The Battleship Missouri and the Trumans

By Paul Stillwell

Selecting a Sponsor

Typically, during the battleship era, the Navy offered the governor of the state for which a ship was to be named the honor of selecting a woman to sponsor the ship. By this time, however, Republican Forrest Donnell had replaced Stark as Missouri's governor. That wouldn't do during a notably Democratic administration. Thus, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox conferred the honor on Truman's 20-year-daughter, Mary Margaret, a sophomore at George Washington University. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch shrewdly opined that the energetic, upcoming senator's good graces could do a lot more good for the Navy than those of the governor in the faraway Missouri state capitol in Jefferson City. That was especially so because the Navy had come under criticism from Truman's investigating committee, which found "negligence and willful misconduct" in the Bureau of Ships.

The launching of the new battleship took place in Brooklyn on 29 January 1944. Margaret Truman went to New York City with two friends who were to serve as her maids of honor for the christening ceremony. As she related years later in an interview, it was the first time she'd really had a chance to do the town. The night before the event, the three of them went to the popular Broadway musical Oklahoma and then were so excited that they stayed up all night.

The day of the launching was chilly and overcast—typical January weather—when the trio arrived glassy eyed at the shipyard. Some 30,000 spectators were on hand, as were newsreel cameramen, radio announcers, and print journalists. There was even a bit of television coverage, a signal that was sent to General Electric plants in Schenectady, New York, where components of the ship had been manufactured.

The traditional christening, in this case with a bottle of champagne made from Missouri grapes, was to be timed so that Margaret's swing against the bow would take place just as the ship began to move down the inclined building ways. The smashing of the bottle drenched Margaret and her companions as wine showered over them. Before the christening itself, the naval dignitaries who spoke first ate into the time allotted for Senator Truman's speech, which he said later was a 15-minute talk crammed into three minutes. Among the words he spoke that day were these: "The time is surely coming when the people of Missouri can thrill with pride as the Missouri and her sister ships, with batteries blazing, sail into Tokyo Bay."

Given the chain of circumstances that followed, Truman was able to fulfill that prophecy—though the blazing guns preceded the process of going into Tokyo Bay. Margaret Truman later said, perhaps only half jokingly, that the admirals cut into her dad's speaking time as revenge for humiliating them during his energetic investigations. In any event, the launching went well, and the ship's hull—sporting the flag of the state of Missouri—slid down the ways into the East River to begin her life as a warship.

The Commissioning

Four and a half months later, on 11 June, the Navy commissioned the ship in a sun-drenched ceremony in Brooklyn, with Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal presiding. With him on the speaker's platform was a host of admirals, as well as Harry Truman and Missouri's senior senator, Democrat Bennett Champ Clark, the principal speaker at the commissioning. In 1901, when he was 11, Clark had seen the launching of the previous battleship Missouri (BB-11).

The new ship, soon to be dubbed "Mighty Mo," was painted for the commissioning and the next few months in a camouflage pattern that consisted of swirling shapes in black, gray, and white. The design was meant to dazzle or disrupt the range-finding efforts of German U-boats. A few months later, when she reported to the Pacific for combat, she had been repainted in a scheme of ocean blue on the hull and gray on the superstructure. That was deemed more desirable for the type of warfare in that theater, where she was more likely to encounter surface and air opposition.

In July 1944, while the Missouri 's crew was undergoing shakedown training prior to her deployment, the Democratic Party held its quadrennial convention in Chicago. By this time the national party chairman was Robert Hannegan, the same Missourian whose support had been important to Truman in his senatorial reelection in 1940. The sense within the party was that President Roosevelt would not survive another four-year term in office. He was a sick man, far more so than the American public was led to believe at the time. Even so, he was the presumptive nominee because of the belief that it would be unwise to change national leaders in the midst of a world war.

Truman, who had a sense of history and knew the fate of other vice presidents who had succeeded dead presidents, did not want to be on the ticket with FDR. He and his wife, Bess, also were reluctant to expose their daughter to the glare of national publicity. But Hannegan was against the re-nomination of Henry Wallace, who had been vice president since 1941. Instead, he believed that Truman had the national reputation and the qualifications to step into the top office if—or more likely, when—Roosevelt died. Roosevelt himself preferred Truman to other likely candidates and, according to Margaret Truman's memoir, shrewdly maneuvered her father to the top of the list, in part because of his popularity in the Senate. Truman kept resisting.

A Missouri Mule

At the time of the convention, FDR was in San Diego and talked with Hannegan by telephone. Truman was with Hannegan in a Chicago hotel during the call. As Margaret Truman recalled, Roosevelt asked the party boss, "Bob, have you got that fellow lined up yet?"

"No," he replied. "He is the contrariest Missouri mule I've ever dealt with."

FDR said, "Well, you tell him if he wants to break up the Democratic Party in the middle of a war, that's his responsibility."

With that, Margaret said, her father reluctantly accepted the president's choice and agreed to run with Roosevelt. He asked his fellow senator, Clark, to put his name in nomination at the convention. Unlike today's political conventions, which are essentially pre-scripted infomercials, there were real contests on the convention floor in that era. Vice President Wallace did well on the first ballot but didn't have sufficient votes to win.

In the frenzied atmosphere of the convention hall, Hannegan shrewdly called for another vote right away, rather than giving the Wallace faction time to build up additional support. The tactical gambit proved successful. After Truman gained a lead on the second ballot, a number of state delegations switched their votes to him and produced an overwhelming majority. The nomination was his. The man who had not wanted a spot on the ticket had beaten a number of other candidates who did.

That autumn, while the Missouri 's crew was training in the Caribbean and around the island of Trinidad off the South American coast, Roosevelt and Truman campaigned doggedly for election. In that pre-television era, FDR made outdoor public appearances even when the weather was unsuitable, because he wanted to sustain the fiction that he was still healthy and energetic. On 7 November, while the battleship was moored in Gravesend Bay off New York City, the Roosevelt-Truman ticket prevailed decisively over the Republican nominees, Thomas E. Dewey and John W. Bricker. Roosevelt would have his fourth term—or so it seemed.

Three days after the election, the Missouri set out for Panama and thence to the Pacific to begin final preparations for her combat career. On 20 January, Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone administered the oaths of office to Roosevelt and Truman. The inauguration ceremony was low-key, held at the White House rather than the Capitol because of the wartime atmosphere. A gala celebration would have been inappropriate when so many men were fighting overseas.

Supporting Air Strikes on Tokyo

A few weeks later, on 16 February, the Missouri went into combat for the first time as part of the antiaircraft screen of Task Group 58.2, which included the aircraft carriers Lexington (CV-16), Hancock (CV-19), and San Jacinto (CVL-30), that launched air strikes against the Japanese capital. It was the first carrier attack on Tokyo sincve Jimmy Doolittle's hit-and-run raid with B-25s in April 1942. Next the carrier task group, with its mobility, attacked Iwo Jima in preparation for Marine landings on 19 February. The night of the invasion, the Missouri 's antiaircraft guns shot down a Japanese bomber that attacked the group.

In the weeks to come, the Missouri continued to fill the sky with black bursts of antiaircraft flak as the carriers again attacked Tokyo and the island of Okinawa, the last stepping-stone in the island-hopping campaign that would lead to Japan itself. On 24 March, the Missouri joined her sister ships, the New Jersey (BB-62) and Wisconsin (BB-64), in bombarding Okinawa with their 16-inch guns. It was part of a feint that was a prelude to the invasion of the island on 1 April. On 11 April, while the ship was supporting the Okinawa campaign, a Japanese kamikaze aircraft bounced off the starboard side of the Missouri and spewed burning aviation fuel on her decks and superstructure. None of the ship's crew was killed.

Two days later, which was 12 April in the United States, President Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage while posing for a portrait in the "little White House" in Warm Springs, Georgia. Vice President Truman was summoned to the White House for an ad hoc oath-taking. On board the Missouri on 14 April, a signalman raised the American flag on her hoist and then lowered it to half-mast in honor of the dead president.

Uncle Harry

For another Missouri crew member, the changing of the guard in the White House had a much more personal connection. Seaman John C. Truman, a quiet and unassuming member of the ship's navigation department, was the son of Harry Truman's brother, Vivian. Still preserved in the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, are the handwritten letters John Truman sent to the White House from the battleship. Two weeks after his uncle took over, the seaman wrote, "I still find it difficult to realize you are the President." Though he was expressing that view from the family perspective, the young Sailor doubtless spoke for millions of Americans who felt a similar sense of disbelief because Roosevelt had been President for so long.

As the spring merged into summer, the Missouri continued to exercise her "blazing guns" as part of a Fleet that had achieved overwhelming power by that time. On 18 May, the colorful Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. embarked in the Missouri as Commander Third Fleet, the vast assemblage of ships that was carrying the war ever closer to the Japanese homeland. The Missouri was thus the flagship for bringing the naval war to its climax. On 15 July the ship was part of a task unit that bombarded the home island of Hokkaido and on 17-18 July joined in the bombardment of Honshu, the principal island in the group.

In early August President Truman directed the use of atomic bombs against Japanese cities. B-29s hit Hiroshima on 6 August and Nagasaki on the 9th. In less than a week, on 15 August, the Japanese capitulated and ceased hostilities. Truman soon selected the Missouri to be the site of the Japanese surrender and said he wanted it accomplished in view of the Japanese mainland to bring home the point to the beaten nation. In his memoir, Truman did not say specifically why he had chosen the Missouri , but one can easily surmise that it was the combination of home-state pride and the special connection he had through his daughter as sponsor. The surrender of Germany in May 1945 had been a low-key affair, because Allied troops had conquered and occupied that nation. In the Pacific it was different, because Japan had not been invaded during combat. The highly public ceremony in the Missouri , amidst the Allied armada anchored nearby, would make it evident that Japan truly had been vanquished.

On 29 August the Third Fleet steamed into Tokyo Bay to prepare for the ceremony a few days hence. The crew of the Missouri was on guard and ready to respond in the event the Japanese sought to resume hostilities, which they did not.

As the Missouri arrived that day, Admiral Halsey was out on the flagship's deck as he chatted with members of his staff. Lieutenant Bob Balfour, one of the staff members, later recounted what the admiral had to say: "You know, I was writing a letter to my wife last night, and I told her, 'Well, dear, this is the day we have been looking forward to. I'm going into Tokyo Bay to accept the surrender terms of the Japs on board the Missouri . You know why I'm aboard the Missouri ? That's President Truman's home state, and President Truman's daughter christened the Missouri . But, you know, you don't have anything to worry about, dear. You're doing all right because I only brought one aircraft carrier into Tokyo Bay with me. That's the Cowpens , and that's the one our daughter christened." Despite the sentimental gesture, there was a reason for keeping the rest of the carriers elsewhere: so they could resume hostilities at once if the Japanese did anything untoward to upset the surrender.

Surrender on Deck

The ceremony itself on 2 September has been widely documented. As it began, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied Powers, made an eloquent speech that set the tone for the occupation and rehabilitation of the conquered nation. Japanese emissaries signed the surrender documents, and then officers from the Allied nations accepted the surrender by signing as well. MacArthur signed as overall supreme commander and Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz as representative of the United States. Air Vice Marshal Leonard Isitt of New Zealand was the last to sign. As he did so, the overcast skies opened up, and shafts of sunlight pierced the clouds and shone on the surface of the water. The image reminded witnesses of the Japanese rising-sun flag, though now Japan's sun had just set, and the symbolism was powerful.

Toward the end of the ceremony, MacArthur put an arm around Halsey's shoulders and whispered, "Start 'em now." With that, Army and Navy aircraft flew over the victorious Fleet, a visible demonstration of the nation's ability to project power abroad to achieve its objectives. The planes overhead were so loud that they drowned all conversation on deck as they passed. Nearly half a century later, Gunner's Mate Walt Yucka of the Missouri 's crew got goose bumps as he recalled, "That was the greatest thrill of my life. The war was over."

An improbable succession of steps had put Yucka in position to observe that moment in history: the choice of Margaret Truman to be the Missouri 's sponsor; Missourian Robert Hannegan's selection as chairman of the Democratic Party; his role in persuading a hesitant Harry Truman to be FDR's running mate; the death of Roosevelt less than three months into his term; and that the war ended at a time—much before the predicted calculations that involved a planned invasion of Japan—when the Missouri was in the combat area and readily available.

After the ceremony, the Mighty Mo was suddenly the most famous ship in the world. The newly developed schedule called for her to be in New York's Hudson River as the centerpiece of a large aggregation of warships to celebrate Navy Day on 27 October. While she was under way, Seaman Truman sent another letter to Uncle Harry, explaining why he would be leaving the battleship's crew in Norfolk rather than staying on to see him: "I could have postponed applying for discharge until after I arrived in New York, but I did not know how long that would delay me, and I am certain you understand I want to get home as quickly as possible." His wife and children were waiting for him in Missouri.

While the Missouri was in Norfolk, shipyard workers installed a brass plaque on her 01 veranda deck to commemorate the spot on which a ship's mess table had stood while holding the surrender documents. On 27 October, President Truman came aboard to have lunch and review the gathering of ships in the river. He toured the Missouri and stooped over to read the inscription on the circular plaque. He also sat at a table on the deck and wrote his name in a guest register. To those around him, he said, "This is the happiest day of my life."

Mr. Stillwell served in the battleship New Jersey (BB-62) in 1969. He grew up in Springfield, Missouri, and in 1952 watched a parade there as President Truman marched with comrades from the Army's 35th Division in World War I. He is the author of a number of books, including Battleship Missouri: an Illustrated History (Naval Institute Press, 1996). In November 1994 he interviewed Margaret Truman in New York City.
 

Paul Stillwell is an independent historian and retired naval officer. He worked for thirty years at the U.S. Naval Institute as an oral historian and editor of Naval History magazine. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including four on battleships and an award-winning volume on the Navy's first African American officers, The Golden Thirteen.

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