An Alabama man who witnessed the official ceremony for the surrender of Japan in 1945 died this morning, Friday, July 2, his family announced.
U.S. Navy veteran Russell Brakefield, an Ensley High School graduate who had been living in a retirement home in Gardendale, witnessed the surrender ceremony that marked the official end of World War II.
Brakefield was 93 and would have turned 94 next month.
Japanese Emperor Hirohito surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945. The surrender treaty was accepted and signed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur on Sept. 2, 1945 in a ceremony aboard the USS Missouri.
Brakefield was aboard the ship that day, one of hundreds of sailors recruited for a photo opportunity.
“There was a lot of brass aboard that battleship Missouri,” Brakefield said in an interview with Alabama Media Group last year. “I was there when they signed the papers. I was dressed in a white uniform. The reason I was there was because I was tall. They needed some tall guys that would show up in a picture.”
Brakefield was assigned to the USS Mazama, an ammunition ship that would load ammunition onto battleships for war in the Pacific theater.
“We’d leave San Diego with 110 tons of ammunition and we’d go to the South Pacific,” Brakefield said. “We were arming them up for battle. We had a whole fleet of ships we were serving.”
There, they met up with battleships.
“We’d shoot a line, hooking up a winch, and we’d go all night, all day, until they got all they wanted,” he said. “We would do that day and night, for days and days.”
Brakefield was born in Haleyville on Aug. 22, 1927, and grew up as the next to last of eight children. He was the last surviving member. “My mother had three sons in the service at the same time,” he said. “She was a praying mother.”
While he was in the Navy, his brothers were in the Army and the Marines.
Brakefield was a Seaman, First class, mostly working on the deck of the USS Mazama. At sea, the work could be tedious. “We had to keep the deck pretty, paint it, keep the rope in curls, especially when the captain was on deck.”
He also had to be ready for battle. “A three-inch gun was the biggest gun we had,” he said. “I’d catch the shell to keep it from hitting anyone.”
Although his ship wasn’t meant to fight, it was always a target. “We took a torpedo from a Japanese cruiser,” he said. “It did not go off.”
Brakefield credited God for that. “It was through prayer,” he said. “Prayer saved our ship.”
He remembered the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, which was torpedoed and sunk on July 30, 1945. About 300 of the 1,195 crewmen aboard went down with the ship. Only 316 of the 890 men set adrift after the sinking survived, and two of those rescued died. The death toll of 881 was the largest ever for the sinking of a single ship in U.S. Navy history.
Brakefield didn’t know them personally, but they were all sailors like him.
“I got all teared up about it and can’t talk about it,” he said.
After the war, Brakefield returned to Birmingham to work for TCI, Tennesee Coal and Iron Co. He was married to his wife, Syble, for 64 years, until her death in 2013 at age 85. “She’s my sweetie and still is,” he said last year. “She’s the mother of my three kids.”
Brakefield was one of a number of World War II veterans featured in a portrait series by Birmingham photographer Jeffrey Rease for his project, Portraits of Honor. They are featured on a web site, portraitsofhonor.us
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