former prime minister. He will tell me that knowledgeable Japanese military men knew they could not win the war after they lost Guadalcanal.

Yet they fought tenaciously for another 2 1/2 years.

It was not until August 15, 1945, only days after our first atomic bombs obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that Hirohito, in a brief, prerecorded radio speech, told his people that Japan had accepted the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender. Fifteen days later, the reactivated 4th Marine Regiment—the old China Marines who had been transferred to the Philippines and wiped out in the battle for Bataan and Corregidor—landed at Yokosuka. Simultaneously, elements of the Army’s 11th Airborne and 27th divisions landed at Atsugi airfield, farther inland. Those forces comprised fewer than 15,000 men. They were outnumbered by the Japanese home army of 1 million men or more, but were supported by the hundreds of aircraft and guns of the 3rd Fleet—and not a shot was fired.

At Yokosuka, task force commander Rear Adm. Oscar C. Badger took the surrender of the base from a scruffy-looking group of Japanese naval officers and a few spit-and-polish officers of the Japanese home army. Only the emperor’s decision to surrender prevented the bloody greeting the army had planned for the Allied soldiers.

The troops quickly secured Atsugi and Yokosuka and set up a defense line across the Miura peninsula, but Tokyo remained off-limits until the following week, six days after the surrender. That didn’t keep out the correspondents, however. On one expedition into the city, we found a sign suggesting that at least some Japanese were preparing a friendly welcome. It stood in a store window and advertised “King Anne Scotch—Genuine Scotch-type Scotch.”

Yesterday, September 1, I saw the devastation our bombers wrought in Tokyo when I accompanied a Navy rescue team to a civilian internment camp on the far side of the city. Near the waterfront, we saw little damage, but farther into the city came block after block of burned-out areas. As far as we could see, only a few brick or concrete structures still stood, and those were mostly gutted. People had erected hundreds of crude shacks that dotted the ash-covered, debris-strewn landscape. From time to time, we saw a chimney still erect, or a small safe standing on a concrete slab, or some wrecked lathes or other light machinery offering mute evidence that small industry had operated here. Truly, it was the world’s biggest ash heap.

A few days earlier, a Japanese radio broadcast had said that nearly 10 million Japanese had been killed, wounded or left homeless by the war. It said that 44 cities had been almost completely wiped out and that at least one-third of the industrialized areas of 37 other cities had been gutted. Seeing Tokyo yesterday, I could believe it.

It's 8:15, and the other Allied delegations begin to arrive—the Chinese, Australians, Canadians, French, Dutch and New Zealanders, as well as the Soviets, who got in just under the wire by declaring war on Japan on August 8, two days after we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. The foreign delegates are in full uniform, complete with decorations, except for the British, who wear white shorts and shirts, open at the throat, and no decorations.

The American officers wear suntans, also without decorations. Neither do they wear neckties. This is because Halsey, upon taking command of the failing Guadalcanal campaign in the dismal winter of 1942, banned neckties at his South Pacific headquarters in New Caledonia, including the black ties of the Navy and the various shades of tan or khaki of the other services and nations. He wanted nothing to differentiate among the forces fighting the common enemy in his unified command.

Now the American destroyer Buchanan pulls alongside. Up the steep stairway hanging along the Missouri’s starboard side comes MacArthur, designated supreme commander of Allied powers for the occupation. He will conduct the ceremony.

The highest-level American and foreign officers have lined up in ranks against the aft bulkhead, behind a rectangular steel table covered by a blue cloth trimmed with white. Two straight chairs stand on opposite sides of the table, fore and aft. The rest of the Americans and our Allied guests are lined up along the inboard bulkhead just below me.

Nimitz and Halsey greet the general and his party at the head of the gangway. Then, preceded by the general’s chief of staff (Lt. Gen. Richard K. Sutherland), MacArthur and Nimitz come up the short stairway from the forward deck and walk abreast to Halsey’s quarters. Contrary to the popular perception, these two have been equals throughout the war, supreme commanders in their respective theaters.

A small American vessel comes alongside. Mamoru Shigemitsu, the Japanese foreign minister, struggles to the top of the stairway at the head of his party. Hampered by the artificial leg he acquired in 1932 after a Korean terrorist bombing in Shanghai, he limps with a cane.

The ship grows quiet. An unsmiling American officer conducts the Japanese to the forward end of the veranda deck. There are 11 of them—seven generals and admirals in uniform, three men formally attired in top hats, morning coats and striped pants, and one little guy in a rumpled white suit. (I never did find out who he was.) They look uncomfortable and unhappy as they assemble in three ranks, Shigemitsu and Gen. Yoshijiro Umezu in front. They face the table and the Allied officers beyond it.

Gen. Hsu Yung-chang of China refuses to look at them. Instead, he clears his throat and spits ostentatiously into his handkerchief. The other Chinese glare.

At 8:59, MacArthur reappears, followed by Nimitz, Halsey and Sutherland. He steps to a nest of microphones a few feet from the table. It is hooked up to the Missouri’s loudspeaker system and to a worldwide radio network.

It is nine o'clock. MacArthur’s face is grim, his voice deep and intense. His hands tremble slightly as he reads a brief statement that concludes, “It is my earnest hope, and, indeed, the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past, a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish—for freedom, tolerance and justice.”

MacArthur invites the Japanese to sign the surrender documents. Both are in English; one is bound in black for the Japanese, the other in gold for the Allies. Shigemitsu limps forward and begins the distasteful task of signing away his country’s sovereignty. Then Umezu, chief of the Imperial General Staff, steps forward to sign for the Japanese armed forces. He was the proud leader of the military machine that swept through Southeast Asia toward what the Japanese thought would be domination of half the world. It must gall him now to sign this document.

Umezu steps back, and MacArthur says, “Will General Wainwright and General Percival step forward while I sign?” The two men, the American who had to surrender the Philippines at Corregidor and the Briton who bowed to superior forces at Singapore, come to attention behind MacArthur as he seats himself. They are emaciated after nearly four years in Japanese prison camps, their shoulders slightly stooped, but they stand now with their heads high.

Signing the document as the supreme Allied commander, MacArthur uses five pens. The first he hands to Wainwright, the second to Percival. The next two he sets aside for the National Archives and West Point. The fifth is a small red fountain pen, which he takes from and returns to his breast pocket. It is his wife’s.

“The representative of the United States of America will now sign,” MacArthur says. Nimitz steps forward and calls for Halsey and Rear Adm. Forrest Sherman, his deputy chief of staff, to stand behind him while he signs. Then MacArthur calls for the representatives of the other Allied powers to sign in turn. When Adm. Sir Bruce Fraser of the United Kingdom signs, he uses the pens MacArthur had laid aside for the archives and for West Point. Then, to the consternation of some of MacArthur’s staff, he hands the pens to an aide, who pockets them. An American officer will retrieve them later that afternoon.

Col. L. Moore Cosgrave of Canada, sixth to sign, places his signature on the Japanese copy on the line below the word “Canada” instead of above it. Those who follow also sign on wrong lines. At the end of the ceremony, the Japanese notice this and question it. Sutherland assures them that the document is valid nonetheless, then solves the problem by scratching out the original national designations and rewriting them below the signatures.

As New Zealand signs last for the Allies, the sun breaks through the clouds to the west and Mount Fujiyama comes into view.

MacArthur speaks again. “A way must now be found to preserve the peace, because science has given us war of utter destructiveness. We have had our last chance. If we do not devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door . . . .” He is referring, of course, to the atomic bombs that wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9. Even though I know the bombs killed more than 100,000 people in the two cities—even though I have read eyewitness accounts —I have difficulty grasping the awful power of those weapons.

I reflect on the words of my colleague Leslie Nakashima, a Japanese member of UP’s prewar Tokyo staff who got to Hiroshima on August 22. “There is not a single building standing intact in this city. . . . I was dumbfounded at the destruction. . . . The center of the city immediately south and west of the [railroad] station was razed to the ground, and there was a sweeping view to the foot of the mountains to the east, south and north. . . . What had been a city of 300,000 had vanished,” he wrote in a dispatch.

UP reporter James McGlincy, who covered the air raids in Europe, wrote of Hiroshima, “One bomb—that is the key to the most staggering single event of this war. . . . In this city, you can see all the ruined cities of the world put together and spread out. You can see in the eyes of the few Japanese picking through the ruins all of the hate it is possible for a human to muster.”

McGlincy’s guide was a young lieutenant of the Japanese navy who was born in Sacramento and had returned to serve in Japan. “How do people feel about us?” McGlincy asked him. “Do they hate us, or do they think this is the fortune of war?”

Simply and frankly, the lieutenant replied, “They hate you.”

The ceremony is ending. MacArthur says, “Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world and that God will preserve it always. These proceedings are closed.”

But they are not quite over.

As MacArthur, Nimitz and Halsey turn back toward Halsey’s cabin without another glance at the Japanese, the Japanese delegation also turns to depart. In the distance, there is a roar. It grows louder and louder. Out of the south, at about 1,000 feet, comes a formation of nine B-29 Superforts—the big bombers that laid waste to Tokyo and much of the rest of Japan—then another, and another, and still more. Following them come hundreds of other Allied warplanes—Avengers, Hellcats, Corsairs, Helldivers, Liberators, Flying Fortresses, Billy Mitchells and others, most of which were not even on the drawing boards on December 7, 1941. They roar up the bay toward Tokyo in a final display of military power over a beaten enemy.

Frank Tremaine, '36, retired in 1980 as senior vice president of United Press International. He now divides his time between Savannah, Ga., and Christmas Cove, Maine.

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