After more than 60 million people had died, World War II ended and peace came in 1945 with the surrender, first of the Nazis and then of the Japanese. One of my earliest childhood memories is of my mother on the front porch of our home yelling and rejoicing early one morning in May of 1945 when news reached America that there was finally peace in Europe. The surrender of the Japanese would follow less than four months later and this great cataclysm had at last breathed its final breath.
During my years of traveling the world, I have made it a point to visit as many of the World War II sites as I possibly could. The sites I have seen range from the great battlefields of Europe (Normandy, Anzio, El Alamein, Bastogne) to the highly insignificant, but nonetheless interesting places such as Eva Braun’s villa in Munich given to her by Adolf Hitler. I have written about my visits to places of great horror like the Nazi death camps in Poland and the Peace Park in Hiroshima, Japan, where the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated. Once I even visited “suicide cliff” in Saipan where thousands of Japanese soldiers voluntarily jumped to their death rather than face capture by the Americans.
Today I am writing about the two sites where this terrible war was brought to its conclusion: Karlshorst outside Berlin and the USS Missouri which was anchored in Tokyo Bay during September of 1945 (she is presently moored at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii).
It was at about 3:30 a.m. (EST) in America on the morning of May 9 when the German Instrument of Surrender was signed 4,000 miles away. Representatives from the three armed services of the German Wehrmacht and the Allied Expeditionary Force as well as those from the Supreme High Command of the Soviet Red Army took part in a ceremony held in the residential district of Karlshorst near Berlin. The actual building in which the unconditional surrender was ratified had served as a German army engineers’ school until it was captured by the Red Army during the battle of Berlin. It was in what had been the officers’ dining hall of this building that tables were arranged for the ceremony during which the document of capitulation was signed.
I left my Berlin hotel and caught a bus for the short journey to Karlshorst. Heading down the street towards the building where the Nazis had surrendered, I felt like I was walking through a page of history. Some young children were playing with a soccer ball in the middle of this quiet street while two older lads were speeding along on their skateboards. I wondered if any of them had yet learned about the importance of this place and how the course of their lives had been impacted by decisions taken here.
During the battle for Berlin, this building served as the headquarters for the Red Army, and from 1945 to 1949 it was the office of the Soviet Military Administration in Germany. With the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany, ownership of the building reverted to the Germans. Since 1994 the building has operated as a museum.
The Karlshorst Museum opens at 10 a.m., and I was its first visitor that morning. I rented an audio player that provided background information about the signal importance of the place. Of course, the large ground-floor room where the surrender document was signed is the focal point of the museum. The room has been preserved essentially as it was in May 1945. The flags of the United States, France, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain hang over the tables where the signing took place. German, English, and Russian translations of the text of the document are on display. A video of the signing ceremony is projected continuously onto a large screen that hangs from the ceiling. I stood transfixed as I tried to imagine the activity in this very room on that day in May of 1945 when Nazi Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel ratified Germany’s unconditional surrender.
I was also able to see Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s office where a bust of him and some of his uniforms are on display. I enjoyed browsing around in a large room that depicts the Red Army’s attack on the Reichstag in Berlin on April 30, 1945. Another room depicts a timeline of the war from the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 to its defeat by the Red Army in 1945.
On the other side of the world on September 2, 1945, representatives of the Empire of Japan met with a group of Americans headed by General Douglas MacArthur and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz aboard the USS Missouri which was then anchored in Tokyo Bay. In a brief but solemn ceremony, the war of the Pacific was concluded. Today, this ship is anchored at Pearl Harbor and I was able to visit it a few years ago. The USS Missouri had been chosen for the ceremony because she was the flagship of the 3rd fleet which had performed so gloriously in the Pacific campaign.
My opportunity to go aboard the USS Missouri was an unforeseen one. In fact, it was the result of an 18-hour layover in Hawaii on my return home from the Marshall Islands. Rather than hang around the airport, I rented a car so I could visit the place where the Pacific War came to an end. Though a bit sleepy, I was able to navigate Honolulu’s early morning traffic and arrived, without any difficulty, at the parking area adjacent to this famed ship. The gangway was open so I bought a ticket and walked aboard.
The USS Missouri is, from my perspective, a huge battleship. It is 887 feet in length and weighs 58,000 tons when fully loaded. But what impressed me initially, looming up above the gangway, were the nine 16-inch 50-caliber guns. Each gun, a helpful naval officer explained, is capable of firing a 2,700-pound armor-piercing shell at targets up to 23 miles away.
Virtually the entire ship can be toured, but I headed up to the deck where the surrender ceremony took place. The actual spot where the table sat is marked by a plaque that is recessed into the floor and is roped off to protect it from foot traffic. Here, with the stroke of a pen, Japan agreed to cease all military actions and to liberate all prisoners held in captivity.
The surrender ceremony, which formally brought an end to the bloodiest conflict in human history, took only 23 minutes to conclude. Newsmen and other witnesses, plus hundreds of crew members, took positions on gun turrets and barrels, on other decks, and most any place that provided a view of history in the making.
After the signing was completed, General MacArthur made a few concluding remarks and closed the proceedings at 9:23 a.m. local time on September 2, 1945. World War II was officially over. The agreement launched a seven-year U.S. occupation that lasted until the San Francisco Peace Treaty took effect in April 1952, allowing Japan’s return to the international community.
So, on the deck of the USS Missouri, six years and one day after World War II began with Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the 20th century’s second global conflict ended. Peace had returned to Europe and the Pacific. By the time it concluded, this awful war had claimed the lives of an estimated 60-80 million people–approximately three percent of the world’s population. The real tragedy was that the vast majority of those who died in history’s deadliest war were civilians, including 6 million Jews killed in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. Some interpreters had thought that the Great War (WW I), as it was known before we started numbering them, would be the most costly in the history of the world. As it turns out, they were wrong.