Seventy-five years ago today, Sept. 2, 1945, representatives from nine Allied nations gathered on the teak decks of the new, 45,000-ton battleship, the USS Missouri, early that Sunday morning to witness the official end of World War II. The surrender ceremony, which lasted only 23 minutes, began with a brief speech by American Army Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur. Following his speech, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, representing the emperor of Japan, signed the Instrument of Surrender. He was followed by the Chief of the Army General Staff, Gen. Yoshijirō Umezu, and several other Japanese dignitaries.
Following the Japanese signatories, MacArthur signed the document as the Supreme Allied Commander. Behind him stood an emaciated Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, Bataan Death March survivor, who just had been liberated from a prisoner-of-war camp two weeks earlier. After MacArthur signed, he was followed by Adm. Chester Nimitz on behalf of the United States and several representatives from the other Allied powers.
In the background, every square inch of the ship was packed with Allied sailors and officers determined to watch the historic ceremony — which also was broadcast around the world. Finally, at long last, the war was over. Americans everywhere celebrated joyfully.
At home, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, of course, headlined the day’s paper with the momentous event, noting that “Complete Victory For Allies Marks Pacific War’s End.” In the days leading up to the surrender, the newspaper’s editorial page had noted that events of the coming weekend would be remembered by Richmonders for the rest of their lives. The editors noted that “although no formal holiday or official celebration” would be observed, on Sept. 2, everyone would experience an awesome sense of relief.
Of the final surrender, the editorial page noted, “Thus ended an epic begun nearly four years ago at Pearl Harbor. The threat of a bellicose and chauvinistic Japan has been liquidated.” Praising the indomitable spirit of the American infantrymen and Marines who valiantly fought their way across the Pacific, taking crucial islands one by one, the editorial also noted that the surrender on the USS Missouri was just the thing to “make this Labor Day the most inspiring and enjoyable in many a year.” Sept. 3, 1945, proclaimed the RTD, was to be “a day for relaxation and rejoicing.”
Elsewhere in the Sept. 2, 1945, edition, the exuberance and gaiety of a city finally free from “wartime burdens, fears and restrictions” was apparent in one news story after another. Celebrating the first peacetime holiday since Thanksgiving 1941, Richmonders swarmed rail and bus stations, eager to head out of town for the Labor Day weekend. Everything, apparently, closed that holiday. From recruiting stations to banks to federal and city offices, all business and government activities were suspended while Americans rejoiced.
One news story mentioned that with gasoline rationing finally a thing of the past, thousands of Virginia motorists pulled into filling stations, happily requesting attendants to “fill ’er up!” Many people had no idea where they were headed with that full tank of gasoline, they just were happy to be able to drive and celebrate the end of one more wartime restriction.
Of course, most Americans understood that much hard work remained to be done. The war had killed more than 419,000 United States troops and wounded nearly 618,000. Families still were grieving lost fathers, brothers and sons, and shattered lives still needed to be put back together. The temporary graves of thousands of American servicemen needed to be exhumed and their proper burials observed.
Overseas, huge areas of Europe and Asia lay in ruins. Whether vanquished or victorious, nations in affected areas were reduced to rubble. More than 60 million people were killed in the destruction wrought during World War II. Millions more were left homeless. Some were voluntary refugees, others deported by governments. Thousands of infants and children were homeless, either orphaned or abandoned. Hunger was rampant. Factories, farms, businesses and all manner of livelihoods no longer existed.
The massive destruction, and the decline of Japan and so many European nations, led to the rise of two superpowers — the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Although the two countries had been allies during the hostilities, in the aftermath, they soon became competitors. The peace that had come at so dear a cost soon would become a very uneasy one as the two nations became embroiled in a decadeslong cold war.
But on Sept. 2, 1945, no one could have known that. Seventy-five years ago the fighting, destruction and bloodshed such as the world never had seen before — and has not seen since — finally came to end. For Americans that day, that peace was something to be celebrated. It still is.