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FEATURE | VJ-Day: Peace in the Pacific

VJ-Day, Victory over Japan Day — September 2, 1945 — the day Japan signed the official instrument of surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, generally passes without notice.

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September 2, 1945, Agana, Guam. A group of Chamorros cheer at the news of Japan's decision to surrender.  National Archives photo

On the other hand, “Liberation Day”, July 4, is heartily celebrated on Saipan. The CNMI Legislature appropriates almost-sufficient funds for a parade along Beach Road, site of the Marine Corps landings on June 15, 1945. The Mayor’s office on Saipan takes a leading role. A Liberation Queen and court are chosen, as is a grand marshal to ride in a convertible with the island beauties and wave at the thousands of people who line the parade route. Floats, JROTC drill teams, and visiting entertainers flow by a road lined with families who have remained over-night on the parade route and started barbecuing early on Liberation morning. A good time is had by all until well into the night, even if there is an early rainy season.

What actually happened on Saipan on July 4, 1945? Answer: the battle for 4th of July Hill. Following the landings on June 15, the 2nd Marine Division had advanced northward along the west coast and the high ground above it. By the night of July 3-4, U.S. Marines were dug in on a line from Tanapag Harbor to the high ground above it, aptly dubbed 4th of July Hill. Little did they know there was a battalion of Japanese dug into the wooded hill (Hoffman, Saipan: The Beginning of the End, p. 203).

Sitting in their foxholes that night, the Marines “celebrated” America’s Independence Day with C-rations, a sip of warm water and more fireworks than they had ever dreamed of. Marine Corps artillery fired volley after volley into the hill in front of them. Giant battleships off-shore fired volleys of 2,000-pound fire crackers that shook the hills around them. Smaller ships provided the red light of rocket barrages. Marine Corps artillery fired star-shells that lit up the battlefield and created eerie shadows. White phosphate shells were mega-sparklers. When the Marines moved toward the hill the following morning, they discovered that the Japanese had withdrawn to defensive position. Then, on the 7th, the Japanese launched the largest banzai attack of the Pacific War (Astroth, p. 82). The island was not declared secure until July 9.

So, why the parade on Saipan every July 4? Two years later, the few remaining U.S. Navy Civil Affairs officers on Saipan decided they wanted to celebrate Independence Day. But, they could not because it was a violation of international agreements. The Northern Marianas did not belong to the United States. It was captured enemy territory. So, the Civil Affairs officers decided to ask them to put on a parade, which they did. The first Liberation Day Parade on Saipan was conducted by the local, indigenous population, and has been ever since.

Guam celebrates its Liberation Day on July 21, the day in 1945 when the 3rd Marine Division and 1st Provisional Marine Brigade landed at Asan and Agat, respectively, to begin the recapture of Guam.

“Liberating” the Guam Chamorro was not a primary factor. Indeed, it was somewhat embarrassing. The military stationed at Naval Station, Guam in the 20s and 30s had seen the handwriting on the wall. Japan was expanding aggressively and Naval Station Guam was in their way. Naval authorities requested funds to fortify Guam, to protect it from a possible Japanese invasion, but the Congress said, “No.” On October 17, 1941, as tensions grew, the Navy removed all the active duty military dependents. Japanese fighter-bombers attacked Guam on December 8, 1941. Two days later, the Japanese landed. Over the next few weeks, Japanese soldiers captured or killed any Americans who had run to the jungle, rather than surrender. Also taken prisoner were many of the retired military personnel who had married into local families and came to call Guam home. By the end of January 1942, the Guam Chamorros were left to survive as best they could under their new masters, the Japanese Navy. They became “enslaved people” in every since of the term.

Those released from Camp Manengon truly felt liberated. When the first soldiers appeared at the camp, the Chamorro were starving and expecting to be machine-gunned before the American’s could get to them. Mitcher’s aircraft carrier pilots started shooting up Japanese aircraft and shore facilities. Then, as scheduled, Admiral “Close-in” Connolly began the pre-invasion bombardment of the Guam landing beaches. As soon as the American’s tipped their hand, Japanese began conscripting Chamorro to move defensive guns from East Agana Bay to the Asan and Agat beachheads. Beheadings, rape and pillage became the order of the day.

For those who survived to be liberated, life gradually improved. The Chamorro received their first real medical attention, though many were so debilitated that they did not survive a year. Temporary shelters were built for the survivors by U.S. Navy Seabees and Army Engineers. The Naval Government of Guam was reopened, employing many Chamorro, once again. Schools reopened. By July 21, 1945, life on Guam had reached some degree of normalcy. Yet, there were still many who had not been liberated, truly liberated. And those are the men and women who were captured by the Japanese in 1941 and taken to prisoner of war camps in Japan. Half would die before the other half would be liberated — on September 2, 1945 — VJ-Day, Victory over Japan Day.

On that day, while other B-29s were flying over the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Harbor, celebrating the American victory in the “Great Pacific War,” other B-29s were dropping relief supplies into Allied Prisoner of War camps.

One must consider, however, the very real possibility that the war might not have ended on September 2, 1945. Most military planners expected the Allies would have to launch a long, bloody invasion of Japan to force Japan’s surrender. The war would drag on until 1946, more likely 1947. What happened? Atomic bombs.

Over the course of the war, America and England had worked together to create the world’s first atomic bombs. After considering the number of casualties involved in a full-scale invasion of Japan, President Truman and his advisors decided to use the bomb, two of them, as soon as they were ready. Hopefully, it would be sufficient to force the Japanese militant faction to accept surrender. The bombs were dropped on August 6 and August 9, the same day Russia entered the war against Japan. On August 15 Emperor Hirohito announced that he was accepting the Allied demand for surrender and ordering all Japan’s military, wherever they were, to lay down their arms. The surrender papers were signed on September 2, VJ-Day. The war came to an end. Millions of Allied and Japanese lives were saved. And, because there was no invasion, a new era of peace and prosperity was created in the Pacific, with an enduring alliance between Japan and the United States.

Yet, VJ-Day goes unheralded. Why? The answer most often given is that it might offend our Japanese tourists and investors. But, the annual Guam Liberation celebration lasts a full month and headlines the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers against the Guam Chamorro. enslavement by Japan during the war, and Japan remains one of Guam’s major tourist markets.

It is time to consider holding a joint Guam and CNMI celebration of Peace in the Pacific, perhaps as a culmination to Liberation festivities north and south of the Rota Channel. At least for that one day, we can pretend that the Marianas are reunified, remembering the past and planning for the future.

An educator and historian, the writer is a resident of Marpo Heights, Tinian.