End of World War II in the Pacific: 14-15 August 1945
By Mike Westermeier, Exhibit Curator
The last weeks of August 1945 were extraordinary for as it seemed WWII was finally coming to an end. That was especially true for those held as Japanese prisoners of war, who found themselves elated yet still uncertain of their future. Such was the case with Marine 1stLt Woodrow M. Kessler.
Kessler began the month of August 1945 at a coal mine near Nisi Ashibetsu, Hokkaido, Japan, focused on acquiring enough food to survive. He had been a prisoner of the Japanese since 23 December 1941, when Japanese Special Naval Landing Force troops captured Wake Island and forced the 1st Marine Defense Battalion, along with detachments from Marine Fighter Squadron 211, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Army, and several hundred U.S. civilian construction contractors, to surrender. Since then, he had suffered through a torturous ten-day journey in the hold of a Japanese prisoner transport ship, interned in a camp in China, and later suffered a harrowing train ride through Manchuria into Korea where he and his fellow prisoners nearly starved to death in cramped box cars. He arrived in Japan in July 1945, and was cut off from any news of the war until a British prisoner passing Kessler’s work group on 8 August 1945 whispered, “Old Joe is in.”
“Old Joe” was a British nickname for Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Red Army launched a massive land and sea invasion against Manchuria, Korea, and Sakhalin Island on 8 August 1945 after declaring war on Japan on 7 August 1945. The Soviet Union had adhered to its non-aggression pact with Japan for the duration of its war against Nazi Germany from 22 June 1941 to 9 May 1945, but declared war after the U.S. Army Air Forces B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on 6 August 1945. The Japanese high command was forced to confront the fact that they would soon be overwhelmed by Allied ground forces as their empire crumbled and their cities faced the threat of nuclear annihilation from the air after a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. Japanese Emperor Hirohito decided to accept the Allied demands for surrender on the evening of 14 August 1945 and prepared to address the nation directly for the first time during his reign on 15 August 1945.
Kessler and the other prisoners at Nisi Ashibetsu were locked in their barracks on the morning of 15 August as the guards and camp commander gathered to listen to the Emperor. Later that evening, the prisoners attended a special dinner at the mining company office , and were later informed by a Japanese officer that the war was officially over. The next morning the prisoners awoke to find that their guards had neatly stacked their rifles outside the prisoner barracks. Kessler and some other prisoners wandered into town and heard Gen Robert L. Eichelburger, USA, Commander of the U.S. 8th Army, broadcasting a message for all prisoners in Japan to return to their barracks, paint the letters “PW” on the roof, and await U.S. air drops of badly needed food, clothing, and medical supplies. The prisoners acquired cans of yellow paint, and soon supplies of soap, clothes, boots, candy, and canned food rained down from the skies. Kessler filled his belly for the first time in years, bartered with the local Japanese villagers for chickens and eggs, and eagerly awaited the arrival of U.S. forces on mainland Japan.