Looking through a telescope atop the USS Skagit, a 19-year-old Don McCollum caught a glimpse of the fateful day when Japanese forces formally and unconditionally surrendered aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, ending war in the Pacific Theater.
Now 75 years later, the 94-year-old McCollum sat in his Pensacola home Monday morning to recount his experience as a Signalman third class in the US Navy during Victory Over Japan Day, or V-J Day. He was armed with a folder full of letters home stamped “Tokyo Bay,” sepia-toned photographs of smiling sailors and a document with typewriter font that lists all the ships present that day.
“We were not, I don’t know, 200 yards or something from the Missouri and since I was a Signalman up there on the bridge, I was watching some of that through the telescope,” McCollum said, adding that he remembers seeing Japanese military representatives being served some type of refreshments that day. “I told my buddies, I said ‘Golly, why is it they’re over there serving them something good?’ I said ‘They ought to throw them over the doggone side.’ I said ‘Three months ago they were trying to kill us.'”
As soon as the formal surrender was complete, troops and cargo were immediately unloaded to begin the occupation of Japan. McCollum said that night his ship was already on its way back to Okinawa for more cargo before heading to northern China.
“Yes, we all had a great feeling, but (there was) nothing we could do about it. We’re onboard a ship. We didn’t get to go ashore and celebrate or anything like that. It was just another day for us,” McCollum said.
Not just a simple commemoration of a document signing, Brian Crisher, assistant professor of government at the University of West Florida, said Wednesday’s anniversary of V-J Day is a significant milestone.
“This was the end of a very, very long tumultuous era. One of the things we tend to forget as Americans is that the war in the Pacific had been going on long before Pearl Harbor,” Crisher said. “In that sense, it’s probably a bigger deal than we even appreciate because it’s not just the end of America’s involvement. It’s really the fall of the Japanese Empire that had been building since the turn of the 20th century.”
Japan’s surrender was an “unconditional surrender,” meaning Japan had to give up everything, including the system of government and its military structure. Japan did manage to keep an emperor, but only one that is simply a figurehead with no formal power, Crisher said.
In the aftermath of the surrender, the United States had to quell pockets of resistance in Japan as well as help to rebuild the country and draft a new constitution and form of government, Crisher said.
“It wasn’t just sign the dotted line. It’s over. Everybody go home,” Crisher said. “There’s a whole host of post-war occupation work that needs to occur and it’s a scale that today, I don’t think we can appreciate it.”
McCollum enlisted during World War II at just 17 years old, which required his parents’ permission. He served on the Skagit, an attack cargo ship, as a Signalman who changes flags and flashes lights to communicate commands to other ships, such as “prepare to turn starboard,” he said.
“Back then everybody was on the same boat, if you know what I mean. Everybody was gung-ho, patriotic ‘We’re at war because of Pearl Harbor. Doggone it, we go in!'” McCollum said. “I thought ‘Doggone, I’m going to go in too.'”
During his two-and-a-half years of service, he avoided many of the “hot spots” for fighting in the Pacific and large battles. He was in Okinawa before going to Tokyo Bay, but arrived after much of the fighting subsided.
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After the war, McCollum got married to his wife Annabelle, who passed away in 2007, and had two daughters, Janice and Donna. He worked for a military food broker for much of his career, selling to commissaries on bases, which is what brought the Miami native to Pensacola about 40 years ago.
His older brother by two years, Bob McCollum, also served in World War II but in the European Theater. He was sent to France on D-Day Plus 2, or June 8, 1944, which was two days after a deadly invasion of Allied forces into northern France on the beaches of Normandy.
“We’re both from Miami and so it was really funny because we used to go out in the water quite a bit on boats down in Miami and he’d get seasick quite often, so he didn’t go into the Navy. And I loved it, so I went into the Navy,” McCollum said with a laugh.
McCollum’s mother kept many of the letters he sent home during the war. He had two stamped “Tokyo Bay,” one of which he donated to the National Naval Aviation Museum at NAS Pensacola.
In the letter he kept, he wrote in part, “(Tokyo) is fairly well destroyed but not nearly as much as Manila. We brought Army signal core boys over here and had some official photographer aboard. He took a lot of pictures, had a couple of me on the light and the flagbag so if I should happen to be in the newsreel, don’t be surprised. It really gives you a good feeling to see all these ships and planes flying over. …”
Janice McMillan, McCollum’s oldest daughter, took a particular interest in her father’s letters and now keeps many of them in her home. She said she’s particularly interested in family genealogy and researching the family, so she liked to learn about what life was like for her family members back then.
“I actually showed them to my son, (Don’s) grandson, this past summer when he was visiting me, so we all enjoy reading them,” McMillan said, adding that her son, David Zimmerman, is also a veteran. “He has talked to my dad about things and they have swapped stories and he’s got some of the pictures and everything hanging up on his wall of my dad.”
McCollum said he felt it was important for him to share his story ahead of Wednesday’s 75th anniversary of V-J Day because there are probably few who witnessed it who are left.
“I was lucky because not many people were there. I mean, I had that opportunity or whatever you want to call it. So I thought ‘Shucks, I’ll brag about it,'” McCollum said.
Madison Arnold can be reached at [email protected] and 850-435-8522.