HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Greatest Generation and its WWII veterans provide a legacy of service and sacrifice that we should all look up to, said Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Wednesday at a ceremony aboard the USS Missouri to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.
“As we look to the path ahead, we honor the legacy of those who came before us,” Esper told attendees on the decks of the Missouri. “It is fitting that we are gathered here today. This ship, which was built for war, has since been dedicated to peace and reconciliation.”
It was also on the Battleship Missouri’s decks — at 9:02 a.m. on Sept. 2, 1945 — that the Japanese formally surrendered to the Allies in a ceremony that ended the deadliest conflict in human history.
The ceremony Wednesday to mark 75 years since that day was significantly scaled back because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those in attendance — less than 50 in all — wore masks and spaced themselves out. Singers of the National Anthem, Hawaii Pono’i and the Queen’s Prayer performed behind plexiglass barriers.
But organizers said the commemoration activities — while far more muted than they had originally planned — were still a fitting tribute to all those who served in the war and an opportunity to reflect on the incredible legacy of a generation of veterans whose ranks are quickly dwindling.
The ceremony Wednesday morning took place on the Missouri’s fantail, looking out toward Pearl Harbor — where Japan’s surprise attack on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 threw the US into war.
Navy Adm. Phillip Davidson, Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, called Sept. 2 a date that should always be remembered for how it changed the world.
“The day that the United States and our allies turned tragedy into triumph, violence into victory, fighting into freedom, loss into liberty, and peril into peace,” he said.
In addition to military dignitaries and veterans, Gov. David Ige was in attendance.
“On this day, on this deck, 75 years ago, we marked the end in the Pacific theater of a great global war that touched every man, woman and child of my parent’s generation,” Ige said.
“Victory came at a high price, paid for by those who suffered and died on the front lines as well as those who endured hardship and uncertainty on the home front. There remains only one thing left for us to say today: Thank you. Thank you. We pray they grasp the depth of those words and the immensity of our debt.”
For the ceremony, the USS Missouri was festooned with red, white and blue bunting. The commemoration began with a “pass and review” by the USS Michael Murphy, sailors lining its decks to salute the Missouri. It also included a wreath ceremony, a rifle salute and the playing of “Taps.”
“We are gathered here for the 75th anniversary of one of the most significant events in history — the ending of World War II,” said Michael Carr, CEO of the USS Missouri Memorial Association, at 9:02 a.m.
He added that the Missouri, once used in war, “is now used as an instrument of peace.”
A black-and-white video playing on large monitors showed Imperial Japan’s surrender to America and its allies, and the short speech delivered on the Missouri’s Surrender Deck by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
“With the rest of the world listening intently, Gen. MacArthur not only brought an end to the bloodiest war in modern history he also set the tone for peace and friendship between the U.S. and Japan that continues 75 years later,” Carr said.
Pearl Harbor National Memorial Chief Historian Daniel Martinez said as a museum, the USS Missouri helps to tell the story of World War II and its veterans.
“These are places where men risked their lives, and in some cases lost their lives. They’re these centurions of history, and we come to honor them,” Martinez said. “It’s one of those places that I’ve often said, if you allow yourself to touch history, in turn it will touch you.
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Last week, organizers made the tough call to limit attendance at the Missouri ceremony to Hawaii veterans and a smaller list of other guests because of the risk of traveling during the pandemic.
The news was a blow to scores of WWII vets who had planned to travel from the mainland for the commemoration activities, including more than a dozen veterans who had been aboard the Missouri for the Surrender Ceremony in 1945.
Instead of coming together on the decks of the Missouri in person, they were there virtually — watching a livestream. Some even planned small gatherings of their own.
“I was sure disappointed when they cancelled that trip,” 98-year-old veteran Jack Holder told KCRA in Phoenix. Holder witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor and remembers it like it was yesterday.
He said while he wasn’t able to come to Hawaii for the ceremony, he looked forward to watching it online and remembering the legacy of those who served alongside him. “They refer to us as the Greatest Generation. I tell these kids that they could be the next Greatest Generation,” he said.
Even many Hawaii veterans weren’t able to attend the event in person; just a handful came out Wednesday. Instead of hugging their friends and shaking hands, they had to keep their distance.
The National WWII Museum estimates there are fewer than 400,000 surviving World War II veterans nationwide, including about 2,500 in Hawaii. The US Department of Veteran Affairs, meanwhile, projects the islands will have fewer than 100 living World World II veterans by 2030.
It’s a reminder, organizers of Wednesday’s ceremony say, of just how important it is to honor those who served in WWII now — before all of them are gone.
“All of them are in their mid- to late 90s. They simply aren’t going to be around much longer to tell their stories,” said Erik Nelson, the director of a new documentary about the end of WWII in the Pacific.
“If you understand the sacrifices these guys gave to give us the country we have today it might help us put things in perspective.”
This story will be updated.