But Japan’s once-mighty armed forces had been destroyed — its ships sunk, its soldiers killed, its planes shot down. Its cities had been bombed to rubble — most recently by two atomic weapons. And the emperor now had to tell his people the war was lost.
“How loudly should I speak?” he asked the technicians making the official recording for broadcast.
How loudly did one say that World War II was over? That the global catastrophe, which began in Europe in 1939 and spread across oceans and continents, and killed and maimed millions, was at an end?
Nazi Germany had surrendered four months earlier, after its reign of genocide, murder and brutality had been brought down. Adolf Hitler was dead. The concentration camps were liberated.
But Japan had continued fighting, and the world waited now for the emperor to end the tragedy.
Hirohito approached the NHK microphone — the same one the station used to announce that Japan had attacked the U.S. in 1941, according to historian John Toland.
“To our good and loyal subjects,” he began. “After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in our empire today, we have decided … [on] an extraordinary measure.”
Japan would endure “the unendurable and [suffer] what is unsufferable,” he said, and surrender.
The announcement was broadcast to the Japanese at noon the next day, Aug. 15.
Four hours earlier — 7 p.m. on Aug. 14 in Washington — President Harry S. Truman announced in the White House that Japan had surrendered unconditionally, and the war was over.
The official end would come September 2, when the instrument of surrender was signed on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. But the world learned it was over, and rejoiced, when word first came on Aug. 14 and 15.
An estimated 400,000 Americans had been killed, 600,000 had been wounded and 30,000 were missing.
Millions more had perished around the world
Now it was over, and celebrations erupted.
Millions flooded into New York’s Times Square. Spotlights swept over the crowds. Paper, confetti and streamers rained from office buildings.
Fifteen effigies of Hirohito were hung from telephone poles along one avenue in Brooklyn, then pulled down and burned, the New York Times said.
Newspapers blared the one-word headline — “PEACE!” — and took note of the gold star banners in the homes of those who had lost a son, brother or father.
In Washington, people jammed Lafayette Square, across from the White House, and shouted “We want Truman! We want Truman!”
The president emerged from the north portico of the White House at about 8 p.m. and walked onto the lawn to greet the throng.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “This is a great day. This is the day we have all been looking for since Dec. 7, 1941.”
At the U.S. Naval Academy, the ancient Gokoku-ji bell, brought from Okinawa by Commodore Matthew Perry in the 1850s, was pounded with fists and shoes and reportedly rung so hard that it cracked.
In Lincoln, Neb., Mayor Lloyd Marti led 15,000 people in the University of Nebraska stadium in a victory celebration.
They sang the hymn “Old Hundredth” — Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow — along with the classic songs from World War I: “K-K-K-Katy” and “There’s a Long, Long Trail.”
“All over the world today the lights so long darkened … come on again,” the Rev. Raymond A. McConnell, pastor of the First-Plymouth Congregational Church, told the crowd, according to the Lincoln Star.
“The guns are silent,” he said. “The killing has stopped. Victory is ours and it is indeed a despairing heart that is not uplifted in gratitude and hope.”
In Philadelphia that Tuesday evening, people leaped from trolley cars and dashed into the streets from restaurants, leaving meals behind, to join the delirious throng around City Hall. The city’s air raid sirens were sounded in a salute to victory.
Bars closed, but people got inebriated anyhow.
In San Francisco, five people died and 300 were hospitalized during the celebrations.
On the morning of the Truman announcement, The Washington Post reported the death of Navy gunner’s mate Francis X. King, 25, whose parents lived on Fourth Street NW.
King had been reported missing after his ship, the USS Jarvis, was attacked and sunk by a swarm of Japanese planes off Guadalcanal on Aug. 9, 1942. Now he had been declared dead 8,000 miles from home.
The war in the Pacific had been fought over vast distances with armadas of ships and planes.
One stretch of ocean off the island of Guadalcanal was called “Iron Bottom Sound” because so many American and Japanese ships were sunk there.
On the atoll of Tarawa, bitter fighting in November 1943 killed 1,000 Marines. Buried on the atoll, many of their bodies became lost, and have only recently been discovered.
Last week, the Defense Department announced that remains recovered there last year have been identified as those of Sgt. George R. Reeser, 25, of Washington, Ill. He will be buried next month outside Deer Creek, Ill., where his parents, Levi and Esther, rest.
During the same campaign, the aircraft carrier USS Liscome Bay was sunk by a Japanese submarine.
Among the dead was Doris “Dorie” Miller, who had manned a machine gun at Pearl Harbor and became the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross for valor.
The Pacific claimed the legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle, killed by machine gun fire during the battle for Okinawa in 1945.
It killed the famous Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who had overseen the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. His plane was shot down by American fighters in April 1943.
It killed three of the six men who raised the famous flag on Iwo Jima.
It killed the five Sullivan brothers, of Waterloo, Iowa, when the ship they were all serving on, the USS Juneau, was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine in November 1942.
“The war left scars that never healed,” historian Donald L. Miller has written. “This was a war that was so savage it turned some soldiers into savages.”
But it also drew out nobility. “Boys who had barely begun to shave carried out stirring acts of heroism and selflessness,” he wrote.
Jack Lucas, of the Marine Corps, was 17 when he dove onto two Japanese grenades to save his buddies during the battle for Iwo Jima. He survived the blast and was given the Medal of Honor for valor.
Another Marine, Eugene B. Sledge, was 21 when word of the surrender reached him on Okinawa. He had just participated in the grim battle there where 12,000 Americans had been killed.
“We received the news with quiet disbelief coupled with an indescribable sense of relief,” he wrote in his 1981 memoir “With the Old Breed.”
“We thought the Japanese would never surrender,” he wrote. “Many refused to believe it. Sitting in stunned silence, we remembered our dead. So many dead. So many maimed.”
“Except for a few widely scattered shouts of joy,” Sledge wrote, “the survivors of the abyss sat hollow-eyed and silent, trying to comprehend a world without war.”
In Hiroshima, where the world’s first atomic bomb had killed tens of thousands of people eight days before, survivor Michihiko Hachiya, a physician, gathered with others to hear what Hirohito was going to say.
He expected the emperor to announce that Japan had been invaded, and its people were being urged to fight to the end.
Hachiya was the director of the Hiroshima Communications Hospital, which served local employees of the mail, telegraph and telephone service.
“Word came to assemble in the office,” he wrote. “A radio had been set up and when I arrived the room was already crowded.”
Precisely at noon, the popular NHK announcer, Chokugen Wada, came on the air. He said he had a “broadcast of the gravest importance,” and asked all listeners to please rise.
“Like others in the room, I had come to attention,” Hachiya remembered. “We all remained silent.”
The haunting Japanese national anthem was played, followed by Hirohito’s announcement, which had been recorded on a 10-inch record.
Few people had ever heard the emperor’s voice. And historians say he spoke in formal Japanese that many listeners had trouble understanding.
The night before, in Tokyo, the technicians had told Hirohito to speak in a normal voice. But he had lowered it anyway, made several mistakes, and had to record it a second time, according to Toland’s account.
We declared war on America and Britain out of our sincere desire to ensure Japan’s self-preservation … it being far from our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement …
Now the war has lasted for nearly four years … [and] the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives …
According to the dictates of time and fate … We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable …
The radio buzzed and crackled with static.
The emperor’s voice faded in and out. “I caught only one phrase which sounded something like, ‘bear the unbearable,’ ” Hachiya recalled.
What had he said?
An official “who had been standing by the radio, turned to us and said: ‘The broadcast was in the Emperor’s own voice, and he has just said that we’ve lost the war.’ ”
People began to weep.
“How can we lose the war!” someone shouted. The fight should go on. Was it not “better to die for one’s country and crown life with perfection … than live in shame and disgrace?”
“The one word — surrender — had produced a greater shock than the bombing of our city,” Hachiya wrote.
That night he walked around, and sat down where he could see the devastation of Hiroshima. Here armies of Japanese soldiers had once embarked on conquest.
Now the landscape was apocalyptic.
He saw the Ota River glittering faintly as it sent its tributaries through the city.
The dark outlines of the city’s Mount Futabayama were visible against the sky.
“Even in a nation defeated,” Hachiya thought, “the rivers and mountains remained the same. I became overwhelmingly lonely.”
But the war would not end quietly.
In the southwestern city of Fukuoka, a group of army officers became enraged after they heard the emperor. They rounded up 17 captured American aviators, blindfolded and handcuffed them, according to historian Timothy Lang Francis.
They took the Americans to an open field, and, drawing swords, beheaded them one at a time.