VJ Day and the Japanese Surrender

Two years ago the Marshall Foundation hosted a talk by Dr. Frank Settle that examined the role played by General Marshall in the Manhattan Project. Dr. Settle’s talk, as part of the Weapons of War sequence of the Marshall Legacy Series, built upon his book that sheds new light on the Manhattan Project itself but also on the key role of Marshall. The culmination of the project was the creation and the deployment of atomic weapons against Japan. Although the decision to use the bomb continues to excite controversy and debate today, at the time, there was little real pause given. Japan had demonstrated herself to be a fearsome and uncompromising enemy and the recent, bloody battles to secure Iwo Jima and Okinawa had persuaded Allied commanders that any assault on the Japanese home islands would be bloody and protracted. Ending the war as quickly as possible, therefore, became one of the overriding strategic considerations and any new “wonder weapon” that might obviate the need to land on Japanese territory became highly significant.

As things turned out, two atomic bombs would be dropped. The bombs, code named Little Boy and Fat Man, were delivered onto the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6th August and 9th August respectively. The role of these fearsome weapons in persuading the Japanese to surrender was substantial. Following on so quickly from the Hiroshima bomb the second bomb on Nagasaki, the same day as the Soviet Union also declared war on Japan, ensured that Japan rapidly agreed to the terms of capitulation laid out by the allies at the Potsdam conference, a month earlier but hitherto ignored by the Japanese government. On 15 August, less than a week later Japanese formally surrendered and that date for most of the allied coalition such at the British and Australians, became VJ or Victory over Japan day and celebrated as such ever since.

In the United States, however, President Truman had other ideas about what date should be employed to mark VJ day. Rather than 15 August Truman chose the equally applicable date of 2 September 1945. On this day the Japanese formally surrendered in a ceremony held on the quarterdeck of the USS Missouri, the enormous IOWA class battleship as she sat anchored in Tokyo Bay; a very fitting symbol of victory and vanquished. Poignantly, also present on that deck were General Percival, the British commander who had surrendered Singapore in February 1941, and U.S. General Wainwrights, who had surrendered the Philippines. Both men were thin and emaciated and only recently released from Japanese captivity. Although the debates continue to rage about the rights and wrongs of the uses of the bombs, they almost certainly saved lives in the long run. The fact that the last, documented, Japanese soldier to surrender, Lieutenant Hiroo Onada, did not actually do so until the summer of 1974 speaks to the fact that the Japanese would not stand down easily.

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