When visitors to Pearl Harbor board the USS Missouri, where Japan’s delegation surrendered while it was anchored in Tokyo Bay 68 years ago today, they’ll see the admiral’s flag and photographs that a Las Vegas Valley family loaned to the ship’s museum.
The collection of nearly 300 items, photographs and documents from the surrender ceremony that ended World War II belonged to Pam Nichols’ father, Navy Coxswain Frank Orban. He had kept the items in his hallway closet for more than four decades until he delivered them to his daughter’s home in Sacramento, Calif., before he died in 1997.
“We promised my grandfather that this collection would stay in the family,” said Christopher Nichols, of Las Vegas, a fifth-grade teacher at West Preparatory Academy. He spent countless hours researching the surrender and Admiral Halsey to understand the significance of the collection’s “puzzle” that he pieced together.
“We’re talking about the most pinnacle day in world history, the surrender ceremony, Sept. 2, 1945,” he said.
“In my eyes there’s not going to be or never will be — unless there’s another world war — another day that will be as important because the amount of people that sacrificed, died, with casualties was just astronomical.”
His mother, who lives in Henderson, noted that the collection also represents the impact on Japan from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki about a month before the surrender.
“It’s all about freedom. We have the right to speak about it, and we have the right to share it,” she said. “Why should it be in a safe or locked up? It needs to be on display so other Americans and other people of other nationalities can see it.”
After a fire destroyed almost all their belongings except the collection when they moved to the Las Vegas area in 2001, the family decided this year to loan the items to the USS Missouri Memorial Association. The memorabilia will be displayed on the ship from today through Dec. 7, the 72nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that launched the United States into World War II.
The collection includes Halsey’s blue wool “gig” flag with four hand-sewn white stars in addition to a 48-star United States flag and one of the small Japanese flags that Orban and sailors on the Missouri obtained for the ceremony. The items, along with a selection of photographs taken by Orban and some of the yellowed documents prepared for the surrender ceremony, are encased behind glass near the ship’s mess hall.
“They were just blown away with all the stuff we had,” Christopher Nichols said Wednesday, recalling the day in early August when they delivered the collection to the ship’s curators.
They got a private tour of the ship and “were treated like royalty.” He said he and his wife, Michelle, a Legacy High School teacher, along with his mother and father, John, stood on the deck where his grandfather photographed the historic surrender scene.
“It was a surreal experience,” he said. “I had overwhelming pride going through my body. I had goose bumps to know that we had items attributed to, in my opinion, the most important day in history.”
His grandfather was Adm. William F. Halsey’s “gig” or taxi-boat driver. On the day of the surrender, he was on the Missouri’s deck snapping black-and-white photos of Gen. Douglas MacArthur delivering his historic speech and Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signing the instruments of surrender while Halsey, MacArthur, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz and other dignitaries watched.
Some of the historic documents are instructions to the crew on the ship’s deck about what they should do in case there was a terrorist attack during the surrender.
“They were prepared,” Christopher Nichols said. “I recall reading one of the books from Admiral Halsey. They spoke about how each one of the crew members who were next to the Japanese had one hand on the Japanese and one hand on a .45” caliber pistol.
Much of Orban’s duty involved driving Halsey to various ships in the fleet. When the war was over, Halsey gave him his four-star gig flag, which is smaller than the admiral’s ship flag.
Pam Nichols said her father was an “extremely hard-working man” who grew up during the Depression in East Chicago, Ind. He joined the Navy to escape poverty. After the war he seldom spoke about what he did during it.
He was proud of his service as indicated by the photographs he kept on the wall of his office at the heavy equipment company he owned in Hammond, Ind. His most prized possession, the admiral’s flag, was kept in the top of the hall closet at the family’s home in Long Beach, Calif., and only taken out for special occasions. Once, Pam took some of the items to show her high school class.
During the move from Sacramento to Las Vegas in July 2001, the moving van caught fire in Beatty. Fortunately, the collection — except for one item, a card that verified the sailors’ presence at the surrender — had been packed in the family’s recreational vehicle for the move.
“I suddenly had this panic attack. I went to the RV, and I was crying. I said to myself, ‘Please, please let me have packed all this stuff.’ I went into the RV and I found the flag first thing. I can’t tell you how happy I was,” she said.
During his research, Christopher Nichols created a website and posted pictures of the collection.
“I had people from all over the world emailing me and sending me offers to buy the collection. We got offers for six figures,” he said, noting that the family was not entertaining offers because of the promise to his grandfather.
The collection, however, was appraised for insurance and presented to Pawn Stars and Antique Road Show, both of which declined to suggest a price.
“Rick (Harrison) at Pawn Stars was just flabbergasted, just blown away,” he said, about the historic items.
“Every time I look at them, I see something new,” he said. “It’s like going back in time and living a life that I wasn’t able to live and feeling that sense of pride.”
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308.