It was a mildly overcast day in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945. The decks of the USS Missouri, a massive American battleship, were packed tight as Gen. Douglas MacArthur presided over the signing of the official Japanese surrender. World War II, the greatest conflagration of death and destruction the world had ever known, was over.
What next? We know what’s in the history books. However, global events proceed at one level, while personal events at another. For 16 million Americans in uniform, fighting on five continents, the surrender meant just one thing, “I’m not going to die in this war and I’m going home.” So, on this 75th anniversary of the end of war, I thought I would share a few recollections of my dad’s own coming home story. What makes his story all that different? Not that much. There are millions of coming home stories. Some written or shared, most not. But my dad, an average guy in many respects, extraordinary in others, had a recollection that I think would resonate with a lot of veterans from his era.
My dad was an enlisted man serving in the Navy. He had been a part of several of the bloodier battles of the Pacific War, working as a hydrographic technician. They do everything from measuring depths for amphibious landings, charting anchorages for ships, identifying channels and developing maps for use ashore by the invading forces. It’s kind of a harrowing job. It’s late 1946, the war has been over for almost a year, and my dad, after taking a special assignment in China, something to this day he never chose to fully explain to me, had orders to go home.
He was assigned to a troop ship leaving Ulithi Atoll in the Pacific. However, he had no desire to spend this 6,000-mile journey to San Francisco in four deep racks (those are bunks to you landlubbers) with seasick soldiers and Marines. So, he approached the captain, said he was a qualified quartermaster, and asked the skipper if he had any room for him in the crew. Crews were running lean on qualified personnel during the postwar period and the answer was an enthusiastic yes.
The crossing was a good one. There were fellow sailors to talk with, work to do and good chow. The journey went smoothly, that is, until the ship, in the last hours of the voyage, was approaching San Francisco Bay at about four in the morning. There was only a hint of morning light and the fog and mist, a daily occurrence in San Francisco Bay, was rolling in early. These were bad conditions under normal circumstances, but to add to the ship’s troubles, the radar conked out.
The skipper was cussing up a blue streak. They were temporarily lost in one of the worst bits of ocean in the world. The area at the mouth of the bay is where the Pacific Ocean meets San Francisco Bay and the currents there are erratic and fierce. The skipper, with a ship overloaded with fighting men finally headed home, feared a collision with another ship or hitting one of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge crew was scanning through the mist trying to make out any marker that would be of use. Getting their bearings seemed hopeless. However, my dad, a typical non-linear thinker, was looking up. Because he was, he saw it, the underside of the Golden Gate Bridge, and with that, it wasn’t hard to determine the ship’s location. This was also his first glimpse of America in three years. He was relieved and deeply moved at the same time. He was alive and he was home. He suggested the captain make a slight adjustment of the ship’s course to keep them in the channel. A few days later, at the Navy’s Treasure Island depot he was honorably discharged.
From that point on, whenever he was in San Francisco, he made it a point to see “his” bridge. And if I was in San Francisco, I had to go see the bridge. I still do. The one that had welcomed him home so many decades before.
My dad’s experiences were not unique. There are lots of homecoming stories and all worthy of telling. However, more than three quarters of a century later, there is one thing we should do. And that’s to say thank you, whether in our prayers, or to the World War II veterans still among us. Thank you for giving up so much of your young life to save the world.
David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at VCU and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.