It was a cloudy day and the ceremony lasted only 29 minutes.
World War II ended with the Japanese signing the Instrument of Surrender documents on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945.
The American copy of the document is in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the battleship is berthed at Pearl Harbor.
What happened leading up to that day was a remarkable series of events four years in the making.
For America, it started with Pearl Harbor, and then the Manhattan Project that created the first atomic bomb — detonated in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945.
World War II had ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, but raged on against the Empire of Japan for another 98 days in the Pacific.
It took dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and on Nagasaki three days later, killing up to 126,000 mostly civilians and injuring countless more to force a Japanese surrender.
The world would never be the same again after those three days.
By the summer of 1945, everyone knew that Japan was doomed. The Japanese navy and air force were shattered, Japan was blockaded, U.S. bombings were endless, the economy was in ruins, and the Philippines, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa were lost.
Yet, the war in the Pacific raged on.
The Allies planned a final invasion of Japan code-named “Operation Olympic.” It was set for November, with Gen. Douglas MacArthur in charge.
One report said, “The invasion of Japan promised to be the bloodiest seaborne attack of all time, conceivably 10 times as costly as the Normandy invasion in terms of Allied casualties.”
Ten days after the war ended in Europe, the Potsdam Conference took place in Germany. Participating were Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin, U.S. President Harry S. Truman and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was replaced during the proceedings by Clement Attlee.
The topic was what to do about Japan?
The conference ended with the “Potsdam Declaration,” threatening Japan with “prompt and utter destruction” if it didn’t immediately surrender.
The Soviets didn’t sign it because they hadn’t declared war against Japan yet — though they did shortly thereafter.
Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki told the press that Japan was “paying no attention” to the Allied ultimatum.
Then President Truman ordered dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
On Aug. 6, 1945, the B-29 Superfortress bomber Enola Gay piloted by Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr., took off from Tinian Island next to Saipan and headed for Japan, accompanied by two other B-29s.
At 8:16 a.m., the Enola Gay dropped the bomb, which was detonated about 2,000 feet above Hiroshima, killing some 80,000 and injuring countless more.
With still no surrender from Japan, a second A-bomb devastated Nagasaki three days later.
Despite death and injury of so many people and destruction of two major Japanese cities, Japan continued to refuse Allied demands to surrender.
Tokyo was in turmoil.
The Emperor wanted to end the war, and so did many others, but the hawks considered surrendering an unbearable disgrace.
He told his cabinet to accept the Allied terms immediately. “I cannot endure the thought of letting my people suffer any longer,” he said, stating that if the war did not end, “the whole nation would be reduced to ashes.”
The Emperor then recorded a message to his people to be aired on national radio.
On the night of Aug. 12, a band of military hawks led by Army Maj. Kenji Hatanaka who wanted to continue the war attempted a coup known as the Kyujo Incident and invaded the Tokyo Imperial Palace.
One of their goals was to find the tape recording of the Emperor’s planned radio surrender message and destroy it, but they couldn’t find it.
They also failed to gain support from other military leaders and the coup fizzled.
Minister of War, Gen. Anami Korechika, favored continuing the war but wouldn’t support the coup, preferring to remain loyal to the Emperor.
He joined the other members of the cabinet in signing the surrender document, but then committed hara-kiri the following morning, leaving a note apologizing to the Emperor.
Finally on Aug. 15, Emperor Hirohito went on national radio to announce the Japanese surrender, stating “We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.”
For most Japanese people, that was the first time they had ever heard the Emperor’s voice.
The U.S. accepted the surrender. It was unconditional except that the Emperor would be allowed to remain on the throne.
What if Japan hadn’t surrendered after Nagasaki?
The U.S. had another plutonium implosion weapon “ready for delivery on the first suitable weather after 17 or 18 August.” The next target would have been the big arsenal at Kokura on Kyushu, Japan’s southern big island, but Kokura was lucky — cloudy weather obscured the target and the bomber proceeded to the alternate target, Nagasaki.
The second alternate was Niigata on the central west coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island.
Additional targets were proposed, but Truman put a stop to the bombings while surrender negotiations were going on, saying that he didn’t like the idea of killing “of all those kids.”
Once the surrender was accepted, U.S. Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal suggested that a formal surrender ceremony be held aboard the USS Missouri, delighting Truman because he was born in Missouri.
The historic ceremony was scheduled for Sept. 2, giving enough time for allies to send their representatives.
Remembering Japan’s “sneak attack” on Pearl Harbor, precautions were taken against another possible sneak attack on surrender day, with carrier-based U.S. Navy fighter planes conducting simulated kamikaze attacks on the anchored fleets.
Just after 9 a.m. Tokyo time on Sept. 2, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed the Instrument of Surrender on the deck of the Missouri on behalf of the Japanese government, followed by Gen. Yoshijiro Umezu for the Imperial armed forces, as his aides wept.
Then MacArthur signed on behalf of the United Nations, declaring, “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.”
Next, the document was signed by allies China, Britain, the USSR, Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands and New Zealand.
Adm. Chester W. Nimitz was last, signing for the United States.
MacArthur faced the Japanese delegation and ended the ceremony by stating simply, “These proceedings are closed.”
Moments later, the clouds parted and sunlight broke out, while overhead, 462 B-29 bombers and 450 carrier planes roared across the skies — a deliberate show of U.S. military power.
Gen. Carl A. Spaatz later revealed that U.S. planes loaded with bombs were ready to stop any last-minute Japanese treachery, noting that a deck full of high ranking Allied officers on the Missouri might invite one final suicide attack.
Truman appointed MacArthur as Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP), and in September 1945 he entered Tokyo and began setting up his headquarters on the sixth floor of the Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Company building across the street from the Imperial Palace.
He had the final decision in rebuilding Japan that included punishing war criminals, eradicating militarism and ultra-nationalism, promoting political civil liberties, instituting a democratic government, reviving the Japanese economy, and protecting the Emperor from blame for Japan’s war misdeeds.
Douglas MacArthur essentially governed Japan for the next three years, successfully helping transform a shattered nation into a democratic and economic giant on the world stage.
Next for MacArthur was the Korean War and conflict with the president.
When he died in 1964, Japan’s ambassador to the United States Ryuji Takeuchi said, “I would like to express my deep sorrow, which is shared by the Japanese people, over the death of a great statesman and a friend of the Japanese people.”
Gen. MacArthur told the Japanese they must change both politically and socially — starting with education for everyone, including girls and women.
He said women must have the right to vote in elections and hold political office, with the same legal rights as men — and that every person had the same legal protection under the law.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Aircraft carrier on guard duty…
On the day Japan signed the surrender in 1945, there were 258 Allied warships in Tokyo Bay. The only aircraft carrier was the USS Cowpens (CVL-25) — posted out to sea in case of any Japanese treachery.
Commodore Perry’s flag…
Mounted on a bulkhead above the Missouri’s deck was a glass case holding the American flag that Commodore Matthew C. Perry flew in 1853 when his fleet of four ships sailed into Tokyo Bay to force trade relations with the United States. A courier brought the flag from the U.S. Naval Academy Museum.
During the war, Roosevelt trusted Stalin more than Churchill and Truman did. “I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing from him in return…,” FDR said, “he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.”
Two weeks before Japan surrendered, the Soviets invaded Japan’s Kurile Islands and South Sakhalin Island between Hokkaido and the USSR’s Kamchatka Peninsula, and have held them ever since.
Emperor Hirohito announcement…
“The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.
“Such being the case, how are we to save the millions of our subjects, or to atone ourselves before the hallowed spirits of our Imperial Ancestors?
“This is the reason why we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers....”
— Emperor Hirohito, broadcasting Japan’s surrender (Aug. 15, 1945)
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