Why did the Japanese surrender at the end of the Second World War take place on USS Missouri, a battleship that had served for less than a year in the Pacific War?
USS Missouri was the last battleship commissioned into the United States Navy, although not the last laid down. Like her sisters USS Iowa, USS New Jersey, and USS Wisconsin, she displaced 45,000 tons, carried nine 16”/50 guns in three triple turrets, and could make over 30 knots. Missouri entered service in June 1944 and joined the forward elements of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in January. Like other fast battleships, she served as part of Task Force 58, the carrier force that constituted the core of U.S. naval power in the last two years of the war. Missouri participated in several operations in the last year of the war, including the bombardments of Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Japan. For the rest of the time, she escorted U.S. carrier groups, protecting them from air (and potentially surface) attacks.
When Task Force 58 became Task Force 38 in May 1945 (in a complicated bureaucratic system, the ships shifted designation between 5th and 3rd fleets during command changes), USS Missouri became Admiral Bull Halsey’s 3rd Fleet flagship. It was in this capacity that Missouri led the Allied armada that entered Tokyo Bay on August 29, 1945.
Numerous distinguished ships were present at the surrender. USS South Dakota had perhaps the most illustrious record among the battleships, having served in the Pacific theater since 1942. USS West Virginia had survived Pearl Harbor. HMS Duke of York and HMS King George V each had a German battleship to their credit (Scharnhorst and Bismarck, respectively) and had each lost a sister to the Japanese, in HMS Prince of Wales. HIJMS Nagato and a few Japanese ships were also present.
The ships most responsible for the Allied victory over Japan, the fleet carriers of the USN, remained at sea during the surrender, in effect guaranteeing Japanese compliance. The single most deserving ship, USS Enterprise, had suffered kamikaze damage late in the war and was working up off Washington state.
So, why Missouri, a ship that had a respectable but not particularly distinguished war record? The quickest, and perhaps the most accurate, answer is that she was the flagship of the 3rd fleet, and that it made the most sense to have the surrender ceremony on the flagship. Over the years, some have suggested that the answer lies with President Harry S. Truman. Truman had a personal connection with the ship; his daughter had christened the hull at its launching, and Truman hailed from Missouri.
At the time and later, there was certainly some bitterness about the choice of Missouri. But in the presence of many vessels with competing claims to being most “distinguished,” simply choosing the flagship provided a means of avoiding, rather than embracing, controversy. It’s also worth noting that Missouri had more available deck space than most of the other options.
USS Missouri remained active after the war, deploying to the Eastern Mediterranean to calm tensions between Turkey, Greece, Italy, and the Soviet Union. She served in the Korean War before entering a long reserve period. In the late 1980s she was upgraded and recommissioned, serving in the Gulf War before retiring to Pearl Harbor as a permanent war memorial.
Robert Farley is author of The Battleship Book.