World War II
Mister Roberts begins a few weeks before V-E Day, which would place it some time during April 1945, when World War II was drawing to a close. Throughout the early months of 1945, Germany’s position became more and more hopeless, as the invading Allied armies penetrated deeper into the country. In March, Allied armies advancing from the west reached the German city of Cologne, and in April, the Rhineland and the Ruhr were captured by the Allies. Meanwhile, the Russians were advancing from the east, and on April 23, 1945, they reached the northern and eastern suburbs of Berlin. German leader Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. On May 2, Berlin was captured, and on May 7, Germany surrendered unconditionally (as the crew of the AK-601 hear over the radio in Mister Roberts). In Britain, the royal family, as well as Prime Minister Winston Churchill assembled at the balcony of Buckingham Palace and greeted the huge crowds that had gathered in the streets to celebrate the end of war (this is the celebration the AK-601 crewmen hear described over the radio).
After V-E Day, the war in the Pacific against Japan still had to be won, but it had been apparent since the spring of 1945 that Japan could not resist for much longer. The USS Virgo, the model for the AK-601 in Mister Roberts, played a role in the Pacific war, carrying U.S. Marine Corps equipment and becoming a unit of the Fifth Amphibious Force that was preparing for the invasion of the Gilbert Islands. American forces under General MacArthur captured the Gilbert Islands in November 1943, and the Marshall and Admiralty Islands fell in early 1944.
The Philippines were re-taken in stages, with American troops entering Manila, the Philippine capital, in February 1945. U.S. forces also advanced relentlessly in the Pacific, capturing Iwo Jima in March. The Virgo, with Lieutenant Heggen aboard, was stationed off Iwo Jima at this time, replenishing destroyers.
In mid-June, American forces captured the island of Okinawa, in the Ryukyu Islands. The Virgo, with Heggen still aboard, anchored in Okinawa for fifteen days and went to general quarters (a condition of readiness when naval actions are imminent) thirty-two times for air-raid alerts. It is at some point during the battle for Okinawa that Roberts, in the play, is killed by a Japanese suicide bomber.
By the time Okinawa was captured, American forces had complete dominance in the air, and Japan’s factories and industries were steadily being destroyed by heavy bombing raids. At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States called upon Japan to surrender or to face devastation of its homeland. On August 6, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing thousands of people. Exact estimates of the death toll vary, but the city of Hiroshima in the 2000s puts the number of dead by December 1945 at about 140,000. (Thousands died of injuries and illness caused by radiation in the months that followed the dropping of the bomb.) Immediately after the blast, four square miles of the city were reduced to rubble. Two days later, Russia declared war on Japan. The United States dropped a second atomic bomb, this time on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, on August 9. The day after this bombing, the Japanese asked for peace, and on August 14, Japan officially surrendered.