It was MacArthur's show.
With him there was achievement and there was image and the two were oft entwined as they were now on a September morning that officially ended the worst war there had ever been. He wore khakis without a tie as if holding the Japanese in disdain, even contempt. And he made sure that among the American and Allied of ficers there on the Missouri's deck to witness Japan's acknowledgment of defeat, were included men like Skinny Wainwright, who'd been captured at Corregidor and spent more than three years in a POW camp for their amusement.
He'd also insured the presence of some enlisted men who'd tasted the war's bitter moments and would now enjoy its fruits. One of these men was Kevin Kean, today a Franciscan priest and college chum of mine, whose ship had been sunk by a Japanese kamikaze suicide plane.
At one point MacArthur had arranged for a flyover of the ship by U.S. planes. Not by a handful but by several thousand. First, low and deafening, in came the hundreds and hundreds of fighters and dive bombers and torpedo planes off the dozen or so carriers we had parked right outside Tokyo harbor. Just in case.
Then, after they'd blackened the Japanese sky, along came a thousand or more B-29s, then the largest warplanes in existence, flying in precise formation over Tokyo after having flown more than a thousand miles from their air strips on Guam, on Tinian, on Saipan, all recently captured from the Japanese in bloody assaults.
As Teddy White, who was there, later remarked, "In those days we knew how to do stuff like that," or words to that effect, and the cowed Japanese diplomats scurried to the little card tables to sign the instruments of surrender.
At which point MacArthur, curtly, declared, "These proceedings are now closed," and turned away in chill disinterest.
I was a boy then and have no memory of that day. I do remember Aug. 15, VJ Day. I was working that summer as an office boy for Mudge, Stern, Williams & Tucker, the great Wall Street law firm, and my family had this little cardboard cottage on the beach at Breezy Point, and to get to the subway to Manhattan and the office, I took the Breezy Point ferry across a couple of miles of Rockaway inlet to Sheepshead Bay, past where they had the Manhattan Beach Coast Guard base and the Merchant Marine training school.
And as the little ferry boat huffed and puffed its way through the morning sun and turned left off Manhattan Beach, we could see sailors in whites running about on the high pier and leaping and diving into the water where they were swimming about and shouting and raising hell, all without apparent cause. You could hear the voices across the water but not what they were saying and then someone, more prescient than I, said, almost solemnly, "Maybe the war's over. Maybe they heard the war's over."
In Sheepshead Bay I walked up to the subway station and bought a Daily News and there was nothing in that edition of the paper of course, but by now people were coming up the street toward the station with their nickels out for the fare and calling to one another, well, it really is over. We really beat them, didn't we? And stuff like that.
On the ride into Manhattan there was talk in the train and I kept thinking about it. The war had been so much a part of all our lives and for so long and I knew in another year or so, I'd be going to it. Except that now the Japs (and that was what we all called them then, even in the papers and on the radio) had quit, I wouldn't have to.
The actual offices of Mudge, Stern were on Pine Street but already by now, about 9 in the hot, sunny morning, there was celebration in the streets of the financial district and people were throwing papers from the windows and I watched it drifting down. I was very excited and I looked around for something to throw myself but the wastebaskets had been emptied by janitors in the overnight and I didn't think Mudge, Stern would be pleased to have me shredding their fine letterhead simply to celebrate the end of a war.
There has been in this 50th anniversary year since those historic days, a great deal of talk about how we ended the war by dropping the bomb, and much of that talk, including great gobs of the Peter Jennings special on ABC, was rubbish. There is no need to reargue that one yet again in this space. But there has been sitting on my desk here at Advertising Age for a long time, unread, a book by Gavan Daws published by William Morrow, titled, "Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific."
I have tried to read the book once or twice, dipping into it here or there, and I have had to put it aside and calm myself. Civilized people do not behave as Mr. Daws says the victorious Japanese did; civilized people cannot read such accounts and not be sickened.
In recent months there has been much published in this country about the callous treatment of our own Japanese-American citizens pried from their California homes and hustled off into the camps. This was an atrocious business and wrong.
It was sweetness and light compared with what the Japanese did to our men and the Brits and Aussies and Dutch and French they captured in the Asian and Pacific fighting. Think on that for a bit next Sunday when they note, as I assume they will, the anniversary of the day our planes hid the Tokyo sky and Skinny Wainwright watched the Japanese squirm under MacArthur's arrogant contempt.