On September 2, 1945, there was a grand ceremony in Tokyo Bay. Aboard the battleship USS Missouri, representatives from the Empire of Japan met with those of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Soviet Union, China, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to sign the document that formally ended World War II. Surrounding the Missouri were other vessels from the U.S. Third Fleet including some British and Australian navy ships and even one Dutch vessel, a hospital ship. The armada included everything from battleships, cruisers, destroyers to minesweepers, submarines, landing vessels, repair ships, oilers, cargo vessels, and hospital ships. But only five aircraft carriers were anchored in the bay: two light carriers and one escort carrier from the U.S. Navy and two escort carriers of the Royal Navy. The big fleet carriers, which had shouldered the offensive tasks of the Navy after the U.S. battleship fleet had been sunk on December 7, 1941, were not represented. So where were they?
While the Japanese had broadcast their surrender on the morning of August 15 (the evening of August 14 in Washington, D.C.), it took some time for hostilities to come to a stop. Combat continued in places where Japanese commands had not received (or refused to believe) word of the cease-fire and surrender. But things had quieted down within a few days and by September, parts of the Third Fleet’s fast carrier task force (fleet and light carriers of both the U.S. and Royal navies) had been reassigned to other duties. Still, there was concern that kamikazes, whether rogue or under government orders, might try to disrupt the surrender ceremony. The Navy wanted fighter cover in case of any aerial threat to the assembled military leadership. Consequently, the remaining ships of the fast carrier task force, roughly half the maximum wartime strength, were not in Tokyo Bay, but instead were cruising offshore, ready to conduct flight operations to protect the ships and VIPs if necessary. Fortunately, these preparations were not needed: The instrument of surrender was signed by all parties without a hitch, at which point the carrier planes showed their other reason for being in the sky that morning.
Moments after the ceremony on the Missouri concluded, 349 carrier airplanes (though some sources say it was 450) flew overhead in a massed formation. They were followed by 462 B-29 Superfortresses, the only other aircraft that had been able to bomb targets in the Japanese home islands on a regular basis during the war. It was an aerial show of might to match the roughly 250 Allied vessels in the harbor that day: A fitting celebration to the end of both the Pacific War and World War II as a whole.
Laurence M. Burke II is the curator of U.S. Naval Aviation at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.