50 years ago, Pearl Harbor survivor saw Japanese surrender to MacArthur

September 02, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

Its hull shredded by six Japanese torpedoes and its bridge blasted by a bomb, the battleship West Virginia was settling to the bottom of Pearl Harbor when the crew, including Seaman Richard L. Brown, was ordered to abandon ship and try to swim ashore through water ablaze with burning fuel oil.

A few days later, Mr. Brown's family in tiny Petoskey, Mich., received a "deeply regret to inform you" telegram that he had been lost in action in the Dec. 7, 1941, sneak attack on Hawaii.

However, as the 78-year-old Timonium resident points out happily, the report of his death was quite premature. Not only did Mr. Brown live to fight many more days, but 50 years ago today he was perched on the signal bridge of the USS Missouri to watch Japan's formal surrender aboard the battleship in Tokyo Bay.

"I was there at the beginning and I was there at the end," the retired bakery executive declares proudly. In between, he sandwiched large chunks of the war in the Pacific, including surviving the sinking of the aircraft carrier Lexington in May 1942 in the Battle of the Coral Sea.

After a survivor's leave, Mr. Brown was transferred to the USS Block Island, a small escort carrier protecting Atlantic Ocean convoys against German U-boats. After one voyage to Belfast, Northern Ireland, he was transferred again, joining the first crew of the Missouri, commissioned at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, in June 1944.

It was another stroke of luck for Mr. Brown. A German sub sank the Block Island on its next run.

Although President Truman proclaimed Sept. 2 as V-J Day, it was almost anti-climactic. A world exhausted by nearly six years of conflict had erupted in jubilation two weeks before, on Aug. 15, when Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's capitulation.

In Baltimore the day was marked only in church services, and the city was virtually deserted as people enjoyed the Labor Day holiday.

Mr. Brown and fellow members of the 3rd Fleet Landing Force who had been sent ashore for guard and patrol duty at the Yokosuka Naval Base were brought back to the Missouri to witness the surrender.

"Just before nine o'clock, I watched the Japanese come up the gangway; one guy [Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu] could hardly walk," Mr. Brown recalled. "General [Douglas] MacArthur didn't shake hands or anything, he just pointed to where they should stand."

MacArthur surrounded himself with more than 130 American and allied admirals and generals facing the 11-man Japanese delegation.

The general made a brief speech before the Japanese signed, Minister Shigemitsu for the government and Gen. Yoshijuro Umezo, the chief of staff, for the Imperial armed forces.

MacArthur then signed as Supreme Allied Commander, followed representatives of the Allied countries, the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada, China, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the Soviet Union.

Observers were perched on every available inch of the decks and superstructure, Mr. Brown said, "But it was silent. With MacArthur's presence, it would have been. I don't recall any jubilation, and as soon as it was over, we went right back . . . to continue our duties of guard and patrol."

The Tokyo sky was overcast, "but two minutes after the signing the sun broke through and it was a beautiful day," Robert B. Cochrane, of Sarasota, Fla., recalled of the day World War II officially ended.

Mr. Cochrane, who had been covering the war in Europe, was one of three Baltimore Sun war correspondents aboard the Missouri. He stood atop one of the ship's gigantic 16-inch gun turrets.

To mark the historic occasion, the Missouri's print shop produced a souvenir card with black lettering on the Japanese Rising Sun, attesting that the person named was present at the surrender. It has the facsimile signatures of the ship's skipper, Capt. Stuart S. Murray, and MacArthur, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz and Adm. William F. Halsey.

Mr. Brown, who still has his card, said the printing plates were destroyed, thrown over the side, "so no one could fake any cards."

"It was a pretty solemn affair, actually," said Thomas J. O'Donnell of Towson, another of the Sun reporters and later press secretary to Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr.

MacArthur stage-managed the surrender ceremony with himself as the leading actor, Mr. O'Donnell said. "He carried his role off with great dignity."

In the front rank behind him, MacArthur placed Lt. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright, the hero of Corregidor, and Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur E. Percival, the British commander captured in the fall of Singapore. Both men had just been freed from three years in prison camps.

"General Wainwright was so thin you could practically see through him," Mr. O'Donnell recalled.

Mindful of the humiliation of Japan's early victories, MacArthur had launched an operation to rescue the two generals so they could be present to savor the victory.

In his Sun report, the late Philip Potter noted that MacArthur used six fountain pens to sign his name and at the end gave one each to Wainwright and Percival.

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