Marking Time: The Instrument of Surrender

Emma Connolly

Emma Connolly

Emma lives in England. Ace the dog keeps her feet and heart warm while she writes about music and culture.
Emma Connolly

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On September 2nd, 1945, a group of high-ranking military representatives from the Allied forces of World War II gathered on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Mount Fuji’s elegant form was clearly visible in the morning light. The khaki and white uniforms of United States military lined the decks. A group of 11 men stood in isolation before a table spread with papers. Their dress contrasted starkly with the Americans: some wore uniforms of dark green, heavy with gold braid; others wore morning dress, complete with top hats and white gloves. The Japanese Foreign Minister and Chief of the General Staff had arrived to sign the Japanese Instrument of Surrender. After 6 years, World War II was formally ending.

Japanese surrender signatories arrive aboard the USS MISSOURI

Japanese surrender signatories arrive aboard the USS MISSOURI (National Archives 531311)

Throughout the spring and summer of 1945, the Japanese had experienced increasing military and civilian losses, culminating on August 6th, when an uranium bomb named ‘Little Boy’ exploded 2000 feet above the city of Hiroshima Japan. Three days later, ‘Fat Man’, a plutonium bomb, exploded at 1600 feet above Nagasaki. The immediate loss of life from these two nuclear bombs was somewhere in the region of 200,000. Within a week, at noon on 15th August, the people of Japan heard their Emperor’s voice for the very first time, as he announced their surrender.

Fat Man atomic bomb

‘Fat Man’, Nagasaki (USA National Archives 535795)

Today, 70 years on, the atomic bombs are well remembered, in the East and West alike. Recalled with less impact, but certainly not forgotten, is the firebombing of Tokyo on the night of the 9th March 1945, when 279 B-29 United States Superfortresses dropped cluster bombs of napalm and white phosphorus across the city. However, between the time of that Tokyo raid and the atomic bombs, the B-29s did not lie dormant. Operation Meetinghouse – the codename for the raid on Tokyo – was only the first target in the incendiary bombing campaign. At first, large cities were raided, but from June onwards, smaller towns were targeted. As these locations had no anti-aircraft guns, the B-29s could be divided into four wings, so that four different areas were attacked simultaneously. By night, the bombers flew low and deadly over the islands, discharging flaming destruction. The names of those targets are largely unknown outside Japan: Moji, Kumamoto, Owari-Ichinomiya… The list goes on, distant and somehow sterile in its unfamiliarity.

american wartime poster

One name on that list is ‘Toyama‘. Between July 2001 and July 2003 I lived in Japan, teaching English to high-school students. My home was a small apartment in a rural village just outside Toyama. I had been allocated my placement at random by the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, and had never heard of the city before receiving my offer letter. The reality of life in rural Japan was a far cry from the electric Bladerunner dream of my imagination. I was kept awake at night by the loud croaking of frogs, did my laundry in a cold-water washing machine outside my front door, and had no internet at home.

Festival dancers, Toyama

Festival dancers, Toyama

Each morning I looked out from my balcony across rice fields to the foothills of the Japan Alps. I celebrated local festivals which seemed otherworldly; parks and streets were transformed with lanterns, food stalls, dancers and music. It was clean, orderly and beautiful, but with an undercurrent of the wild magic recognisable from Hayao Miyazaki films such as Spirited Away.

Sunset in Toyama

Sunset in Toyama

I fell in love with the place. Life was quiet but intense, the unspoken was often more meaningful than words and I forged friendships as strong as family. I knew that most of the town was new, but buildings seemed to be dismantled and rebuilt with remarkable speed and I thought no more of it. It was only after I left Japan that I realized Toyama city had been one of the greatest casualties of the B-29 raids.

On the night of August 1st-2nd – just fourteen days before the Emperor’s radio broadcast – Toyama city had been targeted with deadly efficiency. Bombers destroyed all but 0.5% of the town. Shocked by this statistic, I undertook further research. I hoped that I might discover some accounts written by citizens, for the smallest stories are that those that make up the reality of historical events, although such tiny scraps of history are often lost or forgotten. I did not expect to discover a memoir written in English. Scans of faded typewritten paper arrived in the mail from Japan. Age had rendered them hard to read, so I read slowly. An astonishing story unfolded.

Coming soon to The Chronopages – ‘No Sound Of Planes: The Margaret Armstrong Story’

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