National Museum of the Pacific War – A Photo Essay
Fredericksburg, a town in the Texas Hill Country an hour’s drive from San Antonio or 90 minutes from Austin, seems an odd place to house the National Museum of the Pacific War. But many years ago, U.S. Army cavalry passing through Fredericksburg fired the imagination of a young fellow whose grandfather had established the hotel there. Unable to secure an appointment to West Point, the inspired young man accepted one to the Naval Academy instead. That’s why he is remembered to history as Admiral Chester Nimitz instead of General Chester Nimitz.
Today, the mid-19th century Nimitz Hotel houses the Admiral Nimitz Museum with exhibits related to the Nimitz family. It serves as a link to the National Museum of the Pacific War behind it, where state-of-the-art multimedia and interactive displays that were incorporated into the 33,000-square-feet, 15.3-million-dollar George W. Bush Gallery that opened December 7, 2009, the Pacific War museum is a phenomenal experience that lets visitors go as deep as they want into the history it preserves.
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"Speed walkers" can whip through, skimming the posters and occasionally stopping to activate one of the many animated, tabletop maps. Visitors who want a deeper experience will find plenty of options, including touch-screen databases from which they can select what they want to research from a menu of options. There are interactive exhibits and five wartime propaganda cartoons provided by the Disney Corporation.
Even more impressive than all the high-tech tools, however, are the artifacts exhibited. Want to see an actual midget submarine that was sent to attack Pearl Harbor? They got that. An atom bomb casing? Sure thing. A rubber, 3D map of the type used for planning invasions? Yep. A door from the USS Arizona? The museum is one of just a half-dozen in the U.S. that has a piece of Arizona on display.
There’s also the helmet and goggles that Japanese air ace Saburo Sakai was wearing the day he was seriously wounded (he continued flying throughout the war and claimed a total of 64 Allied aircraft shot down). He visited the museum and upon his death requested these artifacts be on permanent display there. A tunic believed to have belonged to Admiral Yamamoto in the 1930s, based on a tailor’s or cleaner’s tag inside it, is also among the artifacts, as is a letter written by U.S. Marine Eugene Sledge, author of With the Old Breed on Peleliu and Okinawa.
As you might guess from the above, the museum strives to present the story of the Pacific War in all its horror and heroism but manages to do it in an even-handed manner that has won praise for its lack of nationalism or jingoism. The even-handed approach applies not only to different nationalities but to the homefront and all the services that helped to win that war—Army, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines.
One of the most moving exhibits commemorates the sinking of USS Juneau and the five Sullivan brothers who went down with it. Visitors hear a recording of a woman reading the letter their mother wrote to the War Department requesting confirmation of her sons’ status, living or dead; it is read by the granddaughter of Albert Sullivan, youngest of the five brothers.
There’s an M3 tank commanded by Australian sergeant Jack Lattimore in the fighting on Buna, New Guinea, where a Japanese gun tore a sizable hole in its frontal armor. Above the tank is a video of Lattimore describing what happened. A few feet farther on is the actual gun that kayoed his tank.
Down the street from the museum is the Combat Zone, where a mock-up of a Japanese position is complete with pillboxes, dug-outs, a spider hole and a Type 97 Chi-Ha tank, plus an M3 Stuart that appears to be charging in for a duel with the Chi-Ha. Several times a year, the museum hosts a living history re-enactment in the Combat Zone, featuring actual World War II weapons reconfigured to fire blanks. In the climactic assault on the last pillbox, a flamethrower spews burning diesel at the target. Three more re-enactment weekends will be held in 2011, one weekend each in October, November and December; check the museum’s Website for more information.
The museum also hosts an annual seminar. This year’s event, September 17–18 was "Strategic Surprise Pearl Harbor to 9/11." Among the presenters was a member of Armchair General‘s advisory board, James H. Willbanks, Ph.D.
On a final note, the museum houses PT 309, which served in the Mediterranean. The museum’s educational director, Richard Koone, says it is the only Higgins-manufactured PT boat to see World War II action that is presently on display in the United States. If you go to the National Museum of the Pacific War‘s Website, you can play an arcade-style game with a PT boat firing torpedoes at targets while under fire in Leyte Gulf.