In 1945, Syracuse veteran raised an American flag over Tokyo, enraging Gen. MacArthur
By JOHNATHAN CROYLE | Syracuse Media Group, N.Y. | Published: October 6, 2018
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — Syracuse.com reader Glen Owens recently shared a photo a friend thought he would find interesting.
It might be one of the most famous photographs ever taken of a Syracuse resident.
The photo, taken on Sept. 3, 1945, shows World War II soldier Bernard "Bud" Stapleton raising the first American flag over Tokyo, just one day after the formal Japanese surrender. Bombed out buildings can be seen in the background.
It was run on the front pages of many American newspapers, much to the annoyance of General Douglas MacArthur.
Bud Stapleton was 23 years old when he became an overnight sensation. He had grown up on Rider Avenue in Syracuse and was a graduate of Christian Brothers Academy.
He studied public speaking while at CBA, which led to a job at Auburn radio station WMBO and later Watertown's WATN.
He was a radio announcer at Syracuse's WSYR when the United States entered World War II.
"I went looking for war and I found it," he said in 1993.
He joined the service on July 10, 1942 and took an eight-month-long Signal Corps Course at Syracuse University.
In Sept. 1944 he was made a lieutenant following an accelerated course at Officers' Candidates School.
He was sent overseas in Feb. 1945, doing public relations work for the Signal Corps out of Manila in the Philippines, providing news materials to the press services and radio.
In a Sept. 19, 1945 WSYR radio broadcast, Stapleton's friend, E.R. Vadeboncoeur, said that he "was doing a hard and interesting job of helping record the history of the Pacific war, as a writer in the Signal Corps."
Stapleton injured his knee when a land mine exploded under a jeep he was in. Others in the vehicle were killed.
As plans for the invasion of the Japanese mainland began, Stapleton was more than likely preparing to head to China with his unit, when the war unexpectedly ended following the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Japan surrendered unconditionally on Aug. 14, 1945.
It was members of the Signal Corps, including Stapleton, which were the first Americans to arrive in Japan. They set up communications before the rest of the army arrived.
Accounts differ on how Stapleton ended up in Tokyo on Sept. 3, 1945, a day after Japan's formal surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri.
Stapleton told the Orlando Sentinel in 1995 that he and Captain Morton Sontheimer, a photographer, decided "on a lark" to sneak into the city.
An Aug 10, 1995 Post-Standard story, said they were there to "make sure the city was safe and to confiscate all Japanese film of the bombing of Hiroshima."
In Oct. 1945, Stapleton told the Herald-Journal what it was like to be an American in Tokyo immediately after the war ended:
"Our first stunt was to walk around the Tokyo streets unarmed just to see what the people would do. They stared after us for blocks, and when we went into a department store all business in the place stopped. We pretended not to notice but of course it was a great show."
On Sept. 3, he noticed a lot of Japanese flags flying.
"I decided we should put something in their place," Stapleton said in 1993.
He and Sontheimer raced to the top of the tall Nippon News building. Stapleton raised the American flag over Tokyo while Sontheimer captured the moment on his camera.
Sontheimer kept his own name out of the caption but identified Stapleton, who figured the photo would never pass the military censors.
But in an ironic twist of fate, Stapleton's cousin, Don McInerney, also of Syracuse, was on the Battleship Iowa where the film was processed. Believing he was doing his cousin a favor, he allowed the photo to clear the censors.
The photo was soon on nearly every front page across the country.
Stapleton was now known as the "Yank in Tokyo" and he even received a letter from the Queen of England, who saw the photo in The Times of London.
"That's our Bud!" his mother exclaimed in the Sept. 7, 1945 edition of the Herald-Journal.
(In one of those amazing coincidences that makes history so compelling, Stapleton's brother, Ensign T. Ray Stapleton, made one of the first naval flights over Tokyo in a Hellcat fighter. His mother said Bud's flag display was just another "first for the Stapletons over Tokyo.")
Less excited about Stapleton's stunt was Douglas MacArthur who had planned his own flag-raising ceremony at the American embassy after he entered the city a few days later.
The General had it all planned out: President Harry Truman had sent the American flag used at the German surrender at Potsdam earlier that year.
When he learned that he had been upstaged by the Syracuse lieutenant, MacArthur was furious and summoned Stapleton for a face-to-face meeting.
Stapleton was unconcerned at first.
"The war was over," he told the Herald American in 1981. "The worst he could do was make me a civilian."
Stapleton later said that MacArthur "tore up my promotions, he tore up my decorations" and nearly had him sent to New Guinea.
"You cannot imagine what it is like to be chewed out by a five-star general," he said.
Stapleton returned to Syracuse, and after a period in the hospital to treat his knee and "jungle rot," he became news director at WSYR and later WNDR. He also worked for Barlow Advertising before retiring to Florida.
"I'm alive, but I won't come back to prove it," Stapleton told a Syracuse reporter in 1993. "I don't like the cold."
He died in 1999.
A full-size figure of Stapleton is on display at the Onondaga County War Memorial, a building he had a bit of history with.
In 1949 he had been asked by Gold Star Mothers to help with the ground-breaking ceremony.
His job was to raise the American flag.
(c)2018 Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.
Visit Syracuse Media Group, N.Y. at www.syracuse.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.