WWII history comes alive at The Heritage School
By REBECCA LEFTWICH
You wouldn’t recognize it without help, but Jim Starnes’ arm – bent in salute – is immortalized in a very famous photo taken aboard the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945, the day the Japanese surrendered to end World War II.
“You could see my arm, saluting the Japanese,” Starnes shared during a recent visit to The Heritage School, where he entertained and educated a large crowd of students and teachers. He was introduced by his great-grandson, Candler Rich, a student at Heritage.
Starnes first showed actual newsreel footage taken on the ship, showing Japan’s Prime Minister, Admiral Kantaro Suzuki, signing the Japanese Instrument of Surrender. As the Missouri’s navigator, Starnes was third in command of the ship and Officer of the Day. At 8:56 on a “mild and sunny day,” Starnes gave the Japanese representatives permission to come aboard the ship.
The 23-minute surrender ceremony concluded with a dramatic flyover by 1,500 aircraft, ending not only the war but a five-year odyssey for Starnes and many young men like him.
“My message is, always, is never let us never get into a position for that (kind of war) to happen again,” Starnes said. “Freedom is so great, it is worth dying for.”
Starnes had finished two years at Emory University when he learned he was eligible for a Navy commission in case of war. He decided to “join the Navy and see the world,” landing at hellishly hot Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“We decided that if we died and went to hell, we would go as sophomores because we had already been to Guantanamo,” Starnes said.
Earning his commission in December of 1940, Starnes was assigned to the USS Boise, which sailed to Pearl Harbor to join the Pacific Fleet. The United States trained nonstop for a potential Japanese attack, Starnes said, except Saturday nights and Sunday morning, so “we were completely unprepared for the Sunday morning attack” of Dec. 7, 1941.
The Boise had left Pearl Harbor to accompany supply ships, arriving in Manila Dec. 5. Along the way, the Boise crossed the international dateline and Starnes participated in one of the four traditional Pollywog ceremonies that marked his naval travels. On Dec. 8, he went for a cup of coffee before beginning his 4 a.m. watch and a shipmate told him, “Jim, old boy, we’re at war.”
It was Christmas Eve before he learned of the attack at Pearl Harbor.
Starnes said the Battle of Midway was the first time the Japanese suffered a significant loss because the U.S. broke Japan’s code. The Marine invasion of Guadalcanal, covered by the Boise, was the turning point in the war, said Starnes, whose ship soon got busy keeping the sea lanes open to Australia.
“The Pacific Fleet felt like the forgotten kids,” he said. But things heated up for the Boise on Aug. 7, 1942, when the Battle of Cape Esperance made Boise commander Capt. Mike Moran a hero. During the fleet’s efforts to keep the Tokyo Express from “coming down the shot” and getting supplies to its troops at Guadalanal, Japanese cruiser fire hit the Boise’s magazine, killing 107 crew members. Moran and his officers managed to get the badly damaged Boise out of danger and back to the U.S. for repairs.
“The Japanese sank several of our ships, and we came close to sinking ourselves,” said Starnes, who had narrow miss personally. He was on the navigation bridge, he said, when the communication bridge below him was hit. In April of 1945, Starnes, by then a navigator on the Missouri, witnessed a thwarted Japanese kamikaze attack. The ship’s gunner shot down the A6M “Zero” plane before it could reach its intended target, the ship’s bridge, and the hit caused only minor damage.
“The plane broke in half when it hit the deck, and half of it went into the sea and half onto the ship,” Starnes said. The enemy pilot’s remains also wound up in two places, according to Starnes.
“Half of him went into the ocean and half onto the ship,” Starnes said. Crew members followed naval tradition the next day, wrapping the shipbound remains in an American flag and giving them a military burial at sea.
Starnes remembered that act of respect and humanity in September of that year, repeating it as he voluntarily gave up his officer’s cabin on the Missouri to a Japanese officer. The officer had come aboard to guide the ship through the dangerous maze of Japanese mines in Tokyo Harbor, where the Missouri was set to drop anchor for the surrender ceremony.
“It was an experience in humanity,” Starnes said. “‘Mr. Moto’ spoke great English and was a handsome man. Here, we had met him as a friend. The day before, the week before, he would have been an enemy.”