On June 11, 2019, Director of Naval History and Heritage Command Rear Admiral Samuel Cox, U.S. Navy (retired) attended the launch of a USS Missouri (BB 63) commemorative stamp by the U.S. Postal Service. The date of the ceremony coincided with the 75th anniversary of the commissioning of the famed WWII vessel and was held aboard the battleship in Pearl Harbor.
The following are the remarks delivered by Director Cox during the ceremony.
Aloha, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. It is an honor to be here today.
First, I would like to express my deep gratitude to the United States Postal Service for seeing fit to issue a stamp honoring this great ship and the service and sacrifice of her crew.
When this stamp was conceived, the creators came to the Naval History and Heritage Command seeking photos, drawings, schematics, documents, details of radars, guns, camouflage and flags of the USS MISSOURI as she was when she was commissioned 75 years ago today. As a result, not only is this stamp a beautiful work of art, it is also accurate. I applaud the Postal Service for their due diligence.
Yet, some may ask, “What is the point of commemorating a ship that represents the end of the line of 500 years of evolution, from galleon to ship-of-the line, to battleship – a ship that was essentially obsolete before she was finished, which is why she was the last?” It is because of the symbolism of her role in ending the most deadly, destructive and costly war in the history of mankind.
The war in the Pacific between Imperial Japan and the United States was brutal. Some historians have called it a “War without Mercy.” Japanese soldiers and sailors almost invariably chose to fight to the death rather than surrender, and we obliged them. As a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor – memorialized by the battleship ARIZONA only a few yards ahead of us – the Bataan Death March, the torture of U.S. prisoners of war and other atrocities, the United States responded with unrestricted submarine warfare, fire-bombing Japanese cities, and two atomic bombs. I do not ascribe a moral equivalence in these actions, except that war is hell. The militarist government of Japan started a war of aggressive conquest and we, and this ship, put an end to it.
There is no sugar-coating the fact that this a warship, designed to kill. Her big guns were meant to sink ships and bombard shore installations, as she did to the Japanese homeland near the end of the war. Her other weapons were meant to shoot down airplanes. She was designed to absorb incredible punishment while dishing out even greater. But, she was never designed or intended for conquest. She was built for liberation and deterrence. She played a part in liberating the Japanese people from the tyranny of their own government, and in restoring the democracy that the Japanese had in the 1920’s and lost in the 1930’s. Twice she was called out of retirement in response to two of the most blatant acts of nation-state aggression in the second half of the 20th Century. Like the Japanese, the people of South Korea and Kuwait owe their freedom, in part, to the actions of this ship.
On 11 April 1945, a Japanese kamikaze suicide aircraft hit this ship, a few feet from where we are standing. In exchange for his life, the 19-year old pilot put a dent in the armor plate. Part of the plane and part of the pilot’s body ended up on this deck. The damage control team was going to wash the pilot’s remains over the side with the rest of the smoldering wreckage, but the captain said, “No.”
Captain Callaghan had every reason to hate the Japanese. His own brother, Rear Admiral Dan Callaghan, had been killed off Guadalcanal two years earlier in the bloodiest battle at sea in U.S. naval history. But, Captain Callaghan said that the pilot was just doing his duty for his country. He ordered that the Japanese pilot be given a dignified burial at sea with appropriate military honors. It wasn’t necessarily a popular order with the crew. After all, that pilot had just tried to kill them all. But, it was the right thing to do. And, it was also U.S. Navy policy.
Upon learning that the Japanese had accepted the surrender terms, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Ocean Area, and the man probably most responsible for the defeat of Japan, issued the following order;
“With the termination of hostilities against Japan, it is incumbent on all officers to conduct themselves with dignity and decorum in their treatment of the Japanese… The use of insulting epithets in connection with the Japanese as a race or as individuals does not now become the officers of the United States Navy.”
Nimitz’ order flies in the face of 5,000 years of recorded human history, which is replete with examples of the victors exacting vengeance on the vanquished. Perhaps the most famous example is the Roman defeat of Carthage, where the city was razed, anyone still alive was enslaved, and the fields were sown with salt. But Nimitz, who was an avid student of history, understood that we are not Imperial Rome. That is not how Washington acted at Yorktown or Grant at Appomattox. That is not who we are.
There is no question that surrender was deeply humiliating to the Japanese. The array of naval might and airpower on display that day was clearly intended to send the message, “We won and you lost.” But the ceremony on board this ship was conducted with the dignity and decorum that Nimitz insisted upon. The United States demonstrated victory with magnanimity, even benevolence. The “War without Mercy” almost immediately transitioned to a mission of mercy as U.S. forces, including crewmen from this ship, went ashore to ward off starvation and alleviate any further unnecessary suffering of the Japanese people.
As a result, in only a few short years, Japan transformed from an implacable foe to a peaceful, democratic nation, that has proven time and again to be one our best friends and allies in the world. So, if there is any lesson to be learned from this terrible war, it is that never again should the United States and Japan find ourselves on the opposite sides of a field of battle.
A second lesson regards the use of power, power that this ship represents. In his radio address to the American people upon Japan’s agreement to cease fighting, the senior U.S. military officer, Fleet Admiral William Leahy, stated, “We have the biggest most powerful Navy in the world… We must not depend on this strength and this power alone. America’s true strength and secret weapon comes from our basic virtues as a freedom-loving nation.”
I would argue that Leahy’s words still have relevance today, as we are engaged in an ongoing struggle against terrorist enemies, as well as other nations that do not wish us well. We are engaged in a global war of ideas, and what we stand for matters – the principles that our founding fathers passed down to us. We must win. But it matters how we win, and what we do when we win. If our nation succumbs to the view that “might makes right,” or that we are just the biggest tough-guy on the block, then it will be only a matter of time until we end up like Imperial Rome, overrun by barbarians. We will endure if we remain true to our values, like those of Nimitz and Leahy, and represented by this ship.
I would like to close with a quote that I think captures to true meaning of this ship and this stamp. At the surrender ceremony on 2 September 1945, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, who presided over the ceremony, stated, “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 founded on faith and understanding, a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish – for freedom, tolerance, and justice.”