By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric Lockwood, Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division
A long and illustrious career started on this day in 1944 when the last Iowa-class battleship, Missouri (BB 63), launched from the New York Navy Yard.
As all ships do after launching, she completed final fitting out, followed by testing her weapons, especially those famous 16-inch gun, engineering systems and hull. Showing her crew to be capable and competent, Missouri was commissioned June 11. Soon after, she sailed from Norfolk, transited the Panama Canal and steamed forward into battle as the flagship for the Third Fleet.
Missouri arrived the staging area of the Ulithi Atoll in the western Caroline Islands joining the aircraft carrier Lexington (CV 16) in Vice Adm. Marc Mitscher’s Fast Carrier Task Force. Sometimes called Task Force (TF) 58, it was a springboard for the Navy to strike Japanese forces. Task groups were typically made up of carriers accompanied by destroyers, cruisers and fast battleships. With this group, Missouri launched the first airstrikes against Japan since the Doolittle Raid in April 1942.
Afterwards, Missouri went to support Operation Detachment, better known as the Battle of Iwo Jima. The island would prove to be an important air field for the U.S. Army’s B-29 bombers, and the famous photograph taken atop Mt. Suribachi became an icon of the war in the Pacific. Midway through that battle, though, the task group rotated out to Ulithi to refuel and rearm.
At this time, Missouri was given new orders to support the Yorktown (CV 10) Carrier Task Group, departing for the Japanese mainland. By this stage of the war, aircraft carriers had become the main weapon in the Navy’s arsenal and as such were the leading targets for the Japanese. Yorktown’s task group was given the job of conducting raids off the Japanese mainland in the Inland Sea and it was then that Missouri encountered kamikaze pilots for the first time.
“There was a hypnotic fascination to the sight, so alien to our Western philosophy. We watched each plunging kamikaze with the detached horror of one witnessing a terrible spectacle, rather than as the intended victim. We forgot self for the moment, as we groped hopelessly for the thought of that other man up there,” said Vice Adm. Charles Brown, then-commander of the Navy’s sixth fleet, of the kamikazes.
As Sailors on the Missouri watched, Japanese pilots attacked aircraft carriers Wasp (CV 18) and Franklin (CV 13)—nearly sinking the latter. Missouri’s task group covered Franklin’s retreat to Ulithi, but that wouldn’t be the last time Missouri saw the kamikazes.
In late March 1945, Missouri joined the typhoon of steel raining down upon Japanese soldiers in the largest amphibious assault of the War in the Pacific —The Battle of Okinawa. The Allies started by bombarding the southeastern beaches as a feint, to force the Japanese to redirect their forces from the west. After the enemy fell for the trap, the Allies jumped. On April 1, U.S. Marines and Soldiers landed on the western beachhead.
Despite its strategic success, the Battle of Okinawa would prove to be one of the bloodiest battles in the theater. Allied forces — four divisions of the U.S. 10th Army and two Marine divisions supported by amphibious, naval, and air forces numbering about 183,000 – faced off against the 120,000 Imperial Japanese army and navy and roughly 39,000 locals. By the end of the battle, the Allies suffered 12,000 losses while the Japanese lost more than 100,000.
During the carnage, a kamikaze avoided Missouri’s curtain of shells and hit just below her main deck level. Luckily, she escaped her intended fate. The damage was superficial, and the crew quickly contained the fire.
By the time she left the task group for Ulithi, Missouri had downed five enemy planes, aided in the destruction of six others, helped repel 16 raids, and destroyed several military, governmental, and industrial structures and gun emplacements.
Although WWII had effectively been decided after the fall of Okinawa, the Japanese refused to surrender. The island would become a key strategic staging point for air operations in the invasion of the Japanese mainland.
In an effort to shorten the war, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs Little Boy and Fat Man on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively. The same day Nagasaki felt the effects of the second — and hopefully last — wartime use of the bomb, the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria, taking Japan’s main source of oil.
The Japanese had lost. It was time to surrender.
Enter Missouri. On Aug. 29, the ship pulled into Tokyo Bay and began preparing for the formal surrender. Aboard Missouri at 8:56 the morning of Sept. 2, 1945, Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz and Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur received Japanese representatives, headed by Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru. Before a cluster of microphones and cameras, Nimitz and MacArthur accepted Japan’s unconditional surrender as the world watched.
MacArthur began the ceremony on the deck of Missouri by saying, “It is my earnest hope—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 founded upon faith and understanding, a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance, and justice.”
By 9:30, the war had officially ended.
Although Japan signing its surrender on her decks was probably her most famous story, Missouri would continue her service to the Navy over the next half century — in the Korean War, fighting against Iraq and Saddam Hussein during Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1991.
Missouri’s final mission that year would be the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. A few months later, as the last active service battleship in the fleet, she was decommissioned March 31, 1992.
Still, her legacy doesn’t end there. On Jan. 29, 1999, 55 years after her launching in 1944, Missouri began her final mission. Just yards away from the USS Arizona Memorial, where World War II began with the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Battleship Missouri Memorial commemorates the moment when the war ended nearly four years later.