Seventy years ago today the recorded voice of Emperor Hirohito announced the acceptance of the Allied terms for Japan’s surrender. While that capitulation wasn’t official until the well-known ceremony held aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, people around the world assumed that World War II was over. Then, three days after Hirohito’s tremulous announcement and Japan’s acceptance of a ceasefire, Sergeant Anthony J. Marchione—a 20-year-old aerial gunner in the U.S. Army Air Forces—bled to death in a bullet-riddled B-32 Dominator bomber in the clear, bright skies above Tokyo. The young man from Pottstown, Pennsylvania, has the dubious distinction of being the last U.S. service member to die in combat in World War II. Though tragic, his passing would be little more than an historical footnote were it not for the fact that his death came perilously close to prolonging a conflict most Americans believed was already over.
The narrative we all learned in high school regarding the way the Pacific war ended goes something like this: Japan’s armed forces had been battered into submission in the years since Pearl Harbor and Hirohito, horrified by the disappearance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki beneath roiling, radioactive mushroom clouds, defied his generals and went against generations of bushido tradition to accept the Allies’s terms for his nation’s unconditional surrender. Hirohito’s Aug. 15 announcement to his people that he had decided to accede to the terms of the Potsdam Declaration led to an immediate cessation of hostilities—except in Manchuria, of course, where those dastardly Soviets had launched a last-minute bid to snap up some Japanese-held territory—and the whole thing definitely ended with the ceremonial signing aboard Missouri.
Things weren’t actually that cut and dried, however.