HONOLULU -- This is the ship where the madness ended. Sixty years ago, on Sept. 2, 1945, representatives of the crushed Japanese Empire came aboard the USS Missouri and signed the surrender document that formally ended World War II, with its more than 50 million civilian and military dead.
Today, you can stand on the spot where the document was signed and where a khaki-clad General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme Allied commander who conducted the ceremony, boomed out, ''Today the guns are silent. . . . The skies no longer rain death. . . . The entire world lies quietly at peace." And in the distance, you can see the memorial that stands over the USS Arizona, sunk on Dec. 7, 1941, in the surprise attack that plunged the United States into the war.
You can do much more, though, because the Missouri, nicknamed the Mighty Mo, has come to rest in Hawaii and is open to visitors. The country's last battleship stands in Pearl Harbor as a monument to both war and peace, providing a fascinating glimpse into daily life aboard the giant vessel. Unlike the Arizona Memorial, the Battleship Missouri Memorial is not free because it receives no government money. But it also doesn't have a two-hour wait, as the Arizona often does, and seeing both ships gives the visitor a sense of beginnings and endings.
Whether you wander about the teak deck on your own or join a tour, you cannot help but be impressed by the sheer size of the Mighty Mo, 887 feet long and 209 feet high, from keel to mast. Chances are you will gravitate to the guns, now silent forever. There are nine of them, each with a barrel that is 65 feet long, weighs 116 tons, and could fire a 2,700-pound shell 23 miles in 50 seconds. Mighty indeed.
There is much more, from the spot where a Japanese kamikaze plane flew into the hull of the ship to the galley, where 6,000 meals a day were prepared; from the sailors' sleeping quarters (which look anything but comfortable) to the engine room, where temperatures sometimes topped 100 degrees; from the control room, looking like something you may have seen in a dozen World War II movies, to the officers' quarters and the mess deck. You can even dine where President Truman did when he visited the Mighty Mo in 1947.
Above all, history lives aboard, a history that began in June 1944, when the Missouri was commissioned and became the last US battleship ever built. Joining the Pacific Third Fleet, it steamed into Pearl Harbor on Christmas Eve 1944, then became part of the force that carried out bombing raids over Tokyo and rained down firepower for the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
It is not war but peace, however, for which the Mighty Mo is remembered. The ship stood anchored off Tokyo Bay on the morning of Sept. 2, 1945, a little more than two weeks after Japan's message of surrender on Aug. 15. As a small armada guarded against the possibility of any last-minute surprise from the Japanese, representatives of 10 nations came aboard, and some 3,000 officers and crew members strained to represent their nation proudly while trying at the same time to see what was going on.
One of those crewmen was Willard Dunlap of Milton, who was a 20-year-old seaman first class at the time, stationed on the Missouri from 1944-46, and he had quite the view. In a recent telephone interview from his home, he said he was a ''sun lookout," which means he was positioned 139 feet above the ocean, wearing headphones and sunglasses and looking toward the sun in case a Japanese kamikaze plane should emerge.
He was also able to glance down at the scene and ''all the dignitaries," he said. What he said he found most impressive, though, was the roar and buzz of the many planes from many nations, flying overhead in a show of ceremony and strength.
What is often most interesting about such a great event are the little things. Visitors learn that the surrender table was no finely crafted piece of furniture but a regular mess table, drafted into service after an elegant table loaned from a Royal Navy ship proved too small. They also learn that the Canadian delegate signed one copy of the documents on the wrong line, forcing all those who signed after him to adjust their signatures accordingly.
The story of the Mighty Mo did not end with the signing. When hopes of a lasting peace proved just a dream, the Missouri and its firepower became a legend in the Korean War, after which it was decommissioned and mothballed. In 1991, a refurbished and recommissioned Missouri was deployed to the Persian Gulf, where it fired its great guns and launched Tomahawk missiles during Operation Desert Storm. A year later, the ship was decommissioned for good, and in 1998 its care was transferred from the Navy to the nonprofit USS Missouri Memorial Association.
More than 2 million people have visited the ship since it opened to the public six years ago, and certainly many have left the steel giant pondering whether the lasting peace that seemed so possible on that bright September day in 1945 can ever be achieved.
Contact Richard P. Carpenter at email@example.com.