Reflections on the Final Days of World War Two

Above and below the decks of the USS Missouri (The Sun, September 1995)

The battleship USS Missouri, still in camouflage paint, was a shadow knifing through the wartime Pacific on the night of August 10, 1945, heading for Tokyo Bay, when the first, tentative word came that Japan had offered to surrender.

Inside the ship’s warrior, off-duty officers were viewing a Tarzan movie featuring Johnny Weissmuller and Brenda Joyce when the exec was notified of the Japanese offer about 9:05 p.m. A few minutes later he returned to his seat and the movie continued without further interruption.

But later, word slowly began to circulate around the 887-foot dreadnought, flagship of Adm. William F. “Bull” Halsey’s Third Fleet, that the long, devastating world war might be drawing to a close.

Messages were received, via Navy radio frequencies and the Army News Service, confirming the initial report that the Japanese had made a surrender offer through the Swiss government, but that the Allies had not yet responded.

Up in his shipboard quarters, Adm. Halsey received the news with characteristic bluntness. Turning to his chief of staff, Rear Adm. Robert B. Carney, he was reported to have remarked “Have we got enough fuel to turn around and hit the Japanese once more before they quit?”

Finally, about 11 p.m., the ship’s chaplain read the Army News Service press release to the entire crew over the general announcing system.

Outwardly, nothing much changed. As usual since the start of World War II, the ship and her battle group continued on course in battle formation, displaying not a single light that would betray their position to enemy forces as they steamed under a pale cuticle of a new moon.

But inside the battleship’s 17-inch thick steel hide, the mood of the officers and crew began to change almost imperceptibly. Of course, non of the grizzled salts aboard ship wanted to show much emotion, especially since they realized the surrender offer, if true, would have little impact on them. After all, there were still watches to stand and gun mounts to man. Those in their sacks just rolled over, and those on watch downed another mug of high-octane Navy coffee.

By the next day, however, the hope that the war might actually be ending became a little harder to conceal, even for the Mighty Mo’s saltiest veterans.
Radio operators aboard ship were pumped for whatever bits of information they might happen to have about the status of the Japanese surrender offer. But the radiomen, as usual, weren’t talking – and probably didn’t know much anyway.

The uncertainty – was the Navy still at war or was peace at hand? – was especially hard on Third Fleet planners, who had to prepare simultaneously for both contingencies. The frustrating rumors continued and the ship continued with the rest of the battle group toward the main Japanese island of Honshū as fleet meteorologists nervously watched an approaching typhoon.

Meanwhile, in the Imperial Palace, Emperor Hirohito had reluctantly prepared his surrender speech. But a group of rebels, led by Hatanaka, planned a coup d’état to prevent the surrender. Around 21:30 on August 14, Hatanaka’s rebels set their plan into motion and spent the next several hours fruitlessly searching for the recordings of the surrender speech. When they did not find it, within an hour before the emperor’s broadcast, sometime around 11:00, August 15, Hatanaka placed his pistol to his forehead, and shot himself.

USS Missouri entered Tokyo Bay early on 29 August to prepare for the signing by Japan of the official Instrument of Surrender on September 2, 1945.

I welcome your Comments!

Ronny Herman de Jong

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