Ending World War II

For nearly four years, the Japanese had been a determined and relentless foe. Even after the firebombing of 68 cities, including Tokyo, the stunning defeats at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the earlier neutralization of their allies, they fought on. With defeat all but inevitable, Imperial Japan still refused to capitulate. President Harry S. Truman from Missouri was faced with two possible and equally drastic measures: the amphibious invasion of Japan labeled Operation Downfall, which was predicted to cost millions of lives on both sides, or the delivery of the newly developed atomic bomb. As everyone knows, Truman opted for the latter choice, detonating nuclear weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, killing at least 100,000 Japanese people in the initial bombings. Six days later, a shaken Emperor Hirohito finally declared the surrender of Imperial Japan. In his radio announcement of August 15 (August 14 in America), he cited the devastation rained by “a new and most cruel bomb.” At long last, the Second World War would finally end. All that remained was the formal surrender, and the choice of venue. The eventual selection of USS Missouri as the host vessel for the signing aroused considerable controversy at the time, and continues to confound both naval veterans and historians to this day.

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz signed the Instrument of Surrender as United States Representative, on board USS Missouri, September 2, 1945. Standing directly behind him were (left-to-right): General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, Admiral William F. Halsey, and Rear Admiral Forrest Sherman.

A Queen of the Seas

The third US Navy ship to be named after the state, USS Missouri, known colloquially as Mighty Mo, was indeed a powerful vessel, one of four Iowa-class battleships ordered in 1939–40 at a cost of $100 million each. They were designed to travel fast—over 30 knots—and to deliver a payload unequaled by anything afloat. They sported a main battery of nine 16-inch guns that could fi re either explosive or armor-piercing ordnance and had a remarkable range of some 20 miles. These guns, grouped in threes and housed within three turrets, were capable of elevating and firing either individually or as a battery.

A smaller battery of five-inch guns had a range of nine miles and were capable of firing both a solid and proximity-fuzed shell. The latter, developed by Johns Hopkins scientists, was designed to explode within close range of attacking enemy aircraft or small maritime craft. Referred to on board as “funny fuses,” they were responsible for a disproportionately high number of enemy kills. They eventually found their way into land engagements, and General George Patton used them to deadly effect against German armored and infantry.

The ships also bristled with highly effective 20- and 40-millimeter antiaircraft batteries. There was nothing afloat to equal the firepower of the Iowa-class battlewagons.

Late into the Fray

The Missouri entered the war in late 1944, and served for less than a year before the end of hostilities. She was assigned as part of Task Force 58, also known as the Fast Carrier Task Force, under the command of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance. The heart of the Allied maritime power in the Pacific, TF58 was, in the words of one historian, “a magnificent armada, initially consisting of four task groups that totaled 12 carriers (the number would grow to 18 by the Battle of Iwo Jima), 650 planes, eight fast new battleships, and various cruisers and destroyers, all well equipped with antiaircraft guns. Each task group was capable of being deployed singly or of functioning in concert with the others, depending on the nature of the operation. The Task Force sailed in a semicircular formation, the carriers in the center, to protect them and their planes from air attack.” In the last months of the war, the Japanese were launching an increasing number of kamikazes—suicide bombers—onto the decks of American vessels, and the Missouri was one of the vessels assigned to safeguard the carriers and their vital aircraft.

On April 11, 1945, the Missouri was struck by a kamikaze during the battle of Okinawa. The battleship’s antiaircraft guns found and badly damaged the Japanese plane, but the pilot still managed to crash his bomber onto the deck, spewing wreckage but doing little actual harm. The Missouri’s captain ordered the pilot’s body to be taken from his wrecked aircraft and given a proper burial. The remains were prepared, wrapped in his flag, and buried at sea, as the marines fi red a volley skyward and the ship’s crew saluted a fallen enemy.

Choosing a Host Ship

When Fleet Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey took command of TF58 in late May, he chose USS Missouri as his flagship. As a result, when an armada of Navy warships entered Tokyo Bay on August 29, presaging the surrender and the US occupation of Japan, it was the Missouri that led the fleet.

At this juncture, a proper venue for the official surrender proceedings had yet to be chosen. The US carriers of the fleet remained outside the harbor and at sea, to ensure that the Japanese would abide by their commitment to a peaceful submission. This meant that the surrender documents would be signed and the ceremony held on the deck of a battleship, but which one?

The crews of a number of ships present all felt that their respective vessel was the most deserving. USS South Dakota, for example, had served in the Pacific since 1942 and held a highly enviable service record. One battleship, USS West Virginia, had fought since the beginning of the war, having survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In the end, however, Missouri was selected to host the event.

It was never clear exactly how or why the Missouri was chosen, aside from the fact that she was Admiral Halsey’s flagship, and the choice would avoid the difficulty of having to select a vessel based on combat experience or merit. Adds chronicler Robert Farley, “It’s also worth noting that Missouri had more available deck space than most of the other options.”

A rumor circulated that the selection was made at the request of President and Missouri native Harry S. Truman, since the ship had been christened by his daughter, Margaret. Whether or not the rumor had merit, many believed it. “We didn’t have anything against the men on the USS Missouri,” recalled Don Ross, a former sailor aboard USS South Dakota. “It was against the bad judgment and bad decision made by President Harry S. Truman.”

Resentment flared among several of the other crews. Crewman Ross had believed that his vessel would be chosen to host the ceremony. He recalls hearing an on-board announcement to that effect, although no naval records show such a decision having been made. “We started to spit and polish. We painted everything, cleaned up everything on the deck. We even cut out an 18-inch by 18-inch hole in the deck, where we were going to place the bronze plaque.”

When word arrived that the Missouri—the last battleship of the war to be commissioned for combat—had been designated as the host ship, Ross felt a sense of outrage shared by his fellow crewmen. “You work hard and slave at what you do, and you could be dead any moment, and then someone takes your victory away … We were so angry, some of the men—not me—said, ‘Aim the 16-inch guns at the USS Missouri!’ ” Some crewmen on the South Dakota did, in fact, throw empty bottles at the neighboring Missouri’s hull.

Paul Stillwell, naval historian and former director of the History Division at the Naval Institute in Annapolis, Maryland, agrees that USS South Dakota was the worthier vessel. “Here is a ship that, on the basis of her war record, was a lot more deserving. She was in a lot more action. The Missouri was a Johnnycome- lately that had one big advantage.”

President Harry S. Truman inspected the USS Missouri sometime around September 8, 1947. Truman was accompanied by Admiral James Foskett.

The Signing

The signing ceremony took place on the overcast morning of September 2, 1945. The ship was filled to overflowing with hundreds of sailors, marines, cameramen, and reporters. In attendance were such illustrious high-ranking officers as Pacific Fleet Commander Chester W. Nimitz and Admiral Halsey, as well as representatives of nine Allied nations. Heading the Japanese delegation, which was conveyed to the Missouri aboard a US Navy launch, were Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and General Yoshijiro Umezu. Dressed in formal attire, Shigemitsu was a 57-year-old career diplomat who had been promoted specifically to sign the surrender.

Representing the United States was General and Supreme Allied Commander Douglas MacArthur, who would soon assume interim command of Japan. “It is my earnest hope,” MacArthur began, “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.” With a promise of “justice and tolerance” in the Allied treatment of the defeated nation, he immediately put the visibly concerned Japanese officials more at ease.

The Instrument of Surrender itself was brief—only eight paragraphs in length—and wasted no words. The second paragraph begins, “We hereby proclaim the unconditional surrender to the Allied powers of the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters and of all Japanese armed forces.”

Four of the next six paragraphs begin, “We hereby command,” laying out in the clearest terms the steps Japan is to take in ensuring complete and unconditional surrender. The document ends, “The authority of the Emperor and the Japanese Government to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers who will take such steps as he deems proper to effectuate these terms of surrender.”

Shortly after nine o’clock, Minister Shigemitsu and General Umezu signed the documents. After General MacArthur, Admiral Nimitz, and the representatives of the nine Allied nations also affixed their signatures, MacArthur made a short speech, praying for eternal peace and stating that he was signing on behalf of “the United States, Republic of China, United Kingdom, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and in the interests of the other United Nations at war with Japan.” He concluded, “I declare these proceedings closed.”

From start to finish, the ceremony took only 20 minutes. As the Japanese delegates were returning to their vessel, hundreds of US Navy carrier aircraft, followed by Army Air Forces B-29 bombers, flew overhead in formation. Suddenly, the sun appeared, and with that, the ceremony ending the most catastrophic war in the history of the world was officially over.

USS Missouri Gunner’s Mate Second Class Charles J. Hansen was working on a 40mm quad machine gun mount, during the battleship’s shakedown period, about August 1944. Note his tattoos, commemorating service on USS Vincennes and shipmates lost with her in the Battle of Savo Island on August 9, 1942.

Weeks later, the Missouri docked in New York Harbor to the cheers of thousands of citizens. President Truman came aboard, sat at the treaty table, and signed the guest book, stating that it was “the happiest day of my life.”

Whither the Missouri

Although USS Missouri’s active service in World War II ended with the signing of the surrender, she would soon embark on the next of her future lives.

In late 1950, within three months of the opening of hostilities in the Korean War, the Missouri was conducting shore bombardments at Inchon and providing gunfire support for the UN troops ashore. After being relieved of combat duty in 1952, she returned to Korea the following year, once again providing troop support.

After the war, Missouri was alternately used for patrol and training purposes. Decommissioned and placed in mothballs in 1955, she was reconditioned, modernized, and activated in 1984–86. Now equipped with the capacity to launch long-range, jet-powered, subsonic cruise missiles, she was the first ship to fire Tomahawk missiles during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

The following year, USS Missouri was decommissioned for the second and final time. Battleships in general are not used in a modern navy, and the battleship era is considered over. Her service, however, was far from over. Since 1999, the refurbished warship has sat on Battleship Row, Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, where she is open to the public as the centerpiece of the Battleship Missouri Memorial. USS Missouri, witness to—and site of—one of the most dramatic moments in human history, holds the distinction of being the last battleship in the world to have seen active service.

Japanese representatives boarded the USS Missouri for the surrender ceremonies, September 2, 1945.
Standing in front are: Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu (wearing top hat) and General Yoshijiro Umezu, Chief of the Army General Staff. Behind them are three representatives each of the Foreign Ministry, the Army, and the Navy.

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