The best of the best: Mighty Mo in Tokyo Bay

August 30, 2020

Today her decks are dry and her guns are silent.  She the symbol of the end of the world’s deadliest conflict in human history, the ship she stands sentinel over, the USS Arizona, a watery graveyard dated December 7, 1941.

Her official Navy designation is the USS Missouri BB-63 but she was known to her crews and an affectionate public as “Might Mo”.  Bow to stern she was almost three football fields in length, displaced over 57 thousand tons when fully loaded and her sixteen inch guns could fire a shell up to twenty four miles.  Yet as massive as she was, she could still reach a top speed of almost 33 knots. (38 mph)

She supported the landings at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, shelled the Japanese homeland and on August 29, 1945 dropped anchor in Tokyo Bay.  Four days later she would be host to the final act of World War II; the official surrender of the Empire of Japan to Allied forces on September 2, 1945.

We’ve seen the pictures; the Japanese delegation in top hats and tails, American officers in their daily khakis.  The draped table, the oversized documents of surrender and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of the U.S. Army in the Pacific affixing is signature while the vanquished form enemy looks on.

History has recorded MacArthur’s words:

We are gathered here, representatives of the major warring powers, to conclude a solemn agreement whereby peace may be restored.Th  e issues involving divergent ideals and ideologies have been determined on the battlefields of the world, and hence are not for our discussion or debate.  Nor is it for us here to meet, representing as we do a majority of the peoples of the earth, in a spirit of distrust, malice, or hatred.

We know the great names:  Nimitz and MacArthur, Yamamoto and Tojo. But how many of us know of Starnes, James L.?

When Mighty Mo steamed into Tokyo Bay she did so with Lieutenant Commander James L. Starnes as her navigator; a verified veteran of the entire war, and at the ripe old age of twenty four.  And as Officer of the Deck during Missouri’s time in port, it fell upon Starnes to ensure that the surrender ceremony was carried out to MacArthur’s orders.

As history shows, Starnes carried out his duties with flawless perfection.  That however does not mean there was a moment or two that had him sweating.

On the 70th anniversary of the surrender now Atlanta Bureau Chief Jenny Jarvie’s interview with Starnes was published in the Los Angeles Times.  Below are a few of the nuggets she uncovered:

Starnes had originally planned on an “elaborate formal affair with ceremonial dress and gleaming sabers.”  Then he got word that General MacArthur  “wanted officers to wear their daily service clothes — khaki button-up shirts with open collars and no ties. “We fought them in our khaki uniforms, and we’ll accept their surrender in our khaki uniforms,” MacArthur was reported to have said.”

She notes that he (Starnes) “likened the job to conducting a symphony orchestra”, recalling that the General “didn’t want Japanese dignitaries on the Missouri’s deck more than five seconds before 9 a.m., but he also didn’t want them to arrive late.”  And so, like an orchestra, they rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed.

While Starnes respected MacArthur’s orders, he did manage to insert a note of his own: “Once reaching the deck, the Japanese had to walk past eight seamen, each one more than 6 feet tall. Starnes had picked them out in a calculated effort to emphasize Allied superiority and intimidate the Japanese delegation.”

Yet even the most precise rehearsals can’t prepare for the unknown.  Jarvie writes that

“Just before proceedings got underway and the surrender documents were brought onto the battleship, it became clear that the elegant mahogany table, a present from the British fleet, was too small to hold both documents during the signing.

 With only minutes to go, a humble folding table was grabbed from the crew’s mess, where cooks had just finished cleaning up after breakfast. Hurriedly, Capt. Murray grabbed a green tablecloth, stained with coffee spots, to drape on top.”

Seventy Five years ago this Wednesday, the horror of World War II was at last brought to an official end.  And with that end, the generation known as the greatest, set about shaping the second half of that century; a century already now two decades in the past and fading fast.

James Starnes left us just six months after his interview with Ms. Jarvie and in the five years since tens of thousands more.  And before long, we will lose them all.  And with that, the best of the best that the human race had to offer will be no more.

God rest their souls, one and all.

PUBLISHER NOTE:  A version of this column first appeared in the August 30, 2020 print edition of the Joplin Globe.

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