Willie Burress remembers vividly where he was on September 2, 1945. He was witnessing a major historic event aboard a ship in Tokyo Bay.
Burress was in the middle of his service in the U.S. Navy, and his ship was stationed near the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Japan, upon which Japanese General Yoshijirou Umezu, Chief of the Army General Staff, signed the surrender documents for his country, officially ending World War II.
Japan had previously announced its surrender to Allied forces on August 14, 1945, but the formal surrender didn’t take place until the treaty was signed almost three weeks later.
“Our ship was anchored right beside the USS Missouri, where the peace treaty was signed,” Burress said. “I was looking at it. I wasn’t close enough to hear what was going on, but I was looking at them when they signed the treaty.”
Burress served as a cook on the USS Shadwell (LSD-15), and also worked in the ammunition room. He cooked for a team of about 30 to 35 of the more than 500 men serving on the ship. He recalls his work handling ammunition as being very hectic work.
“I was down in the ammunition room and had a phone across my head so I could use both hands,” Burress said. “They would tell me what kind of ammunition they wanted and how much, and I would put it on an elevator and push a button and it would go straight up to the gun turret. It was already in a clip. We just had to get it and put it in the chute.”
Burress said he was not upfront in any battles, but his ship was hit by a torpedo. The ship didn’t sink, however.
That attack happened on Jan. 24, 1945. The ship came under fire by three torpedo bombers. Burress’ crew members were able to take down two of the planes, but the third escaped in the darkness to return and drop its torpedo. The crew shot down the plane, but not before the torpedo left a hole approximately 60 feet wide. The ship did begin taking on water and was starting to sink, but its crewmen were able to save the ship. Amazingly, there were no fatalaties in the attack, and only three casualties.
“It hit on the right stern, but it went right through,” Burress said. “The plane was so close to the ship that the torpedo just went through it and it went, oh, 40 yards I guess after it passed through the ship before it exploded.”
An active life
Burress grew up primarily around the small Tennessee community of Pocahontas, which is located between Corinth and Middleton, Tenn. He was one of 14 children. His father and family were sharecroppers, meaning they moved around quite a bit. He helped out in those farming duties as he grew up.
“If I had a dollar for every pound of cotton I picked, I’d be glad right now,” Burress said.
He had finished high school at age 16 and had already taken about a year and a half of classes at Rust College, looking to earn a degree so he could seek a better paying job. He turned 18 in January 1944, and by April he was in the Navy. He completed his duties with the Navy in 1947, serving a little more than three years.
When his time in the military was completed, he returned to Rust College, but a job offer in Cleveland, Ohio, as a bus driver for the transportation system there lured him away. He worked there until retirement.
Somewhere along the way Burress moved to Baldwyn. He met his wife, Janette, here, and they have been married about 17 years.
“I don’t know how I got to Baldwyn, to tell you the truth,” Burress said with a laugh.
He has four children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He is a member of Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Baldwyn.
Victory Over Japan Day, Burress said, was one of the happiest of his life – and a long life it has been. Born in 1926, he’ll be 93 on his next birthday. He doesn’t have a particular habit to which he attributes his longevity, other than maybe the fact that he has always just taken life as it came.
“I just go with the flow,” Burress said.