A gray parade of warships saluted the 40th anniversary of V-J Day today by slowly cutting a circle through the waters of San Francisco Bay, and a 67-year-old retired Navy man named Jacob Opp stood quietly on shore to watch them pass.
Many veterans came to watch the salute, caps shading their eyes and binoculars trained on the great dark bulk of the carrier USS Enterprise. Opp was among them.
His ship had been the heavy cruiser USS New Orleans; it said so on his cap. In his wallet, encased in plastic, was his Pearl Harbor Survivors membership card, which is updated each year.
"It was beyond belief," Opp, an electrician 3rd class then 23 years old, said of the Japanese surprise attack there on Dec. 7, 1941. Two piers away, he recalled, the battleship USS Pennsylvania was bombed while in dry dock.
"After we were released from battle stations, we went topside and looked -- and your mind refused to believe it," Opp said.
As he spoke today, the Enterprise slowed to a stop, a grinding noise from her bow barely audible over the whitecaps. Behind her, advancing toward the Golden Gate from the large naval base to the east, came the long procession of ships selected to commemorate the Japanese acceptance of surrender terms, which occurred Aug. 15, 1945, or Aug. 14 halfway around the globe in America.
Today, in the conciliatory language of the modern Navy, not surrender, but "Peace in the Pacific" was being commemorated.
There were the battleship USS New Jersey, the guided-missile cruiser USS Arkansas, the submarine USS Blueback and the Jeremiah O'Brien, the last of the unaltered operating Liberty Ships built at a rapid pace for the emergency demands of World War II.
Helicopters flew toward the Enterprise carrying Vice President Bush, Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.
"Hear that noise?" Opp asked, gazing at the Enterprise. "The anchor's going down. She's dropping her anchor."
He pulled his hands from his beige pants pockets and used his fingers to count off battles his ship had seen. "Seventeen engagements, starting at Pearl Harbor and ending up at Okinawa, for a last big battle," he said. "Coral Sea. Midway. Ay, yi, yi!"
One thousand yards offshore, barely visible from the concrete embankment where the veterans crowded next to young boys on skateboards and businessmen on their lunch hour, Bush climbed from his helicopter onto the deck of the Enterprise.
Car radios broadcast the welcoming salute by a Navy band as Bush greeted Jean MacArthur and hundreds of young sailors lined up topside. MacArthur, 86, is the widow of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, who commanded Allied forces in the southwest Pacific and accepted Japan's formal surrender aboard the battleship Missouri three weeks after V-J Day.
"Look at those boys, standing up there in their white uniforms!" cried Opp, and he laughed aloud. "See them standing up there like rows of corn?"
Bush, a decorated Navy veteran, was 18 when he was commissioned as the Navy's youngest pilot. In September 1944, on his 58th combat mission, his Avenger aircraft was hit by antiaircraft fire 600 miles southwest of Japan.
Bush was rescued by a submarine, returned to Pearl Harbor and later was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
"Today, we mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the greatest of all human cataclysms -- a war that touched the lives of every man, woman and child on the planet," Bush told the gathering. "We as a nation will never fall prey to complacency and unpreparedness again."
He praised veteran and civilian alike, calling them "ordinary Americans who did their duty," and adding, "Today, the peace and prosperity of the Pacific stands as a monument to those who gave their lives four decades ago."
Bush also recalled the day he heard the news that the Japanese had agreed to surrender. He was in Virginia Beach, which, he said, erupted -- as did towns across the nation -- with people weeping and embracing in the streets.
"These mighty ships are not meant to wage war," said Bush, as the Navy ships slowly circled the bow of the Enterprise and moved back down the bay, but "to preserve the peace . . . . The blessings of liberty come at great cost."
A few demonstrators chose the occasion to protest the nuclear-arms buildup but were shouted down by angry onlookers. Seven persons were charged with trespassing and disturbing the peace, military police said.
Bush cast a memorial wreath into the waters of the bay. Someone blew "Taps," and the sound carried across the water. A cannon fired a 21-gun salute, and Opp nodded approvingly at the message of Bush's speech. "That's good," he said.
Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps jets roared in low over the Golden Gate Bridge, each formation flying wingtip-to-wingtip above the decks of the Enterprise. As the last group arrived, a single jet pulled away from the others and soared straight up in a salute to those who died in battle.
When Opp remembers men who died around him, it is mostly the deaths; their names are fading.
But he can still look at the Golden Gate Bridge and remember how it felt to be an electrician in the bowels of a great warship, the shadow of the bridge passing topside, and in front of them the vast Pacific and war at its other side.
"You go underneath this thing," he said, "and you know you're headed for the Philippines. That's a long way away."