On December 7, 1941 the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, drawing the US into World War II. Most of us know this. We’ve seen movies about it (admittedly not completely factual movies where we were more interested in Josh Hartnett vs. Ben Affleck), have read stories about the shock of the American people when it happened, and can recite “December 7, a date which will live in infamy” on demand.
That’s where a lot of our education about the Pacific side of things in World War II stops. Until we get to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where we pick up again. Sometimes we talk about Japanese internment camps in the US, but not really. When learning about World War II as kids in the United States, we focus heavily on the Holocaust and the European side.
Luckily for me I had a dad who drilled a lot of the other details into my head, but when I visited the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas last year, I was still surprised how much I didn’t know.
This museum is incredible. It’s one of the most well done museums I’ve ever walked through, and even though I had a guide who took several hours to talk me through almost every single element of it, I still wanted more time. I could have spent all day here, so rich are the stories and enthralling is the planning that went into war on this side of the world.
The museum tells the story of World War II in the Pacific. Storytelling is the key part of that, as walking through the museum it really does feel like you’re walking through a book. The timeline organization is really helpful, as are the interactive exhibits including audio stories from people affected by the war.
There are also so many cool artifacts, from weapons to uniforms to larger things like submarines and planes.
There’s an I.J.N. Ko-hyoteki class midget submarine that was part of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese floatplane, and an American North American B-25 Mitchell.
Some of the more moving pieces include a letter from Mrs. Alletta Sullivan asking President Roosevelt if her five sons had been killed along with the president’s response, and a POW flag.
Three soldiers had been ordered to burn the American Flag that was flying over an air base at Del Monte in 1942, in order to prevent its capture by the Japanese. Before they destroyed the flag, they decided to remove the stars and hide them in their clothes. The men were moved around to different prisoner of war camps, and eventually taken to Japan. Before they were freed, they sewed a new flag using a rusty nail as a needle and some old parachute material. The saved stars, which they had protected for 42 months, were the final touch. They flew the new flag over their camp when American troops came to liberate them on September 7, 1945, and the flag hangs in the museum today.
The museum is housed in Fredericksburg because the small town is where Admiral Chester Nimitz, who was Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet in WWII, grew up. Nimitz himself was a fascinating guy and a brilliant commander. The museum goes in-depth on his backstory and achievements, but one of the most interesting parts to me was his debate with Truman and others over the the atomic bomb. (This is worth reading too, on that topic). You can also see the casing of the third atomic bomb, which was to be used if Japan didn’t surrender.
If you visit, take time to wander around the outdoor Plaza of the Presidents, which is a tribute to the ten presidents who served during World War II: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
There’s also a Japanese Garden of Peace, which the Japanese Government gifted to the museum in 1976. The garden is a replica of the private garden of the main Imperial Japanese Navy Commander, Marquis Togo, who Admiral Nimitz admired.
There’s a lot to see and do in Fredericksburg (coming on the blog this weekend), but this museum alone is worth the visit. I cannot rave about it enough, and have been to anyone who will listen. One obvious, but still useful to remember takeaway, is the scale of the war. More than 60 million people were killed in World War II, millions of them in the Pacific. Today, it’s worth revisiting the events of that war, which was not so long ago in our history, and taking some time to reflect on the dangers of fascism, Nazism, and dangerous foreign policy.