World War II vet recalls front-row seat at V-J day

MIDDLEBURY — It’s a picturesque day in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 2007 and a young couple and their two children are among the scores of people fanning across the deck of the USS Missouri, admiring the iconic battleship that hosted the surrender ceremony for Japanese forces, effectively ending World War II.
The family pauses at a bulkhead to gaze upon a posted photograph of the surrender ceremony that occurred on Sept. 2, 1945, also known as V-J Day. An older man notes their interest, walks up, and asks, “You want to see my picture?” then points to a face in the crowded black-and-white photo that includes such military giants as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and U.S. Navy Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.
“There I am,” the man says.
He is Capt. Sherman F. Drake, USNR (Ret.). Drake served aboard the Missouri for almost three years during a very eventful Naval career highlighted by a first-hand glimpse of the ceremonial end to the bloodiest conflict in world history.
“It was something I would remember the rest of my life,” Drake, now 90, said during an interview at the Lodge at Otter Creek in Middlebury, where he now resides with his wife of 67 years, Dorothy. The passing years have not diminished a commanding voice that must have come in handy during his years in the service.
A 1944 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Drake’s first assignment was as an ensign aboard a newly minted Missouri, the last of the Iowa class, among the biggest battleships in the world.
The Braintree, Mass., native was assigned to the engineering department as boiler division officer. There are eight boilers on the Missouri.
But Drake soon found himself in demand for an additional role aboard the ship.
“When the captain found out I had such a huge background in band music and playing with the bands in high school and college, and band organization … he said, ‘I am going to make you band officer,’” Drake recalled. “It was a collateral job.”
Thus, Drake became chief administrator of the Missouri’s band — which, unbeknownst to him at the time, would become key in his eventual insertion into the surrender circle on V-J Day.
But there were still some critical battles to be won before Allied forces could think about victory, and the Missouri helped blaze the way for the military successes that would follow. The Missouri became the flagship for the Navy’s 5th Fleet, under the leadership of Admiral William Halsey. The fleet organized itself in the South Pacific and then began a trek to such historic battlegrounds as Iwo Jima, Okinawa and northern Honshu, bombarding munitions factories. This was to be the precursor to an allied invasion of Japan.
“During that time, information was seeping out about the atomic bomb,” Drake recalled. “We all knew something was going to happen pretty soon.”
American forces would drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, then on Nagasaki on Aug. 9.
“The (Japanese) Emperor (Hirohito) decided to surrender,” Drake said. “He knew after the second atomic bomb that he had to give up.”
Hirohito announced that surrender to his people during a radio address on Aug. 15, 1945. It was then up to the Allied and Japanese forces to coordinate the signing of documents to seal the deal. It was decided that the signing would occur in Tokyo Bay aboard the Missouri.
“The reason it happened on the Missouri, of course, is because President (Harry S) Truman was from Missouri, and it was the last, biggest battleship, so it seemed like the appropriate place to do this,” Drake said.
He recalled the preparations for the big ceremony, which included sorting out which foreign dignitaries would be invited, how the U.S. military brass should be represented and positioned, and making sure that the band had national anthem music for all the countries represented. There was an eleventh-hour rush to make sure the correct Soviet anthem was ready for its rendition.
“We didn’t want to start World War III,” Drake quipped.
MacArthur, Drake recalled, ultimately represented the Army while Nimitz represented the Navy.
“There was a big deal as to who would fly the highest five-star flag — the red one for MacArthur or the blue one for Nimitz,” Drake said. “Well, MacArthur won that. In fact, he arrived the morning of the surrender ceremony in a big destroyer, tied up to the Missouri. At that time, the red Army flag went up on our mast, and the blue one for Nimitz … came down.”
Military personnel were told the night before that they would not get “dressed up” for the ceremony, which would include 150 flag officers and civilian dignitaries. Military leaders did not want to give too much respect to the vanquished, Drake noted.
It was at this same time that Drake would learn that his added “band officer” assignment would pay some extra dividends.
“I, as band officer, was to take part in the final ceremony, on the quarterdeck, with the band, standing right next to the Japanese group that came,” Drake said.
Stationed on deck with his colleagues and invited guests, Drake watched intently as the Japanese contingent approached the Missouri in what seemed to be a small mine sweeper.
“They were all sitting in the back, with their top hats on,” Drake recalled.
“They were a sad looking lot, I’ll tell you that,” he added. “They were utterly defeated.”
Drake stood at attention during the actual signing ceremony, which he estimated took around 10 minutes. He remembers being positioned “next to the bass horn” in the band and around 15 feet behind the Japanese contingent, led by Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu.
And though that day occurred almost 67 years ago, Drake still vividly remembers not only the event, but also the emotions he was feeling at the time.
“This was history,” he said. “This was the end of the greatest war that has been fought.”
Drake would continue his tour on the Missouri, which would take him to ports throughout the world. He became a Navy Reservist in 1949 and remained associated with the Navy for many more years. He continues to wear a Navy cap, which he said is a conversation-starter with fellow veterans.
After leaving active duty, Drake would go on to enjoy a fruitful career in civilian life, including 34 years as a math teacher at Phillips Andover Academy in Andover, Mass. His students would include George W. Bush and the late John F. Kennedy Jr. He is reluctant to share stories about his celebrity former charges, though he continues to believe that JFK Jr. could have gone on to a successful career in politics, had he chosen to do so.
Drake retired from teaching in 1987. He and his wife, Dorothy, moved into the Lodge at Otter Creek around two months ago. He said the couple is happily settled in and pleased to be near one of their four children, a daughter who lives in Ferrisburgh.
While pleased to be a healthy nonagenarian, Drake realizes that his fellow World War II veterans are dying at a rate of more than 1,000 per day. He knows that it is important for surviving veterans to keep the history of World War II alive.
And he is accomplishing that task.
A few months after returning from his 2007 trip to Hawaii to become reacquainted with the Missouri, Drake received a card from that young couple and their two children he met on the deck. In the letter was a photo they snapped of Drake back on the ship he called home for three years, where he bore witness to one of the decisive events in world history.
“People can be so kind and generous,” he said, with a smile.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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