'Indescribable': Witness to the end of WWII

'Indescribable': Witness to the end of WWII
'Indescribable': Witness to the end of WWII

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'Indescribable': Witness to the end of WWII 02:25

Story highlights

  • September 2 marks the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender ceremony that officially ended World War II
  • Retired Lt. Cmdr. James Starnes, who was on the USS Missouri, where the ceremony took place, says witnessing it was "indescribable"
  • The signing of the surrender brought six years of war that claimed the lives of an estimated 60 million people to an end

(CNN)On the morning of September 2, 1945, Lt. Cmdr. James Starnes stood on the deck of the USS Missouri, surrounded by his fellow seamen, hundreds of Allied warships and the blue waters of Tokyo Bay. In the distance, two smaller vessels approached the Missouri. On board were representatives of the Japanese Armed Forces and government, finally ready to bring an official end to six years of devastating war.

Starnes was just 24 years old at the time. That was 70 years ago, but he remembers the details of that historic day with striking clarity.
After the devastating atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Starnes and the rest of the USS Missouri's crew learned that the ship had been chosen as the site of the surrender by then-President Harry Truman. Before he was President, Truman represented his home state of Missouri in the Senate. Starnes was the Missouri's navigator and served as officer of the deck during the surrender ceremony.
"We thought ... let's get our swords out and polish them up and get our white uniforms out and dress up. Then we got word from Gen. (Douglas) MacArthur that we fought the Japanese in our undress khakis, as he called it, and we'll accept their surrender the same way. So we did."
Starnes recalls his concern that Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, who had a wooden leg, might have trouble climbing the ladder from the admiral's barge up to the deck. But the surrender went off without a hitch. The ceremony began around 9 a.m. The captain's gig and admiral's barge brought the Japanese delegation out to the Missouri, where Starnes was there to greet them as they boarded the ship.
"They were disciplined and very civil. They weren't happy warriors, but they certainly weren't there to cause any trouble," Starnes said. "I, as the officer of the deck ... in tradition, they asked permission to come aboard and I said permission granted."
Once aboard, Starnes says the Japanese were escorted up a flight of stairs to the deck above by Adm. Chester Nimitz and Adm. William Halsey, where MacArthur was waiting with the surrender document. Foreign Minister Shigemitsu and Gen. Yoshijiro Umezu signed the document for the empire of Japan, and MacArthur signed above the line designated for the "Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers." In less than 30 minutes, a war that claimed the lives of an estimated 60 million people was officially over. For all the detail Starnes remembers about that day, his description of how he felt afterward is far simpler: "Indescribable."
"Having been in the service before the war started, having witnessed the beginning of the war, having gone through many experiences of not knowing who would win or who would lose ... now it was finally over and the Allies had prevailed."
Starnes recalls that after the ceremony concluded and the Japanese delegation left the ship, "hundreds" of Allied planes passed overhead, almost turning day to night. On the long voyage back to New York, Starnes had plenty of time to reflect on his Navy service and to think about what would be next for him. He was fairly certain that he would not pursue a career in the Navy, and a conversation with the ship's captain reinforced his inclination.
"The types of assignments and my responsibilities (during the war) had been far greater than they probably would be in a peacetime Navy," Starnes explained.
His next challenge would be tackling civilian life. Starnes returned to his home in Decatur, Georgia, and enrolled at Emory University, eventually graduating from law school in 1949. He helped raise seven children and went on to have a highly successful career in real estate and business. But after all these years, he has never forgotten the events of that September morning -- and is hopeful that no one will soon forget either.
"This was the end of total war, where the whole world almost was at war. And for that period of time, it was often in doubt who would prevail. I look now on September 2, 1945, as one of the most historic dates in history. I think we need to remember that."