The Last Days of World War II

By Gabe Pressman
|  Wednesday, Aug 24, 2011  |  Updated 6:19 PM EDT
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The Last Days of World War II

U.S. Naval Photograph, National Archives

General Yoshijiro Umezu, Chief of the Army General Staff, signs the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of Japanese Imperial General Headquarters, on board USS Missouri.

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It was a drama that held the world spellbound.

In August, 1945, the Pacific War came to an end -- as the lives of millions of young men were in the balance. It was an historic time, though few of us fully realized it. When you’re living it, that seems hard to do.

I was a junior naval officer on a small ship in a huge U.S. Navy fleet preparing for the invasion of the Japanese home islands. We were anchored in Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands, the very place where the war began with Japan’s surprise attack on American warships. That attack, on December 7, 1941, crippled our Pacific fleet. It was nearly four years later -- and, rebuilt and on a clear path to victory, we were on the move. We knew this could be the final battle.

The skipper of our ship and more than a thousand other commanders received the battle plan -- a large book with many instructions: the deployment of the ships in the convoys bringing the troops to the beaches; the unloading of soldiers, marines and supplies; the other logistics, including medical facilities and manpower and the arrangements for beginning to set up a civil government if the invasion were successful.

One page in the plan stood out. We were prepared to handle 1 million American casualties in the assault on Japan. That was a stark statistic -- and, in a sense, it was a tribute to what our planners believed was the tenacity of the Japanese soldiers and sailors.

The days of August, 1945  resounded in history. We didn’t know what was happening in Tokyo but, years later, we found out -- when historians put together the story. Harry Truman, who had just succeeded to the presidency after the sudden death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, had decided to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the bombs were dropped, on August 6th and 9th, causing incredible devastation, there was a bitter debate within the councils of Japan’s high command on whether to surrender or continue the war.

Ultimately, the Emperor decided to seek peace.

On September 2 on the deck of the battleship Missouri, the commanders of Japan’s Army and Navy signed a peace treaty. General Douglas MacArthur and other American commanders signed for the United States.

In his stentorian voice, MacArthur announced a “solemn agreement whereby peace may be restored,”   “freedom, tolerance and justice” prevail and “God will preserve it always.”

 


At Pearl Harbor that night, there was a joyous celebration. Every ship in the invasion fleet brought out its arsenal of pyrotechnics. We shot off these fireworks and they formed a canopy in the sky. The sailors and soldiers spontaneously celebrating the end of a war in which millions died. And it  was a beautiful sight.

Years later, I remember, my son, Michael, was writing a paper in high school. The theme was: should Truman have dropped the bomb?  Michael interviewed me and my response was strong, unequivocal:  “If he hadn’t dropped the bomb, I might have been one of those casualties and you wouldn’t be here! He should have definitely dropped the bomb. It ended the war.”

Michael listened gravely to what his father said. Then he wrote the paper and concluded: “Truman should not have dropped the bomb.”

I disagreed with the boy but still admired his independent spirit. I guess freedom of speech was one of the things we were fighting for. This kid put paternal devotion to the ultimate test.

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