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Two Nebraska veterans recall Japanese surrender 75 years ago that ended World War II
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Two Nebraska veterans recall Japanese surrender 75 years ago that ended World War II

National Archives video shows the final Japanese surrender in 1945.

On a cloudy gray morning in Tokyo Bay 75 years ago, Navy Seaman 1st Class Bob McGranaghan of the destroyer USS Nicholas wasn’t up to much.

That’s how he got a front-row seat to one of the 20th century’s most historic events: the signing of the Japanese surrender, which ended World War II, on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri, Sept. 2, 1945.

The USS Nicholas was ferrying many of the international VIPs to the Missouri’s anchorage in the bay. The destroyer’s officer-of-the-day picked McGranaghan to escort Lt. Gen. Kuzma Derevyanko, who signed the surrender papers for the USSR.

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Bob McGranaghan, in uniform at age 17, poses for a photograph just before leaving for service in the U.S. Navy from 1943-1946.

“I wasn’t on watch, so I didn’t have anything to do,” said McGranaghan, 95, of Omaha, with a laugh. “It wasn’t because I was a somebody, it was because I was a nobody.”

If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, McGranaghan would have been back aboard the Missouri on Wednesday for the Navy’s official commemoration in Honolulu. He and Don McPherson, of Adams, were invited to represent Nebraska, two of 45 World War II veterans invited to attend.

The ceremony was held, but the organizing committee decided to limit attendance to veterans who live in Hawaii because of the pandemic.

“It was a little bit of a disappointment,” said McPherson, who is Nebraska’s last living fighter ace.

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Don McPherson, of Adams, Nebraska, is the state’s last living fighter ace. He is shown here holding a model of the airplane he flew during WWII, a Grumman F6F Hellcat, in this 2015 file photo.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of the Hawaii-based U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, were among those who spoke Wednesday from the spot on the battleship’s fantail where the surrender took place.

The ceremony was recorded and can be viewed online at 75thWWIIcommemoration.org.

The aircraft carrier USS Essex was the ship McPherson flew from during the last months of the war in an F6F Hellcat fighter plane. He shot down five Japanese aircraft in the last five months of the war — the number required to qualify as a fighter “ace.”

No new aces have been minted since the Korean War. McPherson is one of only 20 still living, according to the American Fighter Aces Association.

McPherson grew up on a farm near Adams, the youngest of seven children. He wanted to attend the University of Nebraska after graduating from high school in 1939 at age 16, but there wasn’t any money. So he helped around the farm.

He enlisted in the Navy in 1942, was selected for pilot training, and finished training in 1944. He flew for a replacement squadron at Pearl Harbor until his assignment to the fighter squadron VF-83 aboard the Essex the following March.

All five of McPherson’s kills happened on just two days of the ugly two-month battle for Okinawa. In early April he shot down a pair of Japanese dive bombers he encountered on the way back from a mission.

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Gen. Douglas MacArthur signs the Japanese surrender on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945. Last Wednesday, in Honolulu, the Navy held a 75th anniversary commemoration of the event. Forty-five World War II veterans were invited to attend, including two from Nebraska, one of whom had ferried a diplomat for Russia to the USS Missouri and witnessed the signing. But the coronavirus pandemic changed those plans, and only those veterans already living in Hawaii attended, and the ceremony was recorded.

He scored three more kills on one infamous day — May 4, 1945 — when the Japanese sent up an estimated 250 kamikaze aircraft to battle the U.S. fleet attacking Okinawa.

“They sent us all up and said, ‘Shoot down as many as you can,’ ” McPherson recalled. 

He was flying a mission the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and saw the mushroom cloud from a distance. And he was on a bombing mission nine days later that was canceled when the news came of the Japanese surrender.

“You should have seen all the aerobatics we were doing, celebrating,” McPherson said.

During the next two weeks, McPherson and his fellow Essex pilots patrolled the skies to make sure no Japanese planes were airborne. And they dropped parcels over prisoner of war camps to let them know they would be liberated soon.

The Essex was steaming off the coast of Japan during the surrender ceremony, and McPherson wasn’t flying that day. The next day, Sept. 3, the carrier left for home. McPherson was discharged from the Navy soon after, having notched 77 combat missions. He earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses and four Air Medals.

He returned to his wife, Thelma, and his farm. He was named to the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame in 2014 and received the Congressional Gold Medal along with other living fighter aces in 2015.

He was looking forward to attending the ceremony. This would have been his first visit to Hawaii since 1944.

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Bob McGranaghan of Omaha shoots pool at VFW Post 8334 in this 2015 file photo. McGranaghan, now 95, served on the Navy destroyer USS Nicholas during World War II and watched the signing of the Japanese surrender ceremony aboard the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.

Bob McGranaghan and his late wife had 13 children, and dozens of grandchildren. The family had been planning to bring at least 50 people to Hawaii.

McGranaghan was born in Falls City, Nebraska. His mother died when he was 5. He split his childhood between Omaha, where he had relatives, and Hancock, in rural New York, where his father had grown up and returned to find work after his wife’s death.

McGranaghan was living in Hancock when he dropped out of high school in 1943 at age 17 and joined the Navy. He was assigned to the Nicholas, one of the most decorated ships of World War II.

The kid from Omaha had never seen the ocean before when he joined the destroyer crew. 

The attacks by Japanese kamikaze pilots were especially terrifying. McGranaghan and his crewmates were relieved when they heard of the surrender.

“It was nothing but happiness,” he said.

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The USS Missouri is shown in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, the day of the surrender ceremony ending World War II.

Adm. William Halsey Jr. insisted that the Nicholas be one of the USS Missouri’s escort ships at the surrender ceremony because of its stellar war record.

McGranaghan was proud then, and he is proud now.

“On that day, we led all the ships into Tokyo Bay,” he said. “We picked up about 180 guys — admirals and generals from about 30 countries.”

And then the deck officer tabbed McGranaghan for his historic duty, escorting the Soviet general. McGranaghan was a bit nervous, and small talk wasn’t possible because of the language barrier.

“He did a lot of smiling. He had an 8mm camera, and he took a lot of pictures,” McGranaghan recalled.

McGranaghan won’t forget the gray skies for the 9 a.m. ceremony, or the sea of sailors craning to get a look, or the Japanese in their formal dress.

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Bob McGranaghan of Omaha said the Japanese at the signing “were very sober. They didn’t know what to expect. They looked very beat up.”

“They were very sober. They didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “They looked very beat up.”

He stayed with Derevyanko until just before the Ukrainian general stepped forward to sign the treaty on behalf of the Soviet Union. McGranaghan had a good view from near the starboard (right) forecastle, about 40 feet from U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the center of activity.

“I could see MacArthur’s face, and the faces of the Japanese,” he said.

MacArthur controlled the proceedings, which were finished in 23 minutes. He spoke briefly, concluding with these words: “Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world, that God will preserve it always.”

McGranaghan remembers the thrill aboard the Nicholas after the ceremony. The ship stayed in the Far East for another month, then headed back to the States.

McGranaghan left the Navy soon after. He moved to Omaha, where he had brothers and sisters.

“There was nothing to attract me back to New York,” he said.

He finished high school at Omaha’s Pratt Institute. That’s where he met his wife, Bonnie. They married in 1948 and raised their large brood. He worked 38 years for the Metropolitan Utilities District. He remained active in the VFW.

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The Japanese delegation comes on board USS Nicholas to be taken to USS Missouri for the surrender ceremonies Sept. 2, 1945.

Six years ago, he attended a reunion of USS Nicholas veterans and was the only one who had witnessed the surrender ceremony.

McGranaghan visited Hawaii and toured the USS Missouri in 2005 with some of his now-grown kids. A few months ago, McGranaghan was invited back to attend the Hawaii commemoration, all expenses paid. He jumped at the chance.

But, like McPherson, he had to watch it online.

“Maybe I’ll go next year,” he said.