By Maxine Brown
THE historic Tokyo Bay surrender ceremony aboard USS Missouri – where General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allies, accepted Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu’s formal signature on the Japanese Instrument of Surrender to mark the end of hostilities in WWII – is something Kingsley Veteran Jack Le Cras OAM remembers like yesterday.
Seventy-five years ago on 2 September, the then 19-year-old RAN radar specialist found himself on deck of “Mighty Mo”, jostling for position to watch history as it unfolded. He’d found himself there after being tasked with escorting RAN Vice Admiral John Collins from the HMAS Baatan to the behemoth 58,000-tonne flagship of the 3rd Fleet, the Vice Admiral being one of eight Australian delegates to attend. Watch historic footage here.
Today, Jack – now 94 years old and President of the Wanneroo RSL Sub-Branch – has the vibrancy of a man 20 years younger. Like most Veterans, he’s extremely humble, with a tendency to play down situations rather than talk them up.
His presence at the signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender is a case in point – with Jack not even mentioning this fact until nearly halfway through our interview about VP Day.
He was in service as part of the commissioning crew aboard the spanking new Tribal-class destroyer HMAS Bataan, which was officially commissioned on 25 May, 1945 before heading for Manila in the Philippines.
“We were lucky. We came in at the end (of WWII),” Jack said. “The Japanese fleet was decimated by then. Our main danger was submarines. The only action we saw was while searching for a submarine that had been detected. That was the extent of the excitement for us.”
By 15 August, the Japanese had surrendered following the dropping of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 9 and 12 August, which claimed close to 200,000 lives.
“From there on in, on 28th of August, Vice Admiral Collins came over to our ship and so we sailed out of Manila, refuelled at Okinawa and arrived in Tokyo on the 31st. By that time, our ships had started to get into Tokyo Bay. It’s hard to imagine, but by the time the peace was signed on the 2nd of September, there were 380 warships in Tokyo Bay. If you think of Cockburn Sound, Tokyo Bay is 17 times larger,’’ said Jack.
“We were anchored a mile away from The Missouri and our job was to escort Collins along to the Missouri for the signing of the peace. I was in the motorboat’s crew, three of us, to take him over. We dropped him off at the gangway and the sailor said to go around to the stern and tie up. They escorted us through the ship and we came out overlooking where the peace was signed. So I saw it.’’
It’s at this point that Jack enjoys a quiet chuckle, as the enormity of what he has just said sinks in. Yes, he was present when global history was made, soaking up everything from his perch on high.
Centre deck featured a simple table covered in a green tablecloth. Perched nearby was a swathe of microphones and news media from around the world. High-ranking officers representing our Allies occupied a prominent position facing the table. They were from China, Britain, the Soviet Union, Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. They stood out with their formal uniforms adorned with gilt badges of rank and decorations as well as neatly disciplined ties and stiffly buttoned high collars. Scores of American officers of all services stood in loose ranks facing the table from the inboard side. In accordance with General MacArthur’s express directive, they sported plain, open-collar khaki uniforms bearing only minimal rank insignia. MacArthur believed the officers should accept the surrender in the clothes they had worn to fight.
The Japanese, meanwhile, arrived in their finest, with at least three dignitaries wearing top hat and tails. Mr Shigemitsu was one of them. He moved with a significant gait, having lost his leg in an assassination attempt years prior. Others there included General Yoshijiro Umezu, Chief of the Army General Staff, and Major General Yatsuji Nagai.
Jack explains: “We couldn’t stay for very long, we were only there for five minutes. We saw the Japanese sign the documents and shortly after we had to return to the boat so we could stand by close to the ship, so when we saw Collins come down through the ship and onto the gangway we could pick him up straight away with no delays.
“When you think about it, MacArthur showed the Japanese no mercy, no mercy.
“It was in the detail. For instance, when a senior officer or foreign dignitary goes on board a warship, they have what they call a side party who stand at the gangway to greet them, and there’s usually four or six people, led by an officer or a petty officer, and they pipe the person on board, pipe a bosun’s call. And they pipe what they call a still, so that everyone stops and pays their respect to whoever’s coming on board.
“Well, for the Allied people they did exactly that. They had senior naval officers escorting dignitaries from the gangway up to where the peace was signed. When the Japanese were due to arrive, they changed the side party, and they found the tallest people on board, and they didn’t pipe them on board. They just let them walk up and they had a very junior officer greet them, who just nodded his head and walked them up.
“When they signed the peace documents, there were four documents to be signed, two for the Allies and two for the Japanese. The Allies’ documents were in a leather-bound folder with real nice paper, while the Japanese copies were ordinary paper with cloth and cloth-bound. MacArthur signed the four with four separate fountain pens, and handed those fountain pens to his senior people as a memento.
“The Japanese asked for a destroyer to bring them in, but MacArthur gave them what was called a picket boat, which was the mail boat that ran around to the ships delivering mail. As the Japanese were leaving the ship there was a flypast and the figures go that there were 400 aircraft in the air after the service. The sky was black, black with planes.”
However, even at that time, Jack had no idea of how momentous a day he had just witnessed, or how he would soon witness another significantly moving historic occasion – the mobilisation home of thousands of Prisoners of War who managed to survive the Japanese camps.
“I can remember walking through the ship and I can remember looking down but I can’t remember what my thoughts were at that time,” said Jack. “Possibly most of us were thinking, well this is the end of it and when can we go home.
“As it turned out, we were assigned as one of the ships that would stay behind for security services and what not. We became part of a taskforce to assist in the evacuation of POWs along the coastline to get them back to Yokohama. They (the Allied taskforce) knew 44,000 POWs had been shipped to Japan, they knew that there were 102 POW camps and they had to locate them. The Japanese only revealed 95. Well the other seven, it took some time before they could work out where they were.
“The Allies formed a reception centre in Yokohama on the port front. Their plan was to receive and process 1000 men a day. For those 1000 men, every man who came in had a man alongside him, to guide him through the processes of registration, clothing, medical, food. It was a massive exercise but in the end they processed 26,000.
“We were sent to Sendai, north of Tokyo, they’d located 4500 POWs there. Hospital ship the USS Benevolence followed us in the next day and we were tasked with getting the POWs out of the train and into ambulances. So we set off, there would have been 20 or 30 of us and a host of medics from the US Army.
“The train came in with about 250 men on it and the medics raced forward to get into the carriages to treat people and they were blocked. The officers blocked all the doorways and stood aside, they all filed out and formed up on the station with the Colonel or someone out in front. The medics started to run forward and suddenly found themselves blocked again. All of a sudden the Regimental Sergeant-Major of the group – these were all POWs out of Singapore, mostly British, and used to be 10-foot tall in my eyes – stalked out.
“He’d lost his swagger stick, he had a piece of bamboo there and he reported to the officer in charge and said ‘permission to disembark’ (granted). So he turned around and he still had the voice, ‘disembark’. And out of the ends of the carriages there were, you could say they were fair, and they marched out and formed themselves up in a single line along the carriages, in what we call close order, shoulder to shoulder. So they formed a barrier and the next lot came out in pairs, one supporting another, and they formed the second and third ranks. They were called up and reported again and sought permission to march off.
“In the meantime, the medics were getting really, really frustrated. The order was given, so the POWs all turned to march off and the two outside files linked arms with the centre rank, and they marched 50 or 60 paces and virtually collapsed. The medics moved in and shifted them to the hospital ship. That went on for a couple of days while they brought them all in.’’
While all of this transpired over mere days, there were horrific scenes that have haunted Jack until this day.
Jack believes we’d do well to remember General MacArthur’s words from that surrender ceremony 75 years ago, in which he said: “It is my earnest hope, and indeed the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past—a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfilment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance, and justice.”
They are appropriate words indeed, Jack, so fitting as a reminder today.
Lest we forget!