75 years ago when Imperial Japan surrendered and the Timeline at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Highland Park

75 years ago when Imperial Japan surrendered and the Timeline at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Highland Park
    (top) Timeline pieces from the Vietnam Veteran Memorial in Highland Park. Above August 14th, 1945, Below September 2nd, 1945 (below) from The Road to VJ Day, Defeating Japan and Winning World War II, 75 Years Later, Life Magazine, 2020, pgs. 86-87. Caption: THE JAPANESE DELEGATION, led by Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu (front left, in top hat) and Army Chief of Staff General Yoshijiro, arrived on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, to sign the instrument of Surrender. From the battleship’s foremast fluttered the flag that flew above the U.S. Capitol on December 7, 1941.

The Timeline at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester in Highland Park is a unique historical repository. The four foot long pieces begin at 300 B.C. — depicting the first migrations from China to what is now Vietnam —  and end with the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam in 1973.

The first piece, “The Beginning”

In last few years, we’ve looked closely at the Timeline within the contexts of the Cambodian and Laotian civil wars, the firing of General Douglass MacArthur, the Eisenhower presidency, sports in the 1960’s,the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement. (SEE ALL AT END)

Today, September 2nd, 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the official end of World War II, the day the Japanese signed the Instrument of surrender. We look at Timeline pieces that chronicle the war in the Pacific, adding photos from various sources.

Readers of the September 2nd, 1945 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle learned that World War II had definitively come to an end. About two weeks earlier, D & C readers had learned that the Japanese government told the American command that Japan was accepting the terms of unconditional surrender.

(Top) Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, August 14th, 1945; (bottom left) August 15th, 1945 (bottom right) September 2nd, 1945.

It is of minor significance, but which date is VJ Day — August 14th when the Japanese government cabled to the U.S its agreement to the surrender terms, August 15th when the news was announced to the world and the Japanese people or September 2nd when the final Instrument of surrender was signed on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay — is a subject of debate. The Timeline says President Truman declared August 14th to be VJ Day but the Democrat and Chronicle says Truman declared September 2nd to be VJ Day. Regardless of which day you view as VJ Day, World War II was finally over

Whichever date is chosen, Rochesterians were both ebullient and relieved. Like all American cities, Rochester lost many of its sons fighting Imperial Japan.

Paul C. Zaenglein Jr, Mt. Hope Cemetery, Rochester, NY. Zaenglein was killed on August 7th, 1945 one week before the surrender of Japan. [Photo: David Kramer] From After Parkland, discovering fallen Brightonians from World War Two

One of the most poignant deaths was the last, Lt. Paul C Zaenglein, who perished along with nine other airmen on August 7th, 1945 in a bombing mission over Kyusliu, Japan, just one week before the surrender of Japan.

Democrat and Chronicle, Wed, Aug 29, 1945

Lt. Zaenglein’s last mission took place the day after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The American high command decided to intensify its air attacks after Hiroshima to show the Japanese government that delaying surrender would only lead to more destruction. Zanglein’s mission was part of the intensified bombardment from August 7th right up to the Japanese capitulation on August 14th.

The boyhood home of Paul C. Zaenglein Jr., Southern Parkway, Brighton, NY [Photo: David Kramer]

For this project, at CVS in Topp’s Plaza I bought The Road to VJ Day, Defeating Japan and Winning World War II, 75 Years Later, Life Magazine, 2020. The purchase at first felt like an indulgence, but was more than merited after using its photographs to accompany the Timeline pieces.

The Road to VJ Day, Defeating Japan and Winning World War II, 75 Years Later, Life Magazine, 2020 [David Kramer’s collection]

Alvin Coox, Japan: the final agony, Ballantine’s Illustrated History of World War II, campaign book, No 9, 1970 {David Kramer’s collection]

I re-read Alvin Coox’s Japan: the final agony (1970). Coox examines the decline and fall of the Japanese empire from its peak of expansion in 1942. Coox’s focus is 1945 and the catastrophes — the battle of Leyte Gulf, the defeats at Iwo Jima and Okinawa and in the Philippines, the firebombings of Japanese cities — that lead to Japan’s destruction and surrender.¹

The Timeline itself raises an important question: did Imperial Japan have any chance to achieve its war aims?  The Timeline notes that Japanese Admiral Yamamoto repeatedly said “starting a war was easier than finishing it.”

Timeline, 12/25/1941

Admiral Yamamoto was against the attack on Pearl Harbor from the beginning. Yamamoto knew the attack — starting a war — would only bring the full weight of the United States against Japan. Once the United States mobilized with its enormous advantages, Japan was — Yamamoto rightfully believed — doomed. It would be the United States who would finish the war.

Pearl Harbor²

(above) Timeline, December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and December 8, US declaration of war on Japan; (below) VJ Day, 18-19. Caption: A SAILOR SOUGHT COVER AT Kaneohe Bay, top, as a crew extinguished a burning plane. The USS Virginia, right, was struck by some torpedoes, which tore open its midships and forward hull. The vessel was moored on Battleship Row alongside the USS Tennessee, which was hit by two bombs. The Tennessee was set afire by burning debris when the USS Arizona exploded. Sailors at Kaneohe Bay tried to beach a PBY Catalina flying boat that was hit, above. A later strike destroyed the seaplane.

Japanese advances after Pearl Harbor

Timeline, December 10th, 1941

The fall of the Philippines

(above) Timeline, 11 March 1942, General Douglass MacArthur leaves the Philippines, announcing “I shall return.”; (below) VJ Day 62-63. Caption:  FULFILLING HIS PROMISE, General Douglass MacArthur returned to the Philippines. From You’re fired!

(above) Timeline, April 9, 1942; VJ Day, 28-29.  Caption: AMERICAN TROOPS IN APRIL 1942 at the start of the Baatan Death March, during which the Japanese brutalized and beheaded prisoners, even burying some of them alive.

(Top) CAPTURED AMERICAN servicemen emerging from Corregidor’s Malinta Tunnel in May 1942, right. Japanese troops lowered the Stars and Stripes, VJ Day 30-31;

American victory in the Battle of Midway

(above) Timeline, June 4, 1942; (below) VJ Day, 38-39. Caption: JAPANESE PILOTS FROM THE carrier Hiryu attacked the USS Yorktown on June 4, 1942, during the pivotal Battle of Midway. The Japanese submarine 1-168 torpedoed the crippled carrier on June 6 and it sank the next day. The ship’s wreck was discovered in 1998 by Robert Ballard, who also found the Titanic. Right: The deck of the USS Enterprise, which became the most decorated vessel of World War II.

American victory at Guadalcanal

(above) Timeline, August 7, 1942 and November 12. From Championing Nationalism Dishonors American Soldiers; (below) Caption: THESE SOLDIERS, ABOVE, partly buried in the tidal sands of Guadalcanal’s Tenuru River, where a few of the 24,000 Japanese troops to die during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Right: Battle-weary Marines waited to be taken off the island, VJ Day, 40-41.

American victory in Iwo Jima

(above) Timeline, 2/23/1945, American flag raised on Iwo Jima; (below) TROOPS ADVANCED DURING the battle for Iwo Jima, top. Above: During the attempt to take the island, Marines crawled up a slope on Red Beach No. 1 toward Mount Suribachi. After the Americans conquered the mount, the troops raised a flag, right. “The sky was overcast,” recalled AP photographer Joe Rosenthal, who took an iconic shot of the event.”The wind just whipped the flag out over the heads of the group, and at their feet the disrupted terrain and the broken stalks of the shrubbery exemplified the turbulence of war.” The Road to VJ Day, 72-73.

American forces liberate the Philippines

(Above) Timeline, 2/27/1945 recapture of Corregidor; (below) Front and back. Stanley Falk’s The Liberation of the Philippines, Ballantine’s Illustrated History of World War II, campaign book, No 10, 1971 [David Kramer’s collection]

Victory in Okinawa

(Above) Timeline, 4/7/1945, invasion of Okinawa; (below) AMERICAN SHIPS TOOK A beachhead in Okinawa, left, a battle that Corporal William Manchester recalled had left the island “a cratered moonscape,” causing troops to live in one vast cesspool. Mingled with that stench was another–the corrupt and corrupting odor of rotting human flesh.” Eleven Okinawans, including this mother and child, emerged after being assured that no harm come to them. American troops, above, listened to a radio report on the unconditional surrender of Germany. VJ Day 76-77

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

from Japan: The Final Agony by Alvin Coox, 136-37. Caption: The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, 6th August 1945. ABOVE: Survivors flee the city. ABOVE RIGHT: The observatory,one of the few buildings that withstood the blast, now a memorial. BELOW: The damage.

(Above) Timeline, 8/6/1945 bombing of Hiroshima, 8/9/1945, bombing of Nagasaki from The Eisenhower presidency (and nuclear armageddon) at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Highland Park; (Below) September 2nd, 1945, readers of the Democrat and Chronicle saw some early photos of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Caption: THIS IS NAGASAKI- -AFTER ATOMIC BOMB NUMBER TWO FOUND ITS MARK, LONELY BUILDING HERE AND THERE INDICATES WHERE HIROSHIMA STOOD Japanese workers (top picture, foreground) carry away debris in a devastated area of Nagasaki, Japanese industrial city on Southwest Kyushu, after Aug. 9 atomic bombing. Smokestacks and lone building stand in background. This picture, first ground view of atomic bomb damage, was obtained by Army from Domei files, official Jap news agency. What is left of Hiroshima, first atomic target, appears below. Few buildings break view across the desolated  areas.

The Timeline piece on Hiroshima and Nagasaki raises a question long debated: were the bombings justified? The August 9th Piece frames the debate:

The devastation caused by the two blasts will provide the basis for debate on not only the moral issue, but on the eventual limiting of the nuclear arms race. Although disputed, it is often said that the detonating of the nuclear devices was instrumental in bringing a speedier end to the war, saving untold American and Allied lives. [From the  August 9th Timeline piece]

I would add that the ending of the war saved far more Japanese than American lives.

Actually, the Timeline even implicitly allows another question: should the atom bomb have been built?  The December 2nd, 1942 piece shows that the nuclear age did not begin in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Rather, once a controlled nuclear reaction was achieved in Chicago, it was only a matter of time before usable weapons could be made. On one level, even if the two bombs were not used, nuclear weaponry was not going away. The world would still have to grapple with its entrance into the nuclear age.

I except that the Hiroshima bombing was justified on the grounds that the war was shortened. The first bomb was dropped on August 6th and the Japanese surrendered on the 14th.³ The bombing of Nagasaki is far more problematic. Only three days had passed since Hiroshima. More time should have been given for the Japanese people to process the event and its horror.

In The Final Agony, Coox shows that the bombs themselves did not drastically alter the Japanese military thinking. In denial, the Japanese command characterized the bombs as “not formidable and we have countermeasures,” and  the “atom bomb is not such a dreadful weapon.” If the army was in denial, Emperor Hirohito was not, finally demanding that Japan except unconditional surrender even if the surrender included a possibility that the Emperor would be abolished.4

In his concluding paragraphs, Coox cites a lieutenant colonel in the Japanese war ministry who discussed the role of the atomic bombs in Japan’s capitulation:

The Final Agony, p154

In Hirohito’s August 15th radio address to his people — the first time millions had ever heard his voice — Hirohito mentioned the awful power of the new weapon. To what degree, the bombs were the determining factor in the surender is unknowable, but Hirohito ended the war, saving — in the Timeline’s phrase, “untold lives.”

Furthermore, the Timeline also says the bombs were the basis for discussion of moral issues and the eventual limiting of the nuclear arms race. Quite frankly, the phrasing and concept are vague. Nonetheless, the concept raises the question: to what degree did the bombings in all their horror help deter future use?

While the dropping of the bombs hardly resulted in the curtailed development and proliferation of nuclear weaponry — scientists knew that bombs a thousand times the power of the Hiroshima bomb could be made — no nuclear weapons have been used since 1945.

We can’t know to what degree the display of the horrific human toll in death and radiation sickness at Hiroshima and Nagasaki has worked as a warning to humanity against such apocalyptic weapons. But, undoubtedly, the warning has been heard.

As a small example, on August 6th, 1985 in Rochester I participated in the Shadow Project marking the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima. On Rochester sidewalks, we chalked outlines or silhouettes of people in various poses. The chalked images represented bodies of Hiroshima victims vaporized by the atomic bomb. Often, nothing but a shadow on pavement was all that remained.  I wasn’t sure how people would respond to the imagery of the Hiroshima bombing.  Most were encouraging, moved by the stark reminder of the inhumanity of nuclear weapons.  Maybe those at Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not die in vain.

Democrat and Chronicle, Aug 27, 1985. Accompanying photo to an article on the August 6th, 1985 Shadow Project

The aftermath


¹ Coox looks at the last ditch hopes Japan harbored in the final months of the war. First, throughout the war, Japan and the USSR maintained a non-aggression pact, although in 1945 the Soviet Union announced it would not renew the pact.  In the spring of 1945, Japan was desperate to find a peace that would not include Allied occupation. The Japanese believed the Russians would prefer a peaceful Japan unoccupied by the Americans who would make Japan a base in the soon-to-be Cold War. In return for major territorial concessions, Japan sought a mediated surrender with the help of the USSR. The Soviets never seriously considered mediating a conditional surrender. At the July Potsdam conference, the Russians said they expected to attack Japanese holdings in Manchuria including the possibility of an attack on the Japanese homeland. On the 8th of August, the Soviet offensive began.  It’s fantasy diplomatic initiatives thwarted, the Japanese high command realized the Soviet offensive was the final death blow to Imperial Japan.  For an extended discussion as to what ultimately precipitated Japan’s surrender — the atomic bombs, the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, or other factors,  see “Debate over the Japanese Surrender,” Atomic Heritage Association, June 1, 2016.

The second Japanese hope was that the American’s would launch an invasion of the Japanese homeland. In turn, the Japanese military and civilians — even if just armed with bamboo spears (as Coox mentions on the back cover of Japan: The final agony) — would again and again throw the invaders back into the sea. The Americans would find the cost too high and agree to a conditional end to the war.

This scenario was another fantasy.  First, an invasion might never have been launched. As Coox shows, in early June the cabinet’s fear was that the Americans would not attempt a ground landing but instead continue its devastating policy of fearsome air bombardment and an ever tightening naval blockade, both of which had essentially destroyed the Japanese war economy. Only a ground assault would allow Japan to inflict the kind of casualties it hoped would compel the Allies to sue for peace. Furthermore, especially after the final capitulation of Nazi Germany, the entire world was arrayed against Japan. With or without nuclear weapons, the Allied world would never stop short of unconditional surrender.

²Reader Michael J. Nighan notes:

As an FYI, the Highland Park VV Memorial timeline is incorrect when it states that because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (which because of the International Date Line, occurred on Dec. 8 from Japan’s perspective), the US, “has no choice but to declare war on Japan, and thus on her allies Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy”, is incorrect. The US did not declare war on Germany until AFTER Hitler and Il Duce declared war on America on Dec. 11. Hitler’s decision to do so is considered his second greatest mistake of WWII (after his invasion of the Soviet Union). While FDR obviously had support for declaring war on Japan, he would not have been able to garner support for a pre-emptive declaration against Germany and Italy, a situation that concerned him greatly as he knew that Germany, not Japan, was our chief enemy.

³ While I think the short time between the bombing of Hiroshima and the surrender of points to its justification, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were arguably not necessary. In recent Los Angeles Times editorial, Gar Alperovitz and Martin J. Sherwin, Los Angeles Times,  “U.S. leaders knew we didn’t have to drop atomic bombs on Japan to win the war. We did it anyway,” August 5th, 2020, Alperovitz and Sherwin review recent scholarship that suggest the bombings were not primarily motivated to save lives.

Alperovitz points to the fact that seven of eight Joint Chiefs of Staff were against the bombings. They argued that from a military perspective the bombings were unnecessary and the massive loss of life would serve no purpose. Although General Douglass MacArthur later urged Eisenhower to use nuclear weapons against China during the Korean War, he was adamantly against the use of atomic weapons against Japan.  Alperovitz argues that Truman was well aware that Japan had sought out peace through Soviet channels. Furthermore, the Soviets had planned to invade Manchuria around August 15th, basically dealing a coup de grace. In addition, Truman knew that Japan was tottering on its last legs. The invasion planned for November 1945 would very likely not be needed.

In Coox’s final paragraph, he cites General Curtis Le May who, convincingly, said within six months Japan would essentially be bombed back to the dark ages. A massive air campaign was planned for September:

The Final Agony, p154

Instead, Alperovitz primarily see the bombings as predicated on the US-USSR relationship. By the time the Soviet Union was preparing to go to war with Japan, the US no longer wanted such an attack. Truman hoped to limit Soviet ambitions in the Far East, such as claiming Japanese territories as it own. Truman preferred that only the US conquer and occupy the Japanese homeland. Ultimately, the bombings were both a message to Japan that total destruction lay ahead, as well as a message to the Soviets that a nuclear armed US would hold the upper hand as the Cold War unfolded. The use of the Nagasaki bomb, the day after the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and only three days after Hiroshima, arguably sent a message to the Japanese government that it must completely capitulate before the Soviet army neared Japan, as well as displaying to the Soviets that we had more than one bomb. The Japanese realized they would prefer to deal just with the Americans, and promptly surrendered.

From a geopolitical perspective, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can less be seen as a carefully weighed option aimed at saving lives but instead both the parting shots of World War II and the opening salvos of the Cold War.

4 I also re-read Japan’s Longest Day

Japan’s Longest Day, Compiled by The Pacific War Research Society, Kodansha International LTD., 1965. Right caption, p.259: People praying before at Nijubashi before the Palace, August 15, 1945 [David Kramer’s collection]

Between Longest Day and Final Agony, Emperor Hirohito emerges as a humanitarian hero. Coox shows how realistic Hirohito was about Japan’s prospects in the war. The Japanese had been defeated at Midway in June 1942 without much public commentary. However, Hirohito, accurately, saw the battle as the turning point of the war that doomed Japan, saying, “The future of this war is not bright.” In February 1945, Hirohito demanded unvarnished assessments of the war. Prince Konoye told the Emperor; “I believe that our defeat is imminent and inevitable, regrettable though it is,” a sentiment Hirohito probably shared. After the Tokyo fire bombings, Hirohito toured the ruins and without sugarcoating declared that “Tokyo is now scorched earth.” After the Allies at Potsdam in July 1945 offered Japan the chance to end the war without total annihilation, Hirohito pushed for acceptance without conditions attached.

In its examination of the last week of the Empire of Japan, Longest Day presents Hirohito as deeply pained and anguished at the sufferings of his people.  While the generals blithely talked about sacrificing 20 million Japanese to repel an invasion, Hirohito was willing to do anything to relieve the people’s suffering, including the possibility that the Allies would eliminate the Emperor.  Some of Hirohito general’s pleaded with him to continue hostilities, but he was adamant that the war end immediately.

The Timeline series

Talker’s foreign correspondent in Cambodia and the plaques in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Highland Park.

You’re fired!

The Eisenhower presidency (and nuclear armageddon) at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Highland Park

Sports and the ’60’s at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Highland Park

Remembering April 4th, 1968 and the Civil Rights Movement at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Highland Park

Women (not many) at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Timeline in Highland Park

About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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