Guest Columnist

Justice and Decency: The 75th anniversary of the end of World War II

An Iowan from Marshalltown was a prominent commander of the early twentieth century

Signing of the peace treaty on the USS Missouri. General MacArthur (from left), head of Asian land forces, Admiral Halsy
Signing of the peace treaty on the USS Missouri. General MacArthur (from left), head of Asian land forces, Admiral Halsy, head of third fleet, Admiral Fletcher, head of division succeeding Denfeld, Signing is Admiral Chester Nimitz, chief of naval operations. Signed August, 1945.

Wednesday September 2 marks the 75th anniversary of the first formal signing of surrender ending World War II. The ceremony took place on the forward starboard deck of BB-63, more commonly recognized as the battleship U.S.S. Missouri.

General Douglas MacArthur, Army Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific, would receive the articles of surrender on the Missouri’s flag draped deck and planned a massive show of military dominance as a reminder of the U.S.’s ability to punish any of the defeated that may consider aggression.

At exactly 9:08 a.m., MacArthur and the Japanese Army’s delegate, General Yoshigiro Uzema, affixed their signatures to the document, and following similar actions by representatives of all Allied nations, MacArthur directed the attention of Emperor Hirohito’s vanquished forces to the skies above as 465 Army Air Force B-29 bombers and 350 Navy dive bombers and torpedo bombers flew low level passes above the 258 battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and other ships concentrated in the harbor forming a gauntlet to suggest that, for the Japanese, there was no escape.

MacArthur would later go on to assert such psychological and physical dominance as Supreme Commander of United Nations Forces in the Korean War, only to be fired by President Truman when he threatened to disobey the president and launch an invasion into mainland China.

Another prominent commander of the early twentieth century, was Frank J. Fletcher, of Marshalltown. He had risen in rank as a plebe from the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis and gained accolades earning the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry at the battle of Vera Cruz in 1914.

Seven days after MacArthur’s show at Tokyo Bay, on Sept. 9, Fletcher formally received the surrender of Northern Japanese Forces at Ominato as Commander of the Allied North Pacific Force. The 60-year old naval officer had come from a long line of Iowa military brass and was the nephew of Admiral Frank F. Fletcher, from Oskaloosa, who had been Commander of the Atlantic Fleet at the beginning of World War I.

The younger Fletcher graduated from the Naval Academy in 1906 and included among his classmates, future Admiral John S. McCain, father of the celebrated Vietnam War aviator and 2008 presidential nominee. By the 1930s, “Jack” as the cornfed Iowa boy was known, was aide to the Secretary of the Navy in Washington, D.C. and assigned as commander of his own cruiser division.

Fletcher then gained greater acclaim during the first full year of U.S. involvement in the Second World War when he assumed command of the aircraft carrier, USS Yorktown, and repelled a Japanese armada in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and later, the Battle of Midway. So successful, and swift, had been his victories, that it is generally believed he would have been in charge of the USS Iowa at Tokyo Bay had it not been for a feud with Ernest King, commander in chief of the U.S. fleet.

King had been critical of the senior officer after the Battle of Guadalcanal, in which Fletcher, following the battle plan laid out by commanders in advance, withdrew his fleet of ships on the second day of the assault, not knowing that the Japanese had planned a counter attack which was scheduled to strike that evening.

Nonetheless, despite the slight demonstrated toward him by King (who called Fletcher “a tired old man”), Fletcher, in the wisdom of experience, maintained a tone of grace and dignity throughout the surrender process at Ominato, choosing to hold his ceremony quietly without the bombast and show of conquering force orchestrated by MacArthur, and advocated by King, in Tokyo.

With enemies within his own Navy, Fletcher faced the Japanese with much contrition and a fervent desire to assure a prolonged peace. In classic Iowa form, he concluded the service with a speech that summed his philosophy on the value of human rights and reconciliation, ending with the statement “We have shown the Japanese the superiority of our arms. We must now demonstrate to the world and the Japanese people the superiority of those standards of justice and decency for which we fought.”

With the signing that followed, World War II, after seven years of ravaging the European continent, much of Africa, and most of Asia, finally came to an end. Unknown to the world, and overshadowed by MacArthur on the Missouri in Tokyo Bay, it was an admiral from Iowa at a small naval base on the furthest northern tip of the island of Honshu, who presided over this historic moment.

Fletcher remained in Japan after the war to help oversee the repatriation of former soldiers and sailors into a peacetime society. He was then named as chairman of the General Board for the United States Department of the Navy and retired, with honors, in 1948. Among them were the Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Cross, and the British Order of the Bath. One of the state’s most accomplished military leaders, he is also one of the least heralded, much in keeping with what was his self effacing, modest character.

Today, Fletcher’s home in Marshalltown is maintained as a living history museum. And in 1980, as an active tribute to his legacy in Naval heritage, the destroyer U.S.S. Fletcher (DD-992) was named in recognition of his inimitable role in a career of nearly half a century of service to the nation.

This week, as we remember the 16 million Americans who were called for duty in humankind’s deadliest conflict before the surrenders of September 2 and 9, let us also recall, with reverence, the 262,630 Iowans (more than the entire population of Linn County) who donned our country’s uniform so that people around the world could know the justice and decency of which Fletcher spoke.

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More than 420,000 of these 16 million brave warriors never got the chance to celebrate any surrender, including 8,400 from the Hawkeye State. The victories of May (in Europe) and August (in Asia) 1945 are dedicated to them. Let us not forget, in this 75th anniversary year, the standards for which they were willing to sacrifice, and all too often, give, their life.

David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.

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