The following article is excerpted from Arthur Herman’s new book, Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior.
It was time to fly.
August 30, 1945, dawned clear and bright on Okinawa as General Douglas MacArthur, his chief of staff Richard K. Sutherland, and the others boarded Bataan II, the Douglas C-54 Skymaster successor to the B-17 that MacArthur had flown since 1942. At 9:00 a.m. precisely they took off and headed north. They were flying toward the Japanese mainland, with no more protection than a pair of B-17s escorting them. They were headed directly into what had been, barely two weeks before, the heart of the enemy’s homeland — a trip three weeks before would have been unimaginable.
The mood was tense, alternately ebullient and anxious. Only a short time after takeoff the ocean dropped away, and land began to appear first on their port side, then straight ahead. Then MacArthur roused himself and began pointing out landmarks along the southern beaches of Honshu.
He knew this terrain well, if only from maps. If it hadn’t been for the atomic bomb, troops from Eichelberger’s Eighth Army and Lieutenant General John Hodge’s XXIV Corps would have been landing on these beaches just eight months from that very day, as part of Operation CORONET.
Was MacArthur grateful for the atomic bomb? In fact, then and later MacArthur believed use of the bomb “was completely unnecessary from a military point of view,” and that if the Potsdam July 26 ultimatum had included assurances that the emperor would not be removed or harmed, the Japanese would have capitulated there and then.
“Let me know when we get close to Mount Fuji,” he told his pilot, Dusty Rhoades, and then headed aft.
Time for a nap, MacArthur had decided. It was going to be a long day, and he wanted to be as fresh as possible.
As he dozed, the staff talked quietly among themselves. The land swept away below them, as they drew nearer and nearer to Yokohama and their destination. What was going to be awaiting them as they landed? MacArthur had heard reports that when the first U.S. troops arrived, 150 engineers and technicians, the “reception by Japanese was entirely correct.” There were even pitchers of orange juice and rice wine to greet the first representatives of the American forces.
But what would be the greeting for the American supreme commander once he was on Japanese soil — and completely cut off from his forces? “The war had started without a formal declaration,” Colonel Courtney Whitney was thinking. “The usual rules of war had not been complied with; deadly traps had frequently been set. Here was the greatest opportunity for a final and climactic act,” the assassination of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers himself as he arrived at the Atsugi airport.
If that was the Japanese plan, there would be no Americans to prevent it from happening.
“I held my breath,” Whitney remembered as they banked toward Yokohama, adding with only the slightest exaggeration, “I think the world held its breath.”
Dusty Rhoades came back from the cockpit and woke MacArthur up. “Something you should see, sir,” he said with a reassuring grin. MacArthur went forward.
There dead ahead was a great blue cone rising up from the landscape, capped with white. It was Mount Fuji.
“Beautiful!” Mac murmured. There wasn’t far to go now.
As the plane approached the mouth of Tokyo Bay, the passengers on Bataan II could glimpse an even more breathtaking sight.
It was the entire American Pacific Fleet, 280 ships drawn up in formation, waiting for the formal surrender ceremony. There were carriers by the dozen, battleships, cruisers, and destroyers: without doubt the single greatest armada in modern history.
MacArthur’s mind, meanwhile, was racing with the job he now had to do. Courtney Whitney could hear him muttering to himself as he paced the length of the plane, planning in his mind the agenda to transform Japan.
“First destroy the military power . . . then build the structure of representative government,” he was saying. “Enfranchise the women . . . liberate the farmers . . . Establish a free labor movement . . . Encourage a free economy . . . Develop a free and responsible press . . . Liberalize education . . .”
It was wheels down as Bataan II swooped down toward the field. The landing was unsteady — “rubbery,” one eyewitness said — but then the plane came to a halt and Dusty shut down the engines one by one.
The cabin door opened. Steel steps with a railing clattered down to the concrete runway. MacArthur calmly lit his pipe and stepped out.
Cameras started clicking and whirring from the instant he emerged from the plane, and standing in front of him was General Robert Eichelberger, along with the marching band of the Eleventh Airborne Division. They and a couple of thousand paratroopers had flown in a few hours earlier, just to secure the landing site, and now as the band struck up a march, Eichelberger strode forward and saluted.
“Bob, this is the payoff,” MacArthur said with a grin. “From Melbourne to Tokyo is a long way, but this seems to be the end of the road.”
Eichelberger gave back a tense smile. He knew it could be the end of the road in more ways than one. Although he had full faith in his paratroopers and although the Japanese had behaved well so far, he knew standing on that runway he and MacArthur and the other Americans were outnumbered thousands to one. All it would take was “one undisciplined fanatic” to “turn a peaceful occupation into a punitive expedition,” he remembered later, and MacArthur’s triumphant landing into a bloodbath.
But MacArthur wasn’t worried. He smiled as the band played on. “Thank you very much,” he called out to the bandleader. “I want you to tell the band that’s about the sweetest music I’ve ever heard.”
The crowd of onlookers, Americans for the most part, but also some curious Japanese on the edge of the scene, continued to grow. The first of MacArthur’s B-17 escorts landed, followed by the second three minutes later. Out of one stepped George Kenney and his staff; out of the other came General Carl Spaatz, head of the U.S. Strategic Air Force, and his aides.
Then from the edge of the airstrip there appeared the strangest assortment of antique automobiles that MacArthur, Kenney, and the others had ever seen. They looked like the car pool from a Harold Lloyd silent movie. In fact, they were practically the only drivable civilian transport left in Yokohama, but MacArthur had been insistent that no military vehicles were to be used in the lead-up to the surrender ceremony, either Japanese or American. The war was over. He and his staff would be arriving as guests of the Japanese people, not as conquerors.
Still, someone pointed out, there was protocol to be observed. How about an honor guard for the supreme commander? So after a few minutes twenty troopers from the Eleventh Airborne were hustled up to act as honor guard, and they and MacArthur and the rest boarded the twelve-car motorcade.
MacArthur’s was an ancient Lincoln touring car, the one vehicle the staff judged the safest for him to drive. A rickety old fire engine led the way as the bizarre motorcade coughed and sputtered to life and finally drove off.
It was a long trip. The road into Yokohama was heavily cratered from the incessant American bombing, and the cars in the motorcade constantly broke down. It took almost two hours to travel thirty miles.
All around them was an empty landscape, an eerie silence, and an even eerier sight. The entire route to Yokohama was lined by Japanese soldiers — two divisions’ worth, some 30,000 men — standing stiffly erect at present arms at hundred-foot intervals, but with their backs turned to the road. At first Egeberg and the others were puzzled, but the explanation slowly began to dawn. The soldiers were there to make sure that no one took a potshot at the motorcade, including the soldiers themselves.
But there was also something happening, something that they learned about only later. This ceremonial salute was the kind of formal presentation of arms that the Japanese army usually reserved for the emperor himself.
For the first time Egeberg, Sutherland, and the others felt sure they were going to live to see the end of the day.