On Memorial Day, a museum on Main Street in Fredericksburg, Texas, draws a big crowd as lives lost in war are commemorated. Dignitaries lay 50 wreaths, each honoring a unit or ship that served in World War II.
IT STARTS WITH ADMIRAL NIMITZ
The only national museum dedicated solely to the WWII war in the Pacific, The National Museum of the Pacific War stands on Main Street of the lovely small town of Fredericksburg Texas. If at first it seems to be an odd place for a world-class museum, take a look at their website. You can learn there how it evolved, starting when 5-Star Admiral Chester Nimitz, who grew up in that Texas town, said he would only agree to a museum if it honored EVERYONE who served—not just him.
The first time I visited, the George H. W. Bush Gallery was not yet complete, but I visited the Admiral Nimitz Museum, in the restored Nimitz Hotel on Main Street. It takes about 30 minutes to see the displays of Nimitz’ life from his childhood in Fredericksburg, to his stirring role in the Pacific during World War II.
THE COURTYARD AND GARDENS
Between the Nimitz and the Bush Galleries, you can wander through a Memorial Courtyard (where the Memorial Day wreaths will lie), a Japanese Garden of Peace, and a Plaza of Presidents, that honors all the Presidents involved in some way in World War II.
A PRESIDENT WAR HERO IN WW II
The second time I visited, the enormous and impressive George H.W. Bush Gallery had been completed, and I shuffled into the entry hall that explains the history of enmity between Japan and the West. An enormous crowd packed the entry hall. As I walked further, the space opened up, the crowd thinned, and it was possible to have private moments to ponder the events and players that interested me most.
I’ll date myself here, but as a very small child, I remember people pouring into the street to celebrate the victory over Japan. I also have some ration books to remind me of the civilian sacrifice during the war. Finally, as I wrote last year on Veteran’s Day, I had three relatives who were Navy Seabees in the Pacific.
I was moved by the letters from sailors, and the photographs and mother’s voice of a family of brothers all killed in the Pacific. I was terrified by the re-enactment of standing on a boat in the harbor when the Japanese attacked Hawaii. But I came close to tears when I came upon a couple looking at a display and remembering how it related to their own life. A woman wheeling her husband in a wheelchair. A couple recalling her veteran father’s stories. People the war had touched.
My feet, my back, and my brain all became overwhelmed after a couple of hours, and I had not seen everything. That is why they sell 48 hour tickets, so people can come back the next day and start fresh. Great idea.
A major part of the museum that I did not get to visit, The Pacific Combat Zone, occupies about three acres two blocks east of the main campus. It definitely gives me a good reason to go back to Fredericksburg (besides wonderful art galleries, shopping, restaurants and vineyards, that is).
Tom Vortman, Marketing Director, tells me, “We offer guided one-hour tours (of the Combat Zone) daily. Some of the major artifacts to see are the PBM Avenger, the last WWII combat PT boat (PT-309), and a MASH-style field hospital in a Quonset hut. All three of these artifacts are indoors. Outdoors we have two tanks, a landing craft, several guns and a mock battle field. We use this in the World War II re-enactments presented seven weekends a year (six 75-minute shows each weekend).” Visitors feel the vibrations as a tank rumbles by, hear the sounds of actual weapons from WW II, and if they get too close, may feel the heat of the only operational flame-thrower in Texas.
A BOOK FOR THE TIME TRAVELER
I particularly like the closing event at today’s Memorial Day Service at the National Museum of the Pacific War. An Author’s Forum on in the afternoon features Bruce Gamble, author of Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943. This is the story of Japan invading the Southwest Pacific island of New Britain the beginning of 1942. Rabaul, on the northern tip of New Britain Island became a major military complex, the mightiest Japanese base in the Southwest Pacific.
So I leave you with a book and a reminder that A Traveler’s Library has remembered war veterans in previous articles. Naples in World War II, Apocalypse Now and Good Morning Vietnam in Vietnam,the resistance in France.
Just so you know, my second trip to Fredericksburg was hosted by the Fredericksburg Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. The pictures for this article are used with the permission of the National Pacific War Museum.