A historic injustice

Today marks the 60 anniversary of the formal surrender of the Japanese, when the representatives of Emperor Hirohito signed the unconditional surrender on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri.

And in one sense, that act was a triumph of politics over honor.

America’s entry into World War II was marked by Pearl Harbor. In that attack, Japanese aircraft carriers attacked and devastated our fleet, damaging eight of our battleships — two of which were lost. And the rest of the war repeatedly showed that the battleship, as glorious and powerful and romantic as they were, were creatures of the past — and the new, unchallenged queen of the seas was the aircraft carrier.

The battleship fulfilled its designed purpose exactly twice — off Guadalcanal in 1942, when the Washington and the South Dakota sank the Japanese battleship Kirishima, and in the Surigao Strait in 1944, when six old US battleships (five of them resurrected veterans of Pearl Harbor) fought the Japanese and sank the battleship Fuso.

The rest of the time, battleships served three far less glamorous roles. They protected aircraft carriers from air attack, they bombarded islands prior to invasions, and they served as fuel carriers for destroyers and other smaller ships.

Meanwhile, it was the aircraft carriers that fought and won the battles. Time and again the power of aircraft, flown from these floating, moving air bases, determined the outcome of battle after battle — and, eventually, the war.

When the Japanese finally surrendered, and the Navy was deciding which vessel would have the honor of hosting the actual signing, by all rights it should have been an aircraft carrier. Ideally, there was one ship that deserved the honor above all else — the U.S.S. Enterprise.

The Enterprise was a leader practically from the start of the war in the Pacific. She sailed into Pearl Harbor on the evening of December 7, 1941, and it was on her bridge that the legendary Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey declared “by the time this war is over, the Japanese language will be spoken only in Hell!”

The Enterprise guarded the Hornet when she carried the famed Doolittle mission, when Army bombers made the first attack on the Japanese mainland. She fought at the Battle of Midway, where her planes gave the Japanese their first real defeat, and forever broke the back of the Japanese navy when they sank four aircraft carriers (all of whom had attacked Pearl Harbor seven months prior), losing only one in return. She fought at Guadalcanal, and was severely damaged.

By the end of the war, the Enterprise was the most-decorated ship in the Navy. She won 20 Battle Stars, the Navy Unit Citation, the Presidential Unit Commendation, and the Royal Navy’s Admiralty Pennant — the only ship outside the Royal Navy to ever be awarded that honor.

The Enterprise’s war came to an end on May 16, 1945, when a kamikaze plane struck her. Her forward elevator — a plate of steel weighing 16 tons — was hurled over 400 feet in the air in the blast. She limped home to Pearl Harbor, and then was sent on to Bremerton, Washington for repairs — 578 days since she’d last been back to the United States. She was repaired and went back to sea, but not before the war ended.

By all rights, the Enterprise should have been given the honor of hosting the surrender. In her absence, another carrier should have held the duty — the Yorktown, named after the Enterprise’s sister, who fell at Midway, was present.

But there were other considerations. The new president of the United States was Harry Truman, who assumed the Oval Office upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt some months before.

And Harry Truman was from Missouri.

That meant that the mighty Missouri, certainly a proud and noble ship, but only bearing three Battle Stars, was granted the honor. And that is why she is now moored in Pearl Harbor, next to the watery grave of the USS Arizona. It does form an appropriate bookending — the battleship that died at the outbreak of the war, and the battleship that saw the death of that war.

And while the Enterprise certainly merited preservation as a museum and monument to her valor, efforts to save her failed. She was ignominiously scrapped in the 50’s, with only her mast saved as a memorial — and that, too, was ultimately thrown away.

But that dark cloud had a silver lining. With the destruction of the World War II Enterprise, that freed up the name for the Navy to christen the very first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in her honor in 1960 — and that proud ship serves to this very day. When Gene Roddenberry needed a name for the starship that would be home to his “Wagon Train To The Stars,” he chose to honor “The Big E.” And it was that example, along with legions of rabid “Star Trek” fans, that persuaded NASA to name the very first space shuttle “Enterprise.”

Today, the name “Enterprise” is most known as a couple of spaceships that never really existed, while the proud vessel that made that name so legendary is often forgotten. And I speak as a proud Trekker with a stack of Star Trek books a good two feet tall — and that’s just the reference material.

The adventures of the fantastic Enterprises are thrilling — but they pale in comparison to the ship that served as their inspiration.

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