On my fourth (or fifth?) journey to Pearl Harbor, I finally managed today to visit the USS Missouri. The first time I traveled out there, the ship was in dry-dock for repairs, and was inaccessible. The second time, I was on a group field trip, and didn’t have the time to make it out there. The third time, in my efforts to bring as little as possible – no bags of any kind are allowed – I neglected to bring my passport, and so could not pass the military checkpoint to get onto Ford Island. Today, therefore, I made sure to bring it, and headed out and made it happen. After an unnecessarily long bus ride, I managed to make it there with just enough time to spare, getting to the ship around three, going on the 35 minute guided tour, checking things out on my own for about 20 mins, and getting the hell out of there before I missed the last shuttle bus at 4 o’clock.
The tour, led by Heather, a staff member of the NPO that runs/maintains the Missouri, was really excellent. I realize now I neglected to get a picture of her. She talked about the history of the ship, its tours of service in WWII, the Korean War, and, refitted under Pres. Reagan’s administration, in the Gulf War in the ’90s, as well as some technical specs about the ship’s equipment. It is a massive ship, about twenty stories tall from keel to mast, and about the length of three football fields, but quite narrow, narrow enough to just barely squeeze through the Panama Canal.
I’ve never really been interested in modern warfare or the technical specs of battleships and their guns, though. For me, the most powerful aspect, and the entire reason I was there, was the significance of the Missouri as the ship on whose decks the formal Instruments of Surrender were signed on September 2, 1945, by representatives of the Empire of Japan, and by General MacArthur, Admiral Nimitz, and other representatives of the Allies.
There was something about our tour guide’s manner that really brought the scene alive for me, and truly moved me, as she described how the ship was situated in Tokyo Bay that day, an extra platform erected off the side of the ship to provide space for the media, and the guns turned to face the city – in part simply to create more space for the ceremony, but also as a sort of warning should the Japanese refuse to sign the surrender. The British had provided a very nice table for the ceremony, but at the last minute it was determined to be too small to hold the formal documents, and so a table was hauled up from the mess, where the sailors had just finished breakfast, and a green tablecloth thrown over it, hiding cigarette burns, scratches, gouges and stains from years of use. Our guide pointed out where the Japanese representatives stood, and their Allied counterparts, and described MacArthur, Nimitz, and the other top US commanders walking down that very ladder right over there.
The Japanese representatives, we are told, feared they might be killed onboard the Missouri that day, and had their wills drawn up ahead of time. They were surprised, we are told, to instead hear talk about rebuilding. And indeed, as the ensuing decades showed, Japan was indeed rebuilt, as was its position and reputation as one of the great powers of the world.
A flag hanging in a case on the wall (the bulkhead?) hung in (roughly) that same spot on that day in September 1945. It is a reproduction of the flag that flew over the USS Powhatan in July 1853, when that ship sat in that same spot in Edo Bay where the Missouri would sit nearly 100 years later, as Commodore Perry made demands upon the Tokugawa shogunate to open up trade with the United States of America.
(The flag deteriorated badly in the nearly 100 years between 1853 and 1945, and had to be repaired; the repairs were such that only this side, the “backwards” side, of the flag can now be shown. The real thing, of which this is a reproduction, is in the collection of the US Naval Academy Museum.)
Several speeches were made, and broadcast live over the radio, still a relatively new technology and experience. And then Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru became the first to sign the formal Instruments of Surrender. Dressed to the nines in a formal tuxedo, Shigemitsu placed his top hat on the table and sat, as he signed his name at 9:04am that morning. Having represented Japan’s civilian authorities, he was followed by General Umezu Yoshijirô, who did not remove his hat, nor sit down, trying to maintain his military honor even as he surrendered. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), sat and signed next, followed by Adm. Chester Nimitz, and representatives of the various Allied Powers.
The ceremony ended with a speech by Gen. MacArthur, several lines of which remain well-known and famous today.
(World War II Memorial, Washington DC)
It is really crazy to watch the footage of the Surrender Ceremony, and to think that just a few hours ago I was standing on that same deck, in that same place, albeit in a different body of water, and removed by over 65 years.
I wish that I could say that I was moved just by being in that place, just by seeing the plaque in the teak deck of the ship. But it was Heather’s tour, the way she described the events of that day, that really brought it alive for me, and nearly brought my eyes to start watering. I see in this moment, in the events of Sept 2 1945, the end of war and the first steps towards a new world of peace, hope, and cooperation for mutual prosperity. A moment in history so powerful that it echoes to today, filling us with emotions we would have felt as if we were actually there witnessing that ceremony.
I regret not thinking to visit the San Francisco Opera House when I was there over the summer; but, having now visited the Missouri, the Opera House is high on my list.
I have linked here to a number of photos of the Surrender Ceremony; you can find many more on Wikimedia Commons, and an interview with the Missouri‘s captain, explaining many of the tiny details and logistics of the ceremony, at the Missouri’s website.
PS A friend of mine made use of the Missouri in her MFA thesis project, which addresses attitudes about portraiture 100 years ago and today, as well as the constructed identity of the tourist, and the relationship of visitors – often in shorts & t-shirts, or brightly colored Aloha shirts – to this very serious military and historical site. Please take a moment to take a look at Elizabeth Curtis’ project, “The Visitors”.
All photos in this most my own, taken at the USS Missouri, Ford Island, Pearl Harbor on Dec 22 2011, with the exception of the one I took in Washington DC, June 28 2008.