Slipping his lanky frame into the driver’s seat of a beat-up Army Jeep, Paul O’Connor takes hold of the wheel and glances around for his two companions. They’re squeezing in where they can among packed supplies of candy, clothing, food and salt. Anticipating delivering the supplies to their fellow Jesuit priests who’ve been stuck in the middle of Tokyo for the duration of the war, the three Jesuits pull out from the naval base at Yokosuka, Japan, “with nothing but light hearts and crosses on our collars,” and enter the ravaged city of Tokyo.
The ink has barely dried on the surrender documents signed by the Allied commanders and the Japanese, officially ending World War II. But O’Connor and his fellow chaplains, all serving on U.S. Navy warships anchored around Tokyo Harbor, know that the Jesuit professors at Sophia University have been holed up and isolated from the rest of the world as the war raged around them. There’s been no word, and O’Connor doesn’t know if they’re injured or starving, or even if they’re alive. But he’s sure they could use some help.
[More: View a photo gallery of O’Connor, read his war letters and read about one Xavier alum’s experience as a POW.]
The trip is treacherous. The Jeep dodges rubble and debris in the roadways, rapidly filling with ragged Japanese civilians carrying bundles and pulling ox carts as they return from hiding in the hills. Their homes are obliterated. The streets are chaotic. The road signs are gone. O’Connor comes upon an Army convoy carrying news correspondents to Gen. Douglas McArthur’s headquarters in Yokohama. Seeing an opportunity, he slips the Jeep into the convoy and quietly passes through several sentry posts before cutting away in the center of the city.
Now the priests are on their own, trying to find their way to the university in the center of Tokyo so they can rescue the Jesuits. The city won’t officially be scouted and secured for another day, but the priests are on a mission, and nothing, it seems, can stop them.
O’Connor’s trip through Tokyo took place only three days after the monumental events of Sept. 2, 1945, when the Japanese signed the formal documents of surrender on board the USS Missouri—65 years ago. O’Connor, a Navy chaplain and Lieutenant Commander assigned to the battleship in the spring of 1945, witnessed the entire ceremony. Perched on the bridge only 15 feet above the deck where the signing took place, he described the events in a running commentary over a microphone to the sailors restricted to their duty stations. In letters written to his mother, Marie, and his brother, James, he describes how boatloads of newspapermen and delegates began arriving at 8:00 a.m. and how the paper in MacArthur’s hand trembled while the general’s voice was strong and steady. He notes how the Japanese foreign minister, Mamoru Shigemitsu, dressed in a silk top hat and tails, dragged his wooden leg heavily across the deck as he made his way to the signing table before a hushed delegation representing the nations of the world.
As Shigemitsu signed the surrender documents, O’Connor wrote in a newspaper column years later, his aides wept openly.
“It was at this moment that I first understood the total, inspiring significance of what was going on below me,” O’Connor wrote. “There, in the shadow of 16-inch gun muzzles, surrounded by the might of the U.S. Army and Navy, and under the eyes of the American and British commanders they had so ruthlessly defeated in the Philippines and Malaya, the Japanese were admitting to their first defeat in history. The scratch of Shigemitsu’s pen was final evidence that their dream of an empire was shattered.”
O’Connor would survive the war and come back to Cincinnati, where he was named dean of the evening college at Xavier and later served as president from 1955-1972. The challenges he faced at sea helped prepare him for his tenure as president, where he showed savvy leadership during a time of tumultuous change in the 1960s and early 1970s, which included student protests, the admission of women, and the end of mandatory ROTC, spiritual retreats and attendance at Mass.
The Missouri also survived to serve in both Korea and the Persian Gulf War before its final decommissioning in 1992. In 1998, it was towed to Pearl Harbor, where it was anchored perpendicular to the grave of the USS Arizona. And in 2009, it was sent to dry dock for an $18 million refurbishment in preparation for the 65th anniversary in September of its role in the surrender. Returned to the harbor in January 2010, the Mighty Mo is now facing the Arizona memorial and open for tours.
The significance of the pairing is hard to miss: The sinking of the Arizona triggered America’s entry into the war with Japan, and the signing on the Missouri ended it. On Sept. 2, 2010, the Battleship Missouri Memorial commemorated Imperial Japan’s surrender to the Allied Powers aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. A week’s worth of events looking at the history of the war and the role of the two battleships led up to “The End of World War II” 65th anniversary ceremony.
To mark O’Connor’s role in that momentous event, his nephew, retired Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge John Paul O’Connor, provided O’Connor’s letters and photos taken during his tour on the Missouri. John O’Connor, who graduated from Xavier in 1963, and Paul O’Connor had a special relationship. John’s middle name is Paul, after his uncle, but they shared more than a name.
“In my early years, he would refer to me as J. Paul,” O’Connor says. “He brought me a collection I still have of the local currency from all the places the Missouri went, like from the Mediterranean—coins and paper money. And I’d see him regularly when I was growing up. They called them the Irish mafia—the priests. They’d all come over on Sunday afternoon and hang up their Roman collars and have a couple of drinks and Jesuit stogies, and Mom would chase them outside. I’d listen and bring them drinks. They’d talk about sports.”
Paul stayed in the Naval Reserve and his rank went up, and I can remember when I went to Xavier, they had mandatory ROTC on Fridays, and when he would review the troops, the whole school would march by for the president’s review. But Fr. Paul would never wear his Naval uniform because he would outrank the Army officer in charge at Xavier, and he didn’t think that would be right.” Paul O’Connor, who attended Loyola of Chicago, Xavier and Saint Louis universities, was ordained by the Jesuits in 1941 and became assistant dean at the University of Detroit before entering military service as a Navy chaplain.
In a letter home that June, he describes a harrowing day subbing for a priest on the ships at Norfolk Operations Base, made more challenging by the threat of a hurricane moving up the east coast toward Norfolk that kept the base closed all weekend.
After being ferried across a windswept Chesapeake Bay dodging destroyers and their escorts, he heard confessions from sailors until 10:00 p.m. and again starting at 6:00 the next morning, interrupted only by two morning Masses. Just when an exhausted O’Connor thought he was done, he was taken by plane to a carrier farther out at sea, the USS Saratoga, that had called for a chaplain. Theirs had been sick for a week, so O’Connor heard more confessions, then conducted Mass for a crew and officers who eagerly donned their dress whites and helped him hold down the altar cloths in the stiff breeze.
“I suppose I have said more beautiful and more consoling Masses, but I don’t think there will ever be one as inspiring as my first one at sea, with the breeze whipping the vestments around, the ship steaming slowly along, rolling slightly for there was a good sea, and over a thousand white uniforms behind me, the boys kneeling on the hard deck,” he writes.
“The Big Show”
It was great preparation for his role on the Big Mo. But getting to that ship, which lay 100 miles off the Japanese coast, was quite another challenge. He traveled by transport ship to the Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands and transferred to a destroyer. But a typhoon blasted through, stalling his transition to the Missouri for several days. Finally, he was put in a bucket and swung on board, where he spent his days hearing confessions and saying Mass for the officers and crew, often under the shadow of the big, gray guns.
On Aug. 27, six days before “the big show,” the Missouri crept into Tokyo Bay, ahead of a line of ships including the USS Iowa, the HMS Duke of York, the O’Bannion and four other destroyers offering protection. Planes flew a low cover, checking the hillsides for hidden shore batteries. They didn’t know if they’d be allowed to pass safely, or if they’d be blown out to sea.
The tension was palpable, O’Connor wrote:
“This morning a Japanese destroyer approaches and all our 5-inch guns swing on it. Emissaries and a pilot come aboard. The pilot’s eyes pop out when he sees the captured maps we have of Tokyo harbor. We steam toward land, pass Oshima Island on our left—steep cliffs rise sheer from the beach, but the plateau has a pleasant pastoral look about it … We steam in and tension mounts as we approach the outer bay. Nervous fingers are on all the guns. The nine 16-inch guns swing this way and that, up and down and up again, settle on a target, then swing around … No one says much … There is a quiet, almost desolate air about the place, no smoke from visible factory chimneys, no movement in the small towns, no small boats, too far off to see people. And yet you know there are thousands of eyes peering at you. We steam on to about a mile from shore, then drop anchor. The rattle of the enormous chain breaks the spell.”
Just then, the clouds lifted, exposing the volcano, Fujiyama. Though it’s known as the place for Japanese suicide, O’Connor thought it was beautiful—majestic and peaceful. He watched the sun set behind it as the rest of the 3rd Fleet arrived to anchor in the green water of Tokyo Bay. Preparations began almost immediately for the signing ceremony that was only days away. But as significant as that day turned out to be, and as important as his role on the microphone was, by the end of the day, O’Connor’s mind was already on the Sophia Jesuits and the supplies he needed for his trip to rescue them.
“I don’t remember him talking about the Missouri a lot,” John O’Connor says. “He thought it was a sad time in history, but I think he saw his service as his duty and something that had to be done, and he did it. To me he was an example of leadership and using your talents for the forces of good.”
Driving Through the Destruction
Charles Robinson, S.J., and S.H. Ray, S.J., are bouncing around in the back of the Jeep as O’Connor navigates the cluttered streets of Tokyo. Ray somehow got permission to have the Jeep on his assigned seaplane tender transported to shore on a landing craft. Warned how difficult it would be, impossible even, to get into Tokyo, they have made it nonetheless to the center of the city with their precious packages and are looking for signs to the university. They’re traveling unarmed in a city that hasn’t been officially secured by American troops and are relying instead on the belief that their faith in human nature will get them through. They’re also relying on Robinson, who had taught in Japan 20 years earlier and knows the language. But he doesn’t know the way, and because the street signs are gone, they must stop to ask for directions.
The people are surprisingly friendly even though 80 percent of their city is destroyed. Their homes are “a mass of ruins,” O’Connor wrote. Most of them have been burned, and what’s left in the streets are rusted tin strips and blackened logs. They encounter only one bomb crater. As O’Connor struggles to drive on the left side of the road, dodging the rubble, he notices the few huts still standing have curtains for doors, and the survivors raise the cloth to peer out at them as they drive by. But people on the streets give friendly waves—children, policemen, Japanese soldiers. Those who give directions also make the traditional bow before speaking.
When they come to a barricade on a main bridge leading into the city center, the U.S. sentries tell them the area is off limits. This sends the Jesuits into full preacher mode: Robinson tells them he’s an interpreter for Admiral Badger; O’Connor tells them they’re bringing food to released prisoners, since two of the Sophia Jesuits were just released from an internment camp; and Ray announces they are “chaplains on an errand of mercy.”
The GIs give up, and the priests are allowed to pass. Entering the central area of Tokyo, they drive around the unscathed Imperial Hotel, the Emperor’s Palace and the ancient high stone wall, all beautifully landscaped. They find their way to the university, where bombs destroyed one building, and the Sophia Jesuits welcome them “with open arms.” The chaplains are the first to get through since the war began, and though the Jesuits all survived, they are badly malnourished. Two who were at the Jesuit novitiate near Hiroshima when the atom bomb was dropped have minor flesh wounds from flying glass and debris. Alarmed by their physical state, the chaplains quietly slip their K rations into the food packages and go without a meal.
The trip back through the city is just as challenging, and they’re pressed for time to return to the ships before nightfall. But O’Connor notices that the people are already working to rebuild their homes. The families are working together, and they’re industrious, he notes. He realizes that he likes them, and he feels sorry for them.
“Thousands have no place to live. Families are scattered. The future is dark,” he wrote. “Their city is desolate. An air of death hangs over it. In some sections the stench is terrific, a stench as of burning flesh that even now after two days I can still smell. And yet they go about their daily routine almost stoically and find time to talk and laugh and smile at strangers in a dusty Jeep.”