It was 70 years ago, but Bob Casey recounted the scene last week like he was seeing it all again.
From a couch in his home on Missoula’s south side, Casey pointed down and to his right to indicate the angle he had on Sept. 2, 1945, when Japan’s foreign minister and its ranking military general signed the terms of surrender for World War II on the deck of the USS Missouri.
“I don’t know how many yards away it would have been. Probably 50, maybe 60,” said Casey, who turned 21 a few days before the historical event in Tokyo Bay.
A petty officer first class, Casey was catapult operator on an aircraft carrier, one of hundreds of Allied ships, submarines and aircraft in and over the bay in what a wire report called “a scene of feverish activity.”
“The Navy combat squadrons lay at anchor in impressive array – the long lines of gray battlewagons that scourged the Pacific and finally invaded the hitherto inviolate waters of Japan herself,” the story said.
“They said it was the largest armada of warships ever assembled,” said Casey, his voice still strong and his memory crystal clear just two days before his 91st birthday. “I know they would never bring them into a gathering like that these days. One atomic bomb would take out the whole dang works.”
Casey said his view of the proceedings came as he and the rest of the crew stood at parade rest, high on the flight deck of the immense USS Ticonderoga.
He watched as Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied forces in the Pacific, conducted the ceremony, signing the American and Japanese copies of the instrument of surrender after Japan Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and Gen. Yoshijiro Umezu stepped up to a table on the battleship deck to do the same.
Then it was turn for Admiral Chester Nimitz to sign as the U.S. representative, followed by others from China, the United Kingdom and Soviet Russia. Australian, Canadian, French, Dutch and New Zealand signatures completed the act.
If Casey heard MacArthur’s opening remarks, time has muffled them. But others on the scene captured the words.
Standing at a floor microphone on the Allied side of the table, the five-star general said he spoke “for the thousands of silent lips, forever stilled among the jungles and the beaches and in the deep waters of the Pacific which marked the way.”
“Today the guns are silent,” MacArthur said. “A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won.”
America and its armed forces had celebrated V-J Day weeks before, on Aug. 15, when Emperor Hirohito announced he’d thrown in the towel after U.S. bombers detonated devastating atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Looking back, Casey said he and his fellow sailors viewed the ceremony in Tokyo Bay as a formality.
“I think we were thinking more like: ‘Get this over with so we can go home,’ ” he said with a chuckle.
Like most of them, he had plans.
Casey was born and raised in Parshall, in western North Dakota. He was in his first year of college at the University of North Dakota on the other side of the state when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
His freshman season of football at UND was just complete. There wouldn’t be another until 1946.
“I was (in the) the class that went to war,” Casey said. “Uncle Sam was closing in pretty fast, and I thought I’d better beat him to it.”
He and buddies Perry Kline and Kibby Warner enlisted at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, intending to stay together wherever their military futures took them. A recruiter suggested the Marine Corps, which sounded fine to Casey. But Warner had a hernia. The Marines wouldn’t take him, but the Navy would.
The three of them ended up at Camp Farragut, Idaho, for boot camp, then went separate ways in their naval careers. Casey’s path took him to Norman, Oklahoma, where he went through aviation machinist’s mate school.
Six months later he was attending catapult school in Philadelphia, where he learned the intricacies of, in essence, flinging fighter planes off the deck of a crowded carrier until there was room for the rest to take off.
In May 1944, the new Ticonderoga – as long as three football fields and capable of housing 90 to 100 aircraft – was commissioned. Casey and nearly more than 3,000 other crewmen went to war on it.
The Ticonderoga had a catapult track on either side; Casey operated the starboard (right) one. For the last 15 months of the war, that was his life. The ship took him to hot spots in the South Pacific, sustaining kamikaze attacks and a vicious typhoon while launching fighter sweeps and bombing strikes against enemy targets in and around the Philippines.
Casey vividly remembers the date – Jan. 21, 1945 – when the carrier was crippled but not sunk by a pair of kamikaze planes in the South China Sea. Some 144 men were killed and 200 others injured, including the Ticonderoga’s beloved captain, Dixie Kiefer. Casey was below decks in the catapult cabin and was unscathed.
He said he remembers his time in the military with fondness. Even the Japanese people treated the American fighting men with respect after the surrender. And back home, they were genuine heroes.
Through it all, though, Casey knew where his future lay.
“I already knew that I wanted to teach and coach,” he said.
After leaving the service in February 1946 and helping out on the family farm for a few months, he returned to school in Grand Forks. He played two more seasons of football for the Fighting Sioux, graduated in 1949 and began a teaching and coaching career that would stretch well into the 1980s at a high school in Fessenden, North Dakota.
There he met another first-year teacher, Beverly Rise. He was the high school football coach and physics teacher. She taught the combined first and second grade in the elementary school in the same building.
They started dating in the spring of 1950 and were married on July 3, 1952. The Caseys started a family that eventually numbered five children – Jeff, Joan, Steve, Doug and Don.
Better pay beckoned the family to Montana in 1955. Bob built his coaching resume at Plentywood in the mid-1950s and in Glendive, where his Red Devils won the 1960 Class A state championship.
He became the first coach at Missoula Hellgate in 1964, when the school had no seniors and the team played at the Class A level. The Sentinel-Hellgate split came the following year, and Casey guided the Knights through the 1971 season before stepping down to coach the sophomores and spend more time watching his own children perform.
He also coached pole vaulters for the Knights’ track team and assumed the head coaching position for a year or two after Gus Nash retired.
Casey’s interest in science education, especially physics and chemistry, continued unabated.
“I always seemed to get the good kids,” said Casey, who switched schools one last time when Big Sky opened in 1980.
His senior physics class was a popular elective, recalled Mark Latrielle, who quarterbacked one of Hellgate’s best football teams in 1971.
“He wasn’t a fiery guy, he wasn’t an emotional guy, he was a pretty no-nonsense guy, and we all looked up to him,” said Latrielle, a retired school administrator in Missoula who still calls his old coach Mr. Casey. “He was a fatherly figure in a way, just a heck of a nice guy.”
Casey retired from teaching in 1986 but kept his hand in coaching for several years after. That year he was inducted into the Montana Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Kristin Blackler, one of Casey’s eight grandchildren, grew up in Vancouver, Washington, but now works in Bozeman at the office of sustainability at Montana State University.
She said it’s a thrill for her to walk into the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse’s “Hall of Fame” at MSU and see her grandfather’s picture on a large plaque that’s been hanging there for all these years.
Casey lost Bev in 2012 after 60 years of marriage, and lost son Jeff to cancer in Billings a year ago. Blackler’s mother, Joan, said it’s been only in the last decade or so that her father seemed comfortable telling his war stories – some of them sad but most of them on the lighter side.
Latrielle and one of his former Hellgate Knight teammates, Bryan Knight, dropped in on their old coach a couple of years ago. The three of them got lost in the old days.
“The thing that kind of rings with me is every time he sees me he asks about all the other kids,” said Latrielle. “He remains interested in all of us. That means a lot to me. He means a lot to me.”