Monday, October 14, 2013

War Stories: The Sword that Ended World War II

Pilot Officer Eaton, photographed here on the occasion of his "going solo"  in a North American Aviation AT-6 Harvard trainer.  He was 19 at the time

I didn't plan it but I seem to be on a roll with World War II articles of late. As I've mentioned before, blogging is a rather opportunistic process and seems to take on a life of its own as copy material emerges (often out of the woodwork). So I'm going to continue with the WWII theme for awhile as several interesting stories have come to light. 

Back in July, a particularly interesting anecdote was told to me by my Uncle, Doulas Eaton.  It's even more fascinating as it involves Japanese swords  -items in which I've had more than a passing interest.  Now Uncle Doug is a spry 90-year-old: he's fit as a fiddle, potters around in his Sussex garden and goes swimming nearly every day during the summer.  He's almost pathological calm, analytical and deliberate.  When he was younger, he used to transport his family around in/on a BSA motorbike and sidecar -a vehicle that I used to lust after when I was a teenager (heck, I still think motorcycle/sidecar combos are great!). He rode the bike in all weathers and to protect himself against the elements used to wear a sheepskin-lined RAF flying jacket and leggings. Overall a very cool gentleman; and this brings me to the main story...

Uncle Doug's flying gear originated from the days when he was a pilot for the Royal Air Force in the dark days of WWII. After his basic training (carried out in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA) he was assigned to fly twin engined C-47 transport aircraft. This was not exactly to his liking as he (like most other aspiring pilots) wanted to fly fighters and had done very well in gunnery school.  Having completed his multi-engine training at RAF Windrush he was then assigned to all sorts of dangerous overseas missions. Notably resupplying General Wingate's Chindit special forces in Burma. These operations involved flying over the jungle at 50 feet and rolling the supplies out of the rear of the aircraft (no parachutes). The job was incredibly dangerous as the terrain was badly mapped and aircraft quite often ploughed into uncharted mountains at the end of their supply drop. Others were shot down by small arms fire as well as Japanese fighters. A pretty responsible job for a young man only just in his twenties, to say the least!

A Douglas Aircraft Company C-47 Skytrain or Dakota (RAF designation) of the type flown by my Uncle. Over 10,000 were produced. It proved to be an incredibly versatile and reliable design and many are still in service today

Uncle Doug was fortunate to come through the war unscathed. He continued to fly for the RAF for several years after hostilities ceased but one of his most notable missions came at the very end of WWII. By late April, 1945, Hitler had committed suicide and Germany capitulated. V-E (Victory in Europe) was declared on 8th May. However Japan fought on for several more months  and only ceased fighting  after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August. Two formal surrender ceremonies were conducted. The first was to General McArthur on the USS Missouri in Tokyo bay on 2nd September, 1945. The second was on 12th September in Singapore to the Supreme Allied Commander of the South East Asia Theatre, Lord Louis Mountbatten. The notice of surrender was received from General Itagaki Seishiro. However Gen. Seishiro was representing the Japanese Supreme Commander of the Japanese Imperial Forces (Southern Region), Field Marshall Count Aisarchi Terauchi.  Field Marshall Terauchi had suffered a stroke and was too ill to attend the proceedings. However he did surrender privately to Mountbatten on 30th September in Saigon. On that occasion, Terauchi, being from a Samurai family, surrendered his ancestral swords which were transported from Japan for the occasion.   

Field Marshall Count Aisarchi Terauchi, Supreme Commander, Japanese Imperial Forces, Southern Region. He suffered a stroke on receiving the news that Burma had fallen
Lord Mountbatten receiving the articles of surrender  from General Seishiro in Singapore, September 12th, 1945. Field Marshall Terauchi surrendered his swords privately to Lord Mountbatten two weeks later in Saigon
This is the sword that was given to George VI by Lord Mountbatten and dates from c1420. Photo from the Royal Collection Trust

Terauchi's two surrendered swords were remarkable. The first was a made by the swordsmith, Yasutsugu, in the Echizen province of northern Japan in the 16th century (Muromachi period).  Mountbatten gave this sword to his brother, Robert, 3rd Marquess of Milford Haven, who later passed it down to his son, Lord Ivar Mountbatten who in turn loaned it to the Royal Marines as a permanent exhibit. The weapon is known as "the Mountbatten Sword" and is displayed at the Commando Training Centre Officers' Mess.

The second sword was crafted by the smith, Osafune Yasamitsu, in Bizen province, c1420 (mid-Kamakura period). It is a masterpiece and has gorgeous fittings known as koshirae. The lacquered scabbard, or saya, is also a work of art. I've seen the weapon described as a short sword or wakizashi although available photographs suggest it is a longer katana. Lord Mountbatten sent this sword to King George VI in London: after its arrival in Britain, King George put it on public display at Windsor Castle where it can be seen to this day. At least two other swords were surrendered although the details are less clear (at least to this writer) and were given to the senior commanders of the other two services.

And so it came about that 22-year-old Flight Sergeant/Acting Warrant Officer Douglas Eaton flew from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur and then on to Rangoon, Burma with with the swords that symbolized  the end of World War II in the hold of his Dakota. (At Rangoon they were transferred to another aircraft and flown to London by a different aircrew.)  A great story indeed and a nice one to have in the family archives. Well done Uncle Doug!

My Uncle's flight as "sword bearer". From Singapore to Rangoon (Burma) via Kuala Lumpur
My Uncle, Douglas Eaton, inspecting the garden back in June this year. He's a remarkable and very cool gentleman

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