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Helping a WWII veteran relive an ‘indescribable’ day

Porter Town Historian Suzanne Simon Dietz has collaborated with World War II veteran James L. Starnes, of Stone Mountain, Ga., to create a concise but powerful new paperback chronicling the Japanese surrender ending World War II.

Starnes, now 92 and sharp as a tack, was 24 and a Navy lieutenant commander, serving as the ship’s navigator, when he also served as officer of the deck aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945. Starnes not only witnessed, but participated in history that day during the surrender ceremony of Japan to the Allies, represented by Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, aboard his ship.

“I started writing this 30 years ago,” Starnes said by phone from his Georgia home. “I thought it would be something good for my kids … souvenir – nothing academic or scientific, but a brief souvenir of the end of this war that involved almost the entire world. This was the first time in six years that all of the world, just about, was at peace.”

The book is titled “Surrender: September 2, 1945.”

Dietz has written 11 other historical works and is historian for the Aero Club of Buffalo, the oldest such club in the country. She met Starnes while visiting retired Army Air Forces Maj. Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk in Georgia. At the time, Van Kirk was the last living crewman – the navigator – from the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, helping bring an end to the war. She was Van Kirk’s authorized biographer. Starnes and Van Kirk, who died last July at 93, were friends and neighbors, and Van Kirk introduced Dietz to Starnes.

“Jim is very gracious, bright, charming and grateful that someone is interested in helping him spread his message,” Dietz said.

She met with Starnes twice in person and spent many hours talking with him over the phone to create the book. “We talked about his strong feelings about the significance of that day and that he wanted to bring attention to Sept. 2, 1945,” she recalled. “Just about every country on earth was involved.”

The book cites the fact that more than 72 million people died during World War II, and the majority of those deaths – about 45 million – were civilians. More than 16 million men and women served the United States, and there were more than 1 million U.S. casualties. Sixty-one countries were involved, leaving 50 million refugees and displaced persons.

“Jim represents my father (the late John Victor Simon, who served as an Army scout during World War II) – and the fathers of all of us baby boomers, who were part of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ ” Dietz said.

What started as a short memoir turned into a poignant glimpse of the ravages of war – and sanctity of peace. The 40-page book reflects Starnes’ innocence as a 19-year-old intent on becoming a naval officer. He had just finished his second year as a student at Emory University and had to convince his parents to let join a friend and enlist.

The book concludes five years later when Starnes has the honor of serving, as the ship’s navigator, as officer of the deck at the surrender ceremony aboard the Missouri, alongside MacArthur, Allied supreme commander; Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, and several other key representatives of the Allies. He describes how they watched Mamoru Shigemitsu, representing the emperor of Japan and Japanese government, and Gen. Yoshijiro Umezu, chief of the army staff, representing the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters, sign the terms of surrender, which were subsequently signed and accepted by MacArthur “for all nations.”

“I grew up during those five years in the Navy,” Starnes writes. “My memories are filled with wonderful thoughts of all the experiences, even the unpleasant ones. My most lasting memory, given the assignment of Officer of the Deck during the surrender aboard the Missouri, is of peace, not war. After many years, I am left with the belief that there must be a better way for mankind to conduct international affairs.”

The officer of the deck is third in command under the captain and the executive officer, and it requires a 4-hour shift as part of a rotation, Starnes explained in the book. He was assigned to the job from 0800 to 1200 on Sept. 2, 1945, and the job fell to him “to delegate details to carry out the plan of the day and to write the log of the ‘8 to 12’ watch, which included the entire ceremony.”

That log now resides in the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Mo.

Starnes recalls the events of that historic day as “indescribable.”

“Here I had gotten involved with the Navy before the war had even started, trained, then witnessed the beginning of it and was at some of the most strategic turning points of the war and to see it end and know we had prevailed,” he said.

In subsequent reflections, Starnes said, “I felt we had done the work in bringing about peace, but I feel we’ve done a poor job of shepherding the peace we had accomplished. … FDR (Franklin D. Roosevelt) had talked about the Four Freedoms – the Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion and Freedom From Want and Freedom From Fear, and they are still so important. We must never forget them.”

After the war, Starnes returned to Georgia and married his childhood sweetheart, Rose Courtenay, with whom he had four children. He attended Emory’s Lamar School of Law at night, working during the day to support his family. Following Rose’s death at age 38, Starnes married Betty Hughen in 1961 and adopted her three children. She died in 2010.

Starnes earned his law degree, but pursued a career in real estate and finance instead, retiring in 1987 as president and CEO of North Carolina National Bank’s Mortgage Corp. Two of his sons served with the Marines, a third with the Navy, and a fourth with the Air Force.

There are two more local connections with the book. Richard C. Kahl is mentioned as a B-29 pilot, who joined hundreds of other pilots flying over the Missouri’s deck at the conclusion of the Japanese surrender, as a show of force. Kahl served as Youngstown village attorney for 30 years. He died in 2007.

The book was designed by Beau Designs of Youngstown and is available at the Book Corner in Niagara Falls, Barnes & Noble and