In September 1945 General Douglas MacArthur commanded center stage aboard the battleship Missouri as Japan’s surrender ended World War II.
At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 1945—days after atomic bombs incinerated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ushering in the nuclear age—reporters crowded into the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., to cover a statement from President Harry S. Truman.
“I have received this afternoon a message from the Japanese government in reply to the message forwarded to that government by the secretary of state on August 11,” Truman announced in his flat Missouri accent. “I deem this reply a full acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, which specifies the unconditional surrender of Japan.”
With that terse announcement, three months after the defeat of Nazi Germany, World War II had finally ended. For the Allied land, naval and air forces in the Pacific, respite came at the end of a long, hard struggle, from the fiery humiliation of Pearl Harbor and shame of Singapore to the bloody crucibles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The dire decision to unleash atomic weapons had averted a costly invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. It was time to rejoice.
On Guam Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the widely respected commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, reacted quietly to the momentous news of the Japanese surrender. “He didn’t get jubilant or jump up and down like I saw some other officers do,” recalled intelligence officer Edwin T. Layton. “He merely smiled in his own calm way.”
Aboard the 45,000-ton, 887-foot battleship USS Missouri off the coast of Japan, Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey Jr., commander of the U.S. Third Fleet, had a very different response. He was having breakfast when Lt. Cmdr. H. Douglass Moulton, his air operations chief, burst in, bringing word of Truman’s announcement. In his own retelling Halsey thought, God be thanked, I’ll never have to order another man out to die. The feisty admiral then yelled, “Yippee!” and exuberantly pounded every shoulder within reach. Halsey ordered the hoisting of “Well Done” signal flags. It was a singular day for the man who had promised, “Before we’re through with ’em, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell.”
In Tokyo members of Japan’s war cabinet and officers’ corps variously chose resignation or suicide after a broadcast to the nation by Emperor Hirohito, a speech in which the monarch told his people the way to peace lay in “enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.” Little did Hirohito know he, too, would have to suffer the insufferable—within weeks he would be effectively usurped as Japanese ruler by General of the Army Douglas A. MacArthur, supreme commander for the Allied powers.
While several American pilots later claimed to be the first to land in newly surrendered Japan, the official occupation of the island nation began shortly after dawn on Tuesday, August 28, when 45 U.S. Army Air Forces C-47 transport planes touched down at Atsugi airbase, 30 miles southwest of Tokyo. The aircraft disgorged some 150 technicians and several tons of equipment—most intended for air-traffic control—as ranks of sullen but non-hostile Japanese troops looked on. On the heels of those first arrivals came hundreds of additional transport planes, while landing craft from offshore warships brought in tens of thousand of U.S. and Allied troops. Among those vessels was Missouri, and on August 29 it and the battleships USS South Dakota and HMS Duke of York dropped anchor in Tokyo Bay, along with other warships of the Third Fleet and the British Pacific Fleet.
Each of the three massive warships had an impressive service record. Commissioned on June 11, 1944, Missouri, a veteran of the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, was one of the four fast battleships of the Iowa class—along with Iowa, New Jersey and Wisconsin—and the last to enter U.S. Navy service. Commissioned on March 20, 1942, South Dakota had survived severe damage in the naval battles off the Santa Cruz Islands and Guadalcanal, was attached to the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet for a time and participated in the Gilbert Islands campaign.
The King George V–class Duke of York, also a Home Fleet veteran, had supported the disastrous PQ-17 Arctic convoy in the summer of 1942, aided the Allied invasion of North Africa that November and helped sink the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s favorite warship, on Boxing Day 1943. As it sailed majestically into Tokyo Bay, it flew the flag of Admiral Bruce A. Fraser, commander of the British Pacific Fleet. The British squadron included the battleship King George V, the fleet carrier Indefatigable, the light cruisers Newfoundland and Gambia (the latter of the Royal New Zealand Navy), and 10 destroyers, two of them Australian.
The display of Allied naval might in Tokyo Bay awed Japanese observers. Numbering more than 300 vessels, the vast armada included 10 battleships, five aircraft carriers (the fleet carriers remaining safely at sea), 15 cruisers, 59 destroyers and destroyer escorts, a dozen submarines and scores of assorted landing craft. It was an unprecedented display of seaborne power, spanning almost 100 miles of water from the top of Tokyo Bay southwest into Sagami Bay.
On the afternoon of August 29 Admiral Nimitz landed in Tokyo Bay aboard a Consolidated PB2Y Coronado flying boat and was taken by launch to South Dakota, which would serve as his flagship. The usually dignified Texan was seething, as Truman had selected the autocratic MacArthur to conduct the planned surrender ceremony and oversee the occupation of Japan. Nimitz harbored no ambition to take charge in Tokyo, but he was miffed because he felt the Navy and Marine Corps, not the Army, had borne the brunt of the Pacific War.
Back in Washington Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal smoothed the waters by proposing the Japanese delegates sign the surrender documents aboard Missouri. The compromise delighted Truman, as his own daughter had christened the battleship named for his home state. The Tokyo Bay ceremony was scheduled for September 2.
By the morning of August 30 more than 4,000 troops of Maj. Gen. Joseph May Swing’s 11th Airborne Division had landed at Atsugi and were there to greet MacArthur, whose personal Douglas C-54 Skymaster transport Bataan II touched down that afternoon at 2:19 p.m. With the stem of his signature corncob pipe clenched between his teeth, the general stood silently at the plane’s door, savoring the moment. After posing for photographers, he then descended the steel steps to shake hands with Lt. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger, Eighth Army commander and liberator of New Guinea and the Philippines. “Bob,” said MacArthur, “this is the payoff. From Melbourne to Tokyo is a long way, but this seems to be the end of the road.”
Sunday, Sept. 2, 1945, dawned cool and gray in Tokyo Bay. Around 7:30 a.m. two U.S. destroyers lay to aft of Missouri and disembarked a host of correspondents and photographers from a score of countries. Assigned escorts led them to designated spots aboard the battleship and kept them from wandering about during the ceremony.
The “Mighty Mo” was dressed up for the momentous occasion. Suspended from a bulkhead over the quarterdeck in a glass case was a frayed ensign bearing 31 stars. Commodore Matthew C. Perry had flown the banner from his flagship when he led a squadron into Tokyo Bay on July 8, 1853, symbolically opening Japan to the West. Halsey had ordered Perry’s colors rushed from the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Md., for the ceremony. From its mainmast Missouri also flew Nimitz’s blue five-star pennant and MacArthur’s red five-star flag—both suspended from the same horizontal bar to diplomatically ensure each flew at the same height. A rumor circulated that the 48-star American flag atop the mainmast was one that had flown above the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 7, 1941, but Captain Stuart Murray, commander of Missouri, said the press must have been “hard up for baloney,” describing the banner as “just a plain, ordinary GI-issue flag.”
At 8:03 a.m. the destroyer USS Buchanan eased to the starboard side of Missouri and disembarked high-ranking Allied officers. Among them were Halsey, Eichelberger, Admiral Richmond K. Turner, General Joseph Stilwell, General Carl A. Spaatz, General George Kenney, Vice Adm. John S. McCain Sr., Dutch Lt. Adm. C.E.L. Helfrich and British Lt. Gens. Arthur E. Percival and Jonathan M. Wainwright. Percival and Wainwright had been interned by the Japanese in Manchuria since 1942 and released just days earlier. At 8:05 a.m. Nimitz arrived by motor launch and was piped aboard the battleship.
Minutes later MacArthur climbed aboard. Shaking hands with Nimitz and Halsey, he quipped, “It’s grand to have so many of my colleagues from the shoestring days here at the end of the road.”
Absent from the gathering of top brass aboard Missouri was Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, the quiet, unassuming victor of the Battles of Midway and the Philippine Sea and commander of the Fifth Fleet. He was off Okinawa aboard his flagship, the battleship New Jersey, as Nimitz wanted someone ready to take command in the Pacific in the event Japanese fanatics attacked Missouri. Rumors were rife kamikaze suicide pilots might target the ship after it entered Tokyo Bay.
At 8:56 a.m. 11 Japanese delegates arrived aboard a launch from the destroyer USS Lansdowne. With cane in hand Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu made his way painfully up a gangway to Missouri’s quarterdeck. He had lost his left leg to a would-be assassin’s bomb in Shanghai years earlier, and his prosthetic leg caused him agony. He and the other Japanese civilian representatives wore formal morning coats and silk top hats, in stark contrast to the dress uniforms of their military colleagues, the khakis and open-necked shirts of the Americans, and the tropical dress whites of the British and Commonwealth officers.
Delegates and onlookers soon crammed Missouri’s decks. More than 300 Allied generals, admirals and other officers stood on the quarterdeck, while correspondents and the ship’s complement of 3,000 officers and bluejackets stood, sat, sprawled or dangled from wherever they could find space, including atop the 16-inch gun turrets. All knew they were about to witness an historic occasion.
That occasion began as the Japanese emissaries lined up in front of a battered mess table on which the surrender documents had been strategically positioned to cover coffee stains on the green tablecloth. Accompanied by Nimitz and Halsey, MacArthur walked briskly across the quarterdeck behind the table, but most eyes remained on the Japanese.
“We waited a few minutes, standing in the public gaze like penitent schoolboys awaiting the dreaded schoolmaster,” diplomat Toshikazu Kase recalled. “A million eyes seemed to beat on us like arrows barbed with fire. I felt them sink into my body with a sharp physical pain.”
Missouri’s chaplain delivered an invocation over the ship’s public address system, followed by the playing of a recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as Percival and Wainwright stepped to MacArthur’s side behind the table, facing the Japanese delegation. The supreme commander stepped to the microphone. “We are gathered here,” MacArthur intoned slowly, “representatives of the major warring powers, to conclude a solemn agreement whereby peace may be restored.”
Reading from a prepared statement, the paper shaking in his hands, he continued, “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 founded upon faith and understanding, a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance and justice.”
MacArthur then invited the Japanese delegates forward to sign copies of the eight-paragraph surrender document prepared by the U.S. War Department. Shigemitsu was first to approach. The foreign minister shuffled forward, sat at the table, set aside his cane, removed his top hat and right glove, and reached inside his coat for a pen. He then checked his watch and stared at the papers spread out before him for some moments, seemingly stalling. Realizing Shigemitsu was merely confused, MacArthur instructed his chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Richard K. Sutherland, “Sutherland, show him where to sign.”
Next to sign was General Yoshijiro Umezu, the Japanese army chief of staff. Clad in a baggy olive drab uniform and jackboots, he remained standing, signed without pomp and returned stiffly to his country’s delegation.
MacArthur then announced he would sign “on behalf of all the nations at war with Japan.” Turning with a half-smile on his face, he announced, “Will General Wainwright and General Percival step forward and accompany me while I sign?”
The emaciated pair stood behind MacArthur as he used five pens to sign the documents with dramatic flourishes. He handed the first pen to Wainwright, whom he’d left in charge of the doomed garrison at Corregidor in March 1942, and the second to Percival, who had incurred the wrath of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill by surrendering Singapore in February 1942. The third and fourth pens MacArthur set aside for the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy. He placed the last pen in his shirt pocket to share with wife Jean and son Arthur back in Manila.
Nimitz signed next on behalf of the United States, and the other Allied representatives followed suit for their respective countries: General Hsu Yung-chang for China, Fraser for the United Kingdom, Lt. Gen. Kuzma Derevyanko for the Soviet Union, General Sir Thomas Blamey for Australia, Colonel Lawrence Moore Cosgrove for Canada, General Philippe Leclerc—the liberator of Paris in August 1944—for France, Admiral Helfrich for the Netherlands and Air Vice Marshal Sir Leonard Monk Isitt for New Zealand.
At 9:25 a.m., as the signing drew to a close, the clouds parted and the sun emerged for the first time that morning. MacArthur again stepped to the microphone. “Let us pray,” he concluded, “that peace be now restored to the world and that God will preserve it always. These proceedings are closed.”
The 23-minute ceremony, broadcast by radio around the world, had gone off without any major glitches. As the Japanese delegates turned to leave amid the shrill echoes of boatswains’ pipes, MacArthur strolled over to Halsey, put an arm around his shoulders and asked, “Bill, where in the hell are those airplanes?” As if on cue, a distant rumble announced the arrival of flights of Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers and hundreds of carrier planes, which soon swept over Missouri in a thunderous salute.
After leaving the quarterdeck, MacArthur broadcast an eloquent message of both hope and warning to the American people. “Today the guns are silent,” he began. “A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won. The skies no longer rain death, the seas bear only commerce, men everywhere walk upright in the sunlight. The entire world lies quietly at peace. The holy mission has been completed.” Then he abruptly switched gears. “We have had our last chance. If we do not devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door.”
Later that day the flags of the Allied signatory nations were slowly lowered in unison from signal yards as the bands aboard Royal Navy ships present played the evening hymn, “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended,” by 19th century British clergyman the Rev. John Ellerton. His words were fitting:
Now the labourer’s task is o’er;
Now the battle-day is past;
Now upon the further shore
Lands the voyager at last.
As “Amen” faded in the evening air, crewmen aboard the British ships gathered in their White Ensigns.
Shortly before noon on September 8, six days after the surrender ceremony, MacArthur conducted another symbolic ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, within sight of Emperor Hirohito’s Imperial Palace. Joining General Eichelberger on the terrace, he watched as an honor guard of Maj. Gen. William C. Chase’s 1st Cavalry Division attached colors to the flagpole halyards. “General Eichelberger,” declared MacArthur sonorously, “have our country’s flag unfurled, and in Tokyo’s sun let it wave in its full glory as a symbol of hope for the oppressed and as a harbinger of victory for the right.” As a khaki-clad honor then hoisted Old Glory up the staff, a band played the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the general and the gathered Americans stood and saluted.
With that simple act MacArthur—World War I veteran, West Point superintendent, military adviser to Philippine President Manuel Quezon, Army chief of staff and wartime commander of U.S. Army forces in the Far East—became the supreme commander for the Allied powers, Japan’s civil administrator. By the end of his tenure in 1951 he had earned praise for his enlightened reforms of the vanquished nation’s political, economic and social life.
More service also lay ahead for Missouri. In early April 1946 the battleship, a light cruiser and a destroyer sailed through the Mediterranean, the Aegean and the Sea of Marmara to anchor off Istanbul, Turkey, ostensibly to return the remains of Turkish Ambassador Munir Ertegun, who had died in the United States in November 1944. New York Herald Tribune columnist Walter Lippman later described the true purpose of the mission: “With the Missouri treated as a symbol of our power in the Mediterranean,” he wrote, “we can make it unmistakably clear in Moscow just where we believe the outer limits of their expansion are.”
The “Mighty Mo” saw more action when the Cold War suddenly turned hot on June 25, 1950, as North Korean troops stormed across the 38th parallel into South Korea. Along with its sister ships Iowa, Wisconsin and New Jersey, Missouri distinguished itself during the bitter 1950–53 conflict, and Missouri and Wisconsin later provided fire support during the 1991 Gulf War. Decommissioned in 1992, the proud battleship is docked at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where it serves as a museum ship [ussmissouri.org]. Each year visitors from around the globe stand on the same teak-covered quarterdeck where World War II finally, officially, came to an end. MH
Michael Hull was a soldier in the British army and a contributor to The World War II Desk Reference. He has written for World War II, Aviation History, Vietnam and Wild West. For further reading he recommends Reminiscences, by Douglas MacArthur; Nimitz, by E.B. Potter; and The Rising Sun, by John Toland.