Published on April 7, 2015
By Thomas Van Hare
Most people, even most historians, would say that Japan surrendered to the United States at the end of World War II in a large ceremony aboard the US Navy battleship Missouri in Tokyo harbor. They would be right in many ways, but there is more to the story than is commonly known. In fact, the Japanese first surrendered — and unconditionally at that — on August 19, 1945, in the Philippines after flying to the island of Ie Shima on board two specially-marked Mitsubishi G4M-1 “Betty” bombers. From there, the Japanese surrender delegation was flown to the Philippines on a Douglas C-54 for a meeting with Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
The Flight into History
The events leading up to the fateful day of the surrender of Japan came not long after the two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. It was obvious that in the face of nuclear weapons, there could be no victory nor even the dim hope of fighting to a draw with honor. Yet still, some factions within Japan desired to fight to the death — there was even a failed coup d’état. Other factions prevailed and recognized that it was the duty of their government to surrender and spare the Japanese civilian population annihilation by atomic warfare.
If the US had continued to the full-scale invasion as planned in Operations Olympic and Coronet, casualty estimates by the Secretary of War on the Japanese side were pegged at between 5 to 10 million dead at the loss of between 400,000 and 800,000 Americans, assuming that the Japanese civil defense plan was put into effect, which called on every civilian to fight to the death.
Despite much last-minute maneuvering, the decision was made on August 14, 1945, that Japan would surrender. On August 15, 1945, the country’s intent was officially and publicly announced. The Emperor himself addressed the Japanese people directly and personally over the radio. For the vast majority listening, it was the first time they had ever heard his voice. Many wept openly. In his speech, he asked them to bear the unbearable and accept the unconditional surrender of Japan to the Allies.
Concurrently, the Japanese Government formally replied to the previously ignored White House message (this notifying them of the Potsdam Declaration requirements) as it had been sent by the Secretary of State on August 11, 1945. President Truman, on receiving the message, called an emergency meeting in the Oval Office and subsequently held a press conference in which he read a carefully worded and prepared text that amplified the message that was also being relayed by the State Department directly to the Japanese Government. The President stated:
“I have received this afternoon a message from the Japanese Government in reply to the message forwarded to that government by the Secretary of State on August 11th. I deem this reply a full acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, which specifies the unconditional surrender of Japan. In the reply, there is no qualification. Arrangements are now being made for the formal signing of the surrender terms at the earliest possible moment. General Douglas MacArthur has been appointed the Supreme Allied Commander to receive the Japanese surrender. Great Britain, Russia and China will be represented by high ranking officers. Meantime, the Allied armed forces have been ordered to suspend offensive action. The proclamation of VJ Day must await upon the formal signing of the s terms by Japan.”
To ensure the formal and proper cessation of hostilities, a delegation of Japanese military leaders and civilian officials would have to meet with the Allied commanders to sign a surrender document — and to get that done, the Japanese chose to use two airplanes — Mitsubishi G4M-1 Betty bombers.
A Flight Nearly Lost in History
Through diplomatic and military communications, hasty arrangements were made for the Japanese to fly a delegation to sign the surrender documents that Gen. MacArthur offered to prepare. These would later be known as the interim surrender documents.
Communications between the Japanese military and the American military decided the protocol to receive the flights and ensure that they were not intercepted and shot down. It should be remembered that at the end of the war, the Japanese were using explosives-packed Mitsubishi G4M Betty bombers as kamikaze aircraft, hence the need to specially mark the planes.
The choice was made to paint the planes in all white, as opposed to the dark green camouflage scheme that typified late-war aircraft. The Japanese red ball insignia would be painted out and replaced with large dark green crosses on the tail, the wings, and the fuselage. The crosses, while they may have resembled German crosses, were unique in the Pacific Theatre and would ensure no confusion on the matter (particularly as the war with Germany had ended in May 1945).
All armament would be removed from the planes. The surrender delegation would fly to Ie Shima on the two Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers on August 19. Finally, the Americans would fly out, meet and escort the two Mitsubishi G4M Betty “peace bombers” into Ie Shima to ensure that there were no mistakes. That task fell on the shoulders of the 345th Bombardment Group, who fly out in two North American B-25J Mitchell bombers. For added protections several Lockheed P-38 Lightnings from the 80th Fighter Squadron would shadow the escort.
On the appointed day and at the hour requested, the Japanese planes arrived over Ie Shima and entered the landing pattern, flanked by the escorting pair of North American B-25J Mitchell bombers, the same type of bombers (though a later model) that had bombed Japan in the Doolittle Raid back in 1942.
The Japanese Betty bombers landed smoothly on Ie Shima’s 7,000 foot long runway and taxied back. The flight crews did their best to put on a professional show of airmanship to demonstrate that they still had some shred of pride and skill left. Once parked, the flight crews and official delegation — just 16 military and civilian men carrying briefcases and bags — disembarked from the planes. Lt. Gen. Torasirou Kawabe, the Vice Chief of the Japanese Army General Staff, lead the delegation and had the hard order to represent his nation and surrender unconditionally to the Americans.
An American reception committee that was specially selected had flown to Ie Shima on a Douglas C-54 transport plane. They had the mission of picking up and carrying the Japanese delegation back to the Philippines for the surrender meeting with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. For his part, Gen. MacArthur had ordered that only those who measured at least 6′ 6″ were to be present at the first reception at Ie Shima. He hoped to cow the Japanese with the unexpectedly giant size of the American fighting men.
The Japanese delegation walked the short distance of about 60 feet across the hard-packed coral to the waiting C-54. For a short while, they stood in the shade under the wing before being loaded aboard for the flight to the Philippines. If the Japanese delegation did have any fears or felt intimidated, none of them showed a hint of it. Lt. Gen. Torashiro Kawabe, the Vice Chief of the Japanese Army General Staff and the man who lead the surrender delegation, carried no sidearm, but he did have a Japanese katana, the famed sword of the samurai and the supreme symbol of military honor. Likewise, the other officers carried just their swords.
Lt. Gen. Kawabe received initial instructions at the side of the plane, being informed that once arriving in the Philippines, they should expect to receive instructions from the Allied commanders on the steps to be taken for the full and formal surrender of Japan.
The Japanese were fully aware of the terms defined in the Potsdam Declaration, which was issued at the end of July 1945 and was also called “Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender”. In fact, within the day of its signing, the Office of War Information in Washington began broadcasting the English language text to Japan from the OWI’s West Coast facilities, which were directly aimed at Japan. A few hours later, Japanese translations were ready and were broadcast. Further, Allied aircraft overflew Japan in the first days of August and dropped leaflets declaring the terms of the Potsdam Declaration.
The Potsdam Declaration was unequivocal — Japan would surrender unconditionally or be destroyed. The terms were harsh, specifically calling for Japan’s “prompt and utter destruction” if it did not immediately surrender. Signatories included all of the Western Allied powers, the Soviet Union, and the Nationalist Chinese Government of Chiang Kai-shek.
The Japanese leadership, those who lead Japan into a war focused on “world conquest” would be removed “for all time” from any authority or influence within Japan. The Allies would take possession of territories from which to rule Japan. Japan’s sovereign reach would be reduced to Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku, and minor islands that the Allies would later determine. As Japan still held considerable territory from its conquests, this was a complete rolling back of all gains in the war. The Japanese military would be completely dismantled and disarmed.
The Declaration also called for Japan to remove all obstacles to democracy, establish freedom of speech, of religion, and thought, and to establish and respect “fundamental human rights”. In the economic sphere, it offered Japanese “access” to raw material sources, but not control thereof, and it stated that industries would be allowed to operate and that over time Japan would be allowed to rejoin the world community and participate fully in trade. It also included an implicit promise that Allied forces would be withdrawn once Japan had established a democracy and committed itself to a path of peaceful and responsible governance.
Notably, the Potsdam Declaration included one key phrase: “We do not intend that the Japanese shall be enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation, but stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals, including those who have visited cruelties upon our prisoners.”
The one thing left unstated, however, was the fate of Japan’s Emperor — a man viewed nearly as a god on Earth by the Japanese. This single point left many Japanese in the leadership and military in uncertainty and with grave trepidation. Would the Emperor be arrested and tried for war crimes? Would he be imprisoned or even killed? Would he be allowed to remain Emperor of Japan, under Allied guidance?
Faced with the Potsdam Declaration, the Japanese Government chose a strategy of dignified silence. They simply ignored the terms and refused to recognize it, discuss it or even mention it — silence was an explicit policy, forcefully enacted by choice in what the Japanese considered a sophisticated diplomatic move. However, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the strategy of silence was abandoned. The Potsdam Declaration’s promise of “prompt and utter destruction” had been suddenly made a reality. Further, on the very day of the Nagasaki bombing, the Soviets declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria.
Concurrent with the bombing of Nagasaki, President Truman issued a statement calling on Japan to either surrender or “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” It is interesting to note that at the time, the US did not have any additional nuclear weapons ready and that it might have taken several months to prepare the materials and weapons. However, the President’s statement played on the simple fact that the Japanese did not know that.
For the Japanese, there could be no doubt at that moment that the end was near. Even those within Japan who might have held out for negotiated compromise were sidelined by the statement contained in paragraph 5 of the Potsdam Declaration in introducing the terms of surrender, “Following are our terms. We will not deviate from them. There are no alternatives. We shall brook no delay.”
With the terms of the Potsdam Declaration fresh on their minds, the delegation was loaded onto the C-54 and the plane departed for the Philippines. Meanwhile, on Ie Shima, the two white-painted Mitsubishi G4M Betty planes were moved to defensive revetments alongside the runway. Sadly, while being moved, one of the wheels on the landing gear of one of the planes broke through the hard-packed coral crust and sank in, slightly damaging the strut.
Once the delegation arrived in the Philippines, they were taken into downtown Manila. Gen. MacArthur received the Japanese delegation at the bullet-scarred Manila City Hall. Documents of “interim surrender” were presented to the Japanese delegation, who signed them without objection. Technically, this act officially ended the war since Gen. MacArthur had been elevated by President Truman, in coordination with the Allies, to serve as the Supreme Allied Commander so as to accept the surrender representing all of the Allied nations. Likewise, the Japanese delegation carried the full authority to execute the surrender of their country.
Following the Potsdam Agreement guidelines, Gen. MacArthur’s primary focus in Manila next shifted to organizing the full-scale surrender that would follow. The complexities had to be resolved quickly. A series of meetings were held in the course of a few short hours in which the Allies essentially dictated to the Japanese instructions for their next steps and a rough outline of how the Allied occupation of Japan would commence.
Gen. MacArthur’s personal tone formed a critical part of the negotiations and he adopted a strategy of “firmness but fairness” with the Japanese. Notably, the Japanese delegation had expected the worst, in part because they believed at least a portion of their own country’s propaganda about the supposed unbridled brutality of the American forces. The surrender was to be unconditional and, as such, there was little they could do but wait for the harsh judgment that they were convinced would follow.
Instead, Gen. MacArthur’s firm and fair stance impressed them favorably. In that singular brilliant stroke, he set the tone for the cooperation that followed once American forces arrived on mainland Japan. It is hard to know how many lives his strategy saved, as it went a long way toward ameliorating any risk of counter-insurgency actions on the part of the Japanese. The few remaining hardliners “had their teeth pulled” by Gen. MacArthur’s “fairness” in the matter.
What Became of the Betty Bombers
On Ie Shima, during the time the Japanese delegation was away, with assistance from the Americans on base, the Japanese flight crews pulled the landing gear of the one Mitsubishi G4M Betty free of the coral. They inspected the undercarriage for possible damage and found none. Over the night that followed, the 12 Japanese flight crewmen (six from each plane) were placed into secured quarters and properly fed. Of necessity, they were held as prisoners on the base at Ie Shima while the delegation was away. They were well-treated and they appeared pleased with their treatment, smiling as they waited for the return of the delegation — perhaps happy too that the war had ended and that they had survived, though we can only guess as to that.
The day after the surrender was completed, the Japanese delegation was taken back to the waiting Douglas C-54 and returned to Ie Shima. Once there, they once again boarded the two white Mitsubishi G4M Betty bombers and departed for Tokyo. Incredibly, one of the two Betty bombers had to ditch in the sea off the coast of Japan when it ran out of fuel. The American ground support unit at Ie Shima had made a mistake when converting the Japanese fuel request from liters to gallons, resulting in a shortage.
Nonetheless, the main part of the delegation arrived in Tokyo and turned over the Japanese copy of the surrender documents to their home government and relayed the surrender instructions in detail. The other crew and delegation members who ended up in the water were rescued by nearby fishermen who took them to Tokyo. From there, they proceeded by train to finish their mission.
After its return to the mainland, the one remaining Mitsubishi G4M-1 Betty “peace bomber” was parked at Kisarazu Air Field near Chiba (an industrial city adjacent to Tokyo). At the war’s end, Kisarazu Air Field was a major Japanese base and also the test site for Japan’s jet fighter, the Nakajima Kikka, which had made its second test just eight days prior. Within weeks of the surrender, however, Kisarazu Air Field was occupied by the USAAF and used as a staging and logistics point for arriving American occupation soldiers.
While the Kikka jet fighters were hauled away for evaluation, the remaining white-painted Mitsubishi G4M Betty bomber was considered common and not worth saving. Therefore, it was left behind, parked on the field. The plane was quickly targeted by American soldiers on the base. Most of the troops passing through probably had no idea why the plane was painted white and carried huge green crosses, nor anything about its historic role in Japan’s surrender. Like every other Japanese aircraft on the field, they stripped the Mitsubishi Betty bomber clean for souvenirs. It didn’t take long for the surviving plane to become a useless hulk. Metal panels were peeled away or torn off, instruments and fixtures stripped, and everything removable had been carried off. It is probably that a few pieces remain on shelves and in attics of aging veterans, none knowing that the traces of white paint reflect a deeply important matter in history.
In mid-September, a massive typhoon struck first at Okinawa, where it did extensive damage, and then made landfall on the Japanese main island of Honshu. The high winds and lashing rains further damaged what remained of the last plane. Afterward, the Seabees did the final (dis)honor and bulldozed the carcass of the once proud Betty over the seawall into the water. Tidal action and waves carried the twisted remnants out to sea and to the seafloor just offshore by the air base.
Aftermath of Ie Shima
Despite that the surrender documents had already been signed in the Philippines, the Americans and other Allied powers naturally called for a more extensive surrender ceremony. The other Allied nations felt that each had to sign the surrender agreements as well. Therefore, General MacArthur’s accomplishment in the Philippines with the Japanese delegation had been to organize the full-scale and very public surrender of Japan in Tokyo Bay.
In a glorious show at being the victorious general, MacArthur ordered that the final surrender would take place on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri. Much of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet from TF 58 was called forward to attend the events. Quickly, they steamed south (they had been shelling north at Hokkaido prior to the surrender) and filled Tokyo Bay. The superstructures of countless Allied ships nearly obscured the horizon in all directions. The surrender ceremony also proved to be a vast and final demonstration of the combined military power of America and its Allies.
The Japanese signatories included Japanese foreign minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and General Yoshijirou Umezu, Chief of the Army General Staff. Gen. Douglas MacArthur signed on behalf of the American delegation. Also on the deck of the USS Missouri were delegations and representatives from China, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and New Zealand, all of whom were to sign the surrender documents.
Close by on the deck of USS Missouri, mounted in a frame behind the surrender table, MacArthur had placed the very flag that Commodore Matthew Perry had flown when, in 1854, the US Navy’s Far East Squadron had sailed into Tokyo Bay to force Japan to open its ports to world trade. Gen. MacArthur, himself a cousin of Commodore Perry, had ordered that the flag be flown in from Annapolis as a fitting statement of America’s return to dominance of the Pacific.
The Surrender Documents
Two copies of the surrender documents were presented and signed that day, one for the Allies and one for the Japanese. Still keen to drive home the full capitulation and all it meant, Gen. MacArthur directed that the Allied copy be leather-bound and trimmed with gold, marked with the national seals of both countries. The Japanese copy was bound in raw, rough canvas and carried no adornment whatsoever — not even the national seals.
Thousands of sailors looked on and snapped photos at the ceremonies. The entire ceremony lasted just 23 minutes. As the Japanese officials departed, the surrender papers were gathered together as wave after wave of Allied aircraft flew overhead in huge V-shaped formations. The documents were then flown to Washington, DC, where, just one day later, they were personally presented to President Harry S. Truman. The war had officially ended and across America, spontaneous celebrations of “VJ Day” broke out seemingly everywhere.
A Final Note
For all its scale, audacity, and political impact, the final surrender in Tokyo Bay took place on September 2, 1945, four weeks after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a week after Japan’s flight to Ie Shima.
History only remembers the big show, however. It could be said that the end of World War II had come not on the deck of a great battleship attended by tens of thousands but rather on the wings of two Japanese Mitsubishi G4M Betty bombers a week before, an act witnessed by few and largely erased from history books.
One More Bit of Aviation History
Some of the remains of the last all-white Mitsubishi G4M-1 Betty “peace bomber” that was bulldozed into the waters just off the northern edge of the seawall at Kisarazu Air Field in Chiba might still be there today. Perhaps they may have been later recovered for scrap. It would be a fitting and timely project for aviation archaeologists to search out and see if it is possible to recover some piece of the plane this year, the 70th anniversary marking the end of World War II.