HONOLULU (AP) — When Japanese military leaders climbed aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, the battleship was packed with U.S. sailors eager to see the end of World War II.
On Wednesday, the 75th anniversary of the surrender, some of those same men who served the United States weren’t able to return to the Missouri in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor because of the world’s new war against the coronavirus.
The commemoration initially was supposed to be a blockbuster event with parades, movie premieres, galas and thousands of people honoring the veterans in their 90s or beyond, some who may be marking the milestone for the last time.
Because of the threat of the virus, the ceremony was scaled down to about 50 people, with local veterans and government officials gathering on the USS Missouri in masks. The names were read of surviving WWII veterans, including 14 who were on the ship the day the Japanese surrendered.
Jerry Pedersen, 95, was one of them, watching history unfold as a young Marine. He and his comrades who live in the mainland U.S. had to watch a livestream of the ceremony from home instead of on the decks of the battleship as planned.
“Well, I was very disappointed, yes. I was hoping to maybe see a friend or two,” he said. “I just want to share with at least my family and a couple of other folks some of the feelings that I was going to express when I got there.”
Those feelings are complicated, said Pedersen, who dedicated his life to peace after the war ended.
“War must not happen again,” he said, recalling the words uttered by Gen. Douglas MacArthur on the day the Japanese surrendered. But “we’re still oscillating on many of the things that are necessary to bring us peace.”
Pedersen wore a blue Marine uniform recently sent to him for the ceremony as he watched the event from a laptop at his son’s house in rural West Sacramento, California. His three adult children, their spouses and some grandchildren gathered around the computer, clapping and hooting when his name was called. Pedersen smiled and gave a fist pump.
“For me, it was the end of the killing, the war that had taken millions of soldiers and many, many, many millions of civilians in wars in Europe and finally in the Pacific that came to an end that day. And we were celebrating,” he told The Associated Press.
“I had the feeling that day. I made a pact with myself that I’m going to be a peacemaker in my life,” said Pedersen, who went to college after the war, got his doctorate and became a minister.
He watched remotely as WWII-era “warbirds” flew over Pearl Harbor and video messages played from veterans and others in a tribute to those who couldn’t attend or had passed away.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he was honored to “commemorate and reflect on the sacrifices and victories of our service members and allies who helped fight for and secure peace.”
At the end of his keynote address, he built a case for a strong military for the future.
“We honor the legacy of those who came before us and recommit ourselves to defending today’s international rules and norms so that the road is safer and is better for generations yet to come,” Esper said. “The United States’ commitment to the role today is the same one we made to the freedom-loving people of the world in 1941 — that we will remain ready to fight any foe and defend any friend.”
The U.S. entered the war after Japanese warplanes attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Thousands of service members were killed and wounded, about half of them dying on the USS Arizona, which still sits submerged in Pearl Harbor next to the USS Missouri Memorial, a floating museum.
Four years later, after massive losses on both sides that included the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese indicated they would surrender on Aug. 15, then met with Allied forces aboard the Missouri on Sept. 2 to sign the Instrument of Surrender.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige said the country can learn from WWII veterans about targeting the problems of our time.
“Some compare fighting a pandemic akin to fighting a global war,” Ige said. “What I do know is that we cannot go wrong in following their example in the face of any adversity. Their courage under fire, strength of character, resilience over time provides a clear roadmap for us to follow in all that we do, whether we are fighting a social injustice or a virus.”
Q: WHAT IS V-J DAY?
A: An abbreviation for Victory over Japan Day, marked by the United States and its allies in the war and by the Asian victims of Japan who won their liberation from years of atrocities and oppression. Some countries, including Britain, Australia, the Netherlands and the Koreas, mark Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15. Others, including the United States, mark the day on Sept. 2, while the Philippines, China and Russia observe Sept. 3. Japan mourns for its war dead on Aug. 15 in a solemn ceremony attended by the emperor, political leaders and veterans’ families.
Q: WHY ARE THERE DIFFERENT DATES?
A: The countries that observe Aug. 15 mark Japan’s public announcement of its surrender. Others commemorate Sept. 2, when Japan formally signed its surrender, ending a conflict that lasted, in various degrees, nearly half a century in parts of Asia. Then-U.S. President Harry Truman said that the V-J Day proclamation had to wait until Japan officially signed the surrender terms.
Countries also mark different dates for political and historical reasons. In 2014, China set Sept. 3 as a newly formalized historical day to annually mark the Victory Day of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression. The country celebrates with a military march. The Philippines also observes Sept. 3, the day in 1945 when Japanese Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita surrendered in that country. Russia, which declared war against Japan on Aug. 9, took military action against Japan until early September.
Q: WHAT HAPPENED ON AUG. 15, 1945?
A: At noon on Aug. 15, days after the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki on Aug. 9, Japanese Emperor Hirohito broadcast a surrender message to his people on the radio. The broadcast came one day after Japan told the United States and its allies that it was surrendering, and Hirohito and Japanese ministers signed the Imperial Rescript of Surrender.
The emperor’s radio statement was prerecorded on Aug. 14 in secrecy. Palace officials protected the records from army officials who stormed the palace to steal them. The emperor’s voice, which most Japanese were hearing for the time time, was muffled and nearly inaudible because of poor sound quality.
Q: WHAT HAPPENED ON SEPT. 2, 1945?
A: A formal signing of Japan’s surrender was held aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, where in 1854 Navy Commodore Matthew Perry had signed a treaty with Japan to open up the feudal nation for trade with the United States. Aboard the USS Missouri, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and Gen. Yoshijiro Umezu signed the Instrument of Surrender. The two men were later convicted of war crimes.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur, also Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, signed for the United Nations, with Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz signing for the U.S. Delegates from other allied nations, including Britain, France, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, China and the Soviet Union, witnessed the half-hour ceremony.
Q: WHAT HAPPENED AFTERWARD?
A: The official signing of Japan’s surrender ordered that the country must cease all military actions, liberate prisoners of war and others in captivity and follow other terms. It also launched a seven-year U.S. occupation that lasted until the San Francisco Peace Treaty took effect in April 1952, allowing Japan’s return to the international community. Japan has since become a major U.S. ally in defense and other areas.
Since 1954, Japan has spent tens of billions of dollars in development aid, initially meant as war compensation, for the region. But it took more than two decades for Japan to normalize diplomatic ties with some of its wartime Asian foes. It restored ties with South Korea in 1965, and with China in 1972, though disputes over wartime history continue to affect Japan’s ties with its neighbors. Japan has yet to sign a peace treaty with Russia because of territorial disputes and has not established diplomatic ties with North Korea.
Associated Press journalist Terry Chea contributed from West Sacramento, California.