So many books and articles and occasional papers have been written about World War II’s different theaters, it might be good to stop and consider if anything at all has been written about when the fighting stopped, when the war was finished and people were allowed to return home from whence they came to fight, or what were they doing when word of the ceasefire finally reached them. Leave it to one of military aviation’s premier authors and historians to step up to take a crack at this unusual bit of reporting.
Though I asked my father about the details of his unit, I never asked him where he was when word came of the Japanese surrender on Aug. 15, 1945. I still don’t know. Was he at work, or was he on liberty amid the daily throngs in Honolulu? Just one example of a remaining hole in the tapestry of history in that momentous time.
But Tillman fills other holes. Missions from carriers still launched, and still ran into opposing Japanese Army and Navy fighters. Hellcats still wheeled in high-altitude dogfights against the still dangerous Zero as Japanese pilots flew as ordered to destroy the daily attacks on the homeland. Young men still died although the word was slowly coming to cease hostilities. New B-32 Dominator bombers flew photo-reconnaissance missions. The B-32, which looked more like a single-tailed derivative of the famous B-24 Liberator, but was once considered a second-string replacement for Boeing’s seminal B-29 Superfortress that had been laying waste to Japanese cities and industrial targets since late 1944, and had even ushered in the nuclear age by bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki a week before the surrender.
Both sides were spent, tired, national economies were in ruins all over the world. Yet, the Soviet Union, under the draconian rule of Joseph Stalin, one of the most ruthless dictators world history has ever seen, was bound and determined not to be left out of whatever post-conflict pickings might be gained by attacking Japanese targets on Aug. 8, a week before the surrender in the far east of the Eurasian continent. Indeed, who could forget that Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler, who had then attacked the USSR in June 1941, something the German dictator had always had in mind.
This book is a heavily detailed, thoughtful account of what brought the Japanese surrender and all the events that affected so many people in and out of the military, not just those actually in combat. Tillman has many vignettes to tie together like the fateful atomic bombing approach and afterward when word is passed by various sometimes secretive avenues, but without a definite word of capitulation from Japanese leaders. Preliminaries also include military and political personalities, fighting for their continued piece of the action as plans are laid for the final push toward the Home Islands in late 1945 or early 1946.
There was also confusion in Japanese inner circles, especially what to do with Emperor Hirohito and his guarded speech on Aug. 14 to his people about accepting the Potsdam and Allied surrender terms. The Soviet attacks are told in particular detail and given today’s headlines about Russian aggression in Ukraine, bear marked similarities some 77 years later. As previously noted, aerial action was surprisingly brisk with Navy Hellcats tangling with Zeros, Franks and Jacks (army and navy fighters) as well as last-ditch kamikaze raids.
The most poignant chapter is No. 4. Tillman takes time to write a collection of often emotional vignettes around the world describing how news of the surrender first affected the many people from the U.S. in ships still deployed and men still fighting every day in in Asia—from the iconic kissing sailor and nurse in New York City’s Times Square, to the cockpits thousands of feet in the air over the targets, to even dazed Japanese soldiers hiding in forsaken jungles waiting to hear of the war’s end.
At one point, the author discusses the contemporary histories of India and China and their leaders, a brief digression from the book’s main story line. There is the story of Mao tse-Tung’s Communist party that would soon split the huge country’s political and national social identity.
The predictably complicated, dangerous and definitely emotional surrender ceremonies aboard the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63) on Sept. 2, 1945, are described in great detail as victor and vanquished (that is, if the Japanese ever truly considered themselves conquered) make for interesting and colorful reading.
Barrett Tillman’s latest book is a valuable anthology of how the war that truly engulfed the world finally came to an agonizing end—and yet, did it? Korea, five years later, Vietnam two decades later perhaps proved it hadn’t. The antagonists had just changed somehow. Today’s conflicts from Europe to the Middle East still can point to a number of unsettled religious and nationalistic scores that began in the early to mid-20th Century
My father was a Navy Yeoman 1st class stationed at Pearl Harbor in mid-1945, working on highly classified maps for the planned invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. His younger brother Frank had just returned home after being badly wounded chasing the Germans out of Italy while he was a member of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division’s ski troops. Frank and his men had taken shelter in a mountain tunnel near Venice when a German shell hit the tunnel and he was almost killed. If my father ever knew about it, much less my grandparents, I never knew.
Convair B-32 Dominator
Showing its huge single vertical tail, but originally designed with twin vertical tails, and something of a contestant against Boeing’s advanced B-29, only 115 Convair B-32 Dominators were built, with only 15 of the big bombers seeing very limited action in the final months of the Western Pacific. On Aug. 17, 1945, two days after word came of the Japanese surrender, two B-32s of the USAAF’s 386th Bomb Squadron, 312th Bomb Group were sent out on a photo-recce mission to monitor the state of operations of selected Japanese air bases. Japanese Navy fighters intercepted them and attacked the Dominators. Among the attackers was newly promoted (Aug. 1, 1945) high-scoring Navy ace Lt. jg. Saburo Sakai flying an N1K1 Shiden (code-named “George”). He had lost his right eye on Aug. 7, 1942, flying a Zero and attacking SBD Dauntlesses over Guadalcanal. His tortured flight back to his base on Rabaul became one of the epochal survival stories of the Pacific air war. Although Sakai’s accepted total is 64 kills in China and the Pacific, many historians now believe his total was much less, perhaps no less than 28. Actually, Sakai, himself never made the claim his total was 64.
Cmdr. Peter B. Mersky, USNR (Ret.) was commissioned through Aviation Officer Candidate School in 1968, and remained a reservist, serving in various intelligence billets as well as two tours with Light Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (VFP) 306 until retiring in 1992. He was the first civilian editor of “Approach” magazine, has been a volunteer associate with "Naval Aviation News" since 1971, and has written NAN’s book review column since 1982 including more than 800 book reviews to NAN and other publications, including 16 books on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Aviation.