Jerry Hemphill served aboard the USS Missouri as a Japanese intercept operator. He was the first American to intercept the official code from Tokyo that the emperor was calling it quits. World War II was almost over.
“I heard a Japanese radio station transmit in English that the Japanese were on the verge of accepting the surrender. It was 2:35 p.m., Aug. 14, 1945,” the 85-year-old Seminole Lakes subdivision resident said. “I intercepted a Japanese Imperial Message 10-minutes later that said they would soon be accepting the Potsdam Proclamation ending the war. I gave this intercept to Cmdr. Slonim, my boss, who translated it into English and took it to Adm. William “Bull” Halsey commander of Task Force 38.
“Eight hours later another message was sent on Aug. 15 (the next day) saying an important announcement would be coming from Tokyo at noon their time. The message was received at 2:50 p.m. our time which indicated Tokyo had accepted the Potsdam Proclamation.
“Pretty soon Adm. Halsey was behind me asking questions about the latest message. Around noon on Aug. 15 horns and whistles of all fleet ships began to sound indicating the terms of surrender had been accepted ending the war.
“At 7 a.m. on Sept. 2, 1945 newsmen and cameramen began boarding the Missouri. For an hour high ranking military officials from all the Allied powers boarded the battleship,” Hemphill recalled. “At 8 a.m. Adm.Chester Nimitz (commander of the Pacific Theatre of Operation) boarded. Gen. Douglas MacArthur (commander of the South Pacific) came aboard at 8:43 a.m. from a destroyer tied up alongside the Missouri.
“Just before the ceremony was to begin the Japanese delegation came aboard. There was a total silence as they boarded the battleship from one of the Missouri’s motor launches. You could hear the heavy, dull sound of Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu’s wooden leg hitting the steel deck as he approached the ceremony area,” Hemphill said.
Before the ceremony began a problem developed with the table where the surrender documents were to be placed. The polished mahogany table sent over from the British battleship HMS King George V was too small. A larger table from the Missouri’s mess was brought onto the deck and covered with a green table cloth to make it more presentable.
“The Japanese delegation stood a few feet from the replacement table on the veranda deck of the Missouri where the surrender documents were placed. Facing them, on the other side of the table, stood Gen. MacArthur (who orchestrated the ceremony) and next to him were Halsey and Nimitz. Bunched in a group at the end of the table were other generals and admirals representing: U.S. Great Britain, Russia, Australia, Canada, France, Holland and New Zealand,” Hemphill recalled.
“After the Japanese delegation signed the surrender documents, Gen. MacArthur sat down to sign. He motioned for Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright (who he had left in command at Corregidor) and General Sir Archibald Percival to stand beside him. Both generals had been POWs of the Japanese for three years or more,” Hemphill said.
When MacArthur finished signing the surrender documents he had used five pens. He gave one each to Wainwright and Percival.
High above the military brass on the main deck was Japanese intercept operator Jerry Hemphill wedged in a corner on the third deck along with 3,500 other U.S. sailors who crowded aboard the Missouri to witness the historic event they fought so long for.
The following week’s edition of Life magazine covered the surrender ceremony aboard the Battleship Missouri in words and pictures. Tucked away in a three-ring notebook Hemphill has treasured for decades about his service in World War II is a large vertical black and white picture taken by a Life photographer showing the dignitaries in the foreground and high above sits Hemphill and the rest of the Missouri’s crew watching and waiting.
Near the front of the notebook he put together to record the part he played in the Second World War is another picture. This one is from the front page of the Santa Ana Register, a newspaper in his hometown, showing a group of high school boys at a Navy recruiting office signing up to go to war. Among the new recruits pictured is Hemphill. The date on the paper: Tuesday, Dec. 9, 1941 – two days after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.
“I was a senior attending Santa Ana High School in California. On Dec. 8, 1941 we were in the school auditorium listening to President Franklin Roosevelt speak on the dastardly attack by the Japanese and what we were going to do about it,” the old sailor said. “After the president’s speech seven of us, including myself, checked out of school and joined the Navy.
When Hemphill went aboard the Missouri as part of Halsey’s staff, just before the Battle of Okinawa, he was a Japanese intercept operator. His life was pretty much confined to the radio shack where he and four of his buddies also work on typing down Japanese code they intercepted. They slept and worked in the same room.
“Adm. Halsey was interested in what we were doing. He was always in the radio shack setting behind us to see what was going on. He would slip candy and gum on our tables while we were working,” Hemphill recalled 65 years later.
“One time during a break in the coding I walked out on the deck just at the moment the Missouri fired its main gun batteries off Okinawa. The concussion from the guns blew the door open and it hit me in the head. I woke up in sick bay,” he said.
Like 16 million other men and women who joined the service during World War II, Hemphill got out of the Navy and went on with his life. He was eventually in charge of draft beer national sales for Schlitz Brewery. He and his wife, Glenna, were married in 1970 and moved to their home south of Punta Gorda in 1998. They have four children: Michael in California, Debbie in Texas along with Denise and Chrissy.
Name: Jarrell Dean Hemphill
D.O.B: 26 Aug. 1924
Hometown: Santa Ana, Calif.
Current: Seminole Lakes in Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 1942
Rank: 1st Class Petty Officer
Unit: USS Missouri
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, April 15, 2012 and is republished with permission.
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Jarrell “Jerry” Dean Hemphill, 87, of the Seminole Lakes Community, Punta Gorda, Fla., passed away Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011 in his home.