Maybe you’re interested in teaching your children more about their country’s past. Maybe you’re a history buff looking for adventure. Or maybe you’re a lover of museums and memorials.
Or maybe, like me, you enjoy reading books about the American story, particularly our military history. You find pleasure and inspiration in Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War,” as I did so long ago, or in David McCullough’s “John Adams,” or the inspirational stories of our World War II veterans in books by Stephen Ambrose.
If so, you might consider a visit to Fredericksburg, Texas.
Germans, Buffalo, and President Lyndon Johnson
Never heard of Fredericksburg?
Let me introduce you to this quaint town, population 11,000, in the Texas Hill Country.
Founded by German settlers in 1846, many of Fredericksburg’s older buildings, the surnames of its inhabitants, an annual Oktoberfest, and the food on the menus of some of its restaurants—Friedhelm’s Bavarian Inn, Otto’s German Bistro, and The Auslander—still reflect the heritage of those early settlers. Here, too, inhabitants and tourists mingle at Texas wineries, music festivals, and art galleries.
Fredericksburg keeps in touch with its past in other ways as well. The Pioneer Museum tells of the hardships and obstacles those German settlers faced and overcame in their adopted land. Visitors can take a self-guided tour of the Fort Martin Scott Historic Site, one of the first Army posts in Texas, or drive 20 minutes out of town to explore the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site, where they can see Texas longhorns, buffalo, and a variety of Texas wildflowers. In this same park is the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, where park rangers in period costumes tend to livestock and gardens, and cook while telling the story of the century-old farm and answering the questions of tourists.
But the most ambitious of these attractions, and certainly the most grand, is Fredericksburg’s National Museum of the Pacific War, which I recently explored online.
A War to the Death
Unlike any other conflict in our history, the war we fought against the Japanese was merciless, mired in cultural and racial hatred on both sides, and often a cruel, grim battle to the death. Because of their code of bushido and their loyalty to Emperor Hirohito, the Japanese rarely surrendered. When faced with surrender, Japanese soldiers and pilots preferred making suicidal attacks on our troops and ships, or themselves committed suicide when they saw that all was lost. Their brutal treatment of those Americans who surrendered to them was a direct result of these beliefs.
And the stakes in this conflict—the control of the vast Pacific Ocean—were enormous. From Pearl Harbor in 1941 to the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the war between imperial Japan and the United States decided who would determine the future of the world’s largest body of water.
We may now look back and see American victory as a given, but such was not the case in the dire days of the beginning of that war when the Japanese were advancing on every front against the forces of the United States. Even after winning the Battle of Midway in June of 1942, when we crushed Japanese air and naval forces, the war against the Japanese was a slog rather than a rout.
The number of Americans who paid with their lives in that theater was 111,606. The total for the Japanese military was 1,740,000. Add in the number of casualties—the dead and the missing, the wounded and the sick, military personnel and civilians—in countries like the Philippines and China, and the numbers stagger the imagination, about 36 million, or half of the casualties of World War II.
A Texas Historical Commission Property and managed and supported by the Admiral Nimitz Foundation, the National Museum of the Pacific War, which was founded in 1969, exists chiefly to remember that dreadful conflict and to honor those who served their country at the time.
Dedicated solely to the fighting in the Pacific, this unique museum offers visitors three galleries with 55,000 square feet of exhibit space on six acres in the heart of the town. You can tour the Admiral Nimitz Gallery—Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was a native son of Fredericksburg—with its many multimedia exhibits and personal items from the Nimitz family.
In the George H.W. Bush Gallery—former President Bush was a fighter pilot in the Pacific—are more multimedia exhibits, oral histories, artifacts taken from battlefields, and letters and diaries from the American home front. And when you step into the Pacific Combat Zone, you not only see a TBM Avenger and PT-309 (for the uninitiated, that’s a torpedo bomber aircraft and a patrol boat, respectively), but you also experience the sights and sounds of an island battlefield come to life.
In addition, the museum provides its 100,000 annual visitors the opportunity to stroll through the Plaza of Presidents, with its monuments honoring those who served in the war, including John F. Kennedy and George Bush, both of whom saw combat fighting the Japanese. Plaques in the Memorial Courtyard and its Veterans’ Walk of Honor recognize units and individuals who performed above and beyond the call of duty in the fighting, and a Japanese Garden of Peace includes a replica of the study of Japanese Admiral Heihachiro Togo, a military genius famed for his role in the Russo-Japanese War and much admired by Admiral Nimitz.
Historians and students of the war (by appointment only) will also find a treasure trove of thousands of documents, manuscripts, photographs, and recorded histories of Pacific War veterans at the Nimitz Education & Research Center.
Bringing the Museum Into Your Living Room
Not all of us can make the trip to Fredericksburg, but for those who are homeschooling or distance learning from a public or private school, or for adults inclined to learn more about the history of the war with Japan, the museum’s website offers a wonderful array of resources, guides, and aids. Extensive lesson plans are available for the study of American and world history, featuring links to grade-appropriate plans and addressing such topics as “The Home Front,” “Japanese Empire Culture,” and “Advancing Across The Pacific.” There are even distance learning classes, where registered students receive direct instruction from teachers and professors on a variety of topics regarding the war.
In addition, the website offers live-streaming classes, educational curriculum for young people, a blog filled with oral histories, videos such as the one set on the museum’s replicated Pacific island battleground, and all sorts of insights into history, ranging from how to change a tire on a jeep to the role played by women on the home front.
Finally, we find on this site archives of the Nimitz News Dispatch, the museum’s quarterly newsletters filled with additional information, as well as a gift shop chock full of books about World War II and various reproductions of posters and other memorabilia.
Altogether, the museum contains more than 50,000 artifacts from the war along with thousands of manuscripts, documents, and interviews.
To sum up, here is a museum, like so many others in our country, focused on an important part of American history. The materials gathered here—the archives, the oral histories, the hands-on exhibits—all these and more attempt to keep alive the memories of our fathers, grandparents, and great-grandparents. We learn of the challenges they faced and the trials, some of them horrific, they endured. Many women of that time grieved the loss of husbands, brothers, or fiancés to the cruel grinding wheels of war. Many men, a lot of them no older than today’s college students, gave up their lives fighting for liberty.
The National Museum of the Pacific War asks us to remember them. But do we?
Forgetting Is Fatal
Mention Pacific battlefields—Bataan, Guadalcanal, Midway, Saipan, Leyte Gulf, and Okinawa—to many people today, and all too often you’ll receive a blank stare in return. Mention the names Jonathan Wainwright, Chester Nimitz, Douglas MacArthur, “Red Mike” Edson, Jimmy Doolittle, and you’ll likely get the same reaction.
When we forget those who died, bled, and fought for our country, not only in the Pacific but also throughout our history, when we close our eyes to the sacrifices made by past generations, we become orphans battered by the storm of current events. Such negligence comes with a high price, and may even prove fatal to the future of our nation.
Institutions like the National Museum of the Pacific War perform a noble service for our country. In their preservation of the past, those who direct our museums of history and those who work in them ask us to learn from the men and women who came before us, who built this country and whose sacrifices allow us to enjoy liberty and prosperity. If we fail to take advantage of the wisdom and lessons this past offers us, the fault lies not with our museums but with ourselves.
Freedom Is Never Free
In “With the Old Breed,” which many historians consider the finest American memoir on combat in World War II and which provided the background for the miniseries “The Pacific,” Eugene Sledge recounts his training as a Marine and his participation in the horrific fighting at Peleliu and Okinawa. Sledge closes his memoir with these words:
“Until the millennium arrives and countries cease trying to enslave others, it will be necessary to accept one’s responsibilities and to be willing to make sacrifices for one’s country—as my comrades did. As the troops used to say, ‘If the country is good enough to live in, it’s good enough to fight for.’ With privilege goes responsibility.”
Compared to so many other people in the world, Americans enjoy enormous privileges. Museums help us recollect our responsibilities.
Sept. 2, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the official Japanese surrender. Let’s pause and contemplate the enormity of that event. And should I ever visit Texas again, Fredericksburg and the National Museum of the Pacific War will stand at the top of the list of places I want to see. That journey would be less a tourist’s jaunt and more a pilgrimage of gratitude and admiration for all those who fought or died on those faraway battlefields or who served on the home front, and so helped preserve the liberties of our unique country.
Several of the museum’s attractions, including the popular “Victory in the Pacific Program,” are suspended until the end of 2020 because of the pandemic, and the museum has restricted its hours of operation. To enjoy the museum virtually, visit PacificWarMuseum.org
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.