By Renée S. Gordon
The most recent addition to the list of reasons to visit Fredericksburg, Texas is the National Museum of the Pacific War. The museum is outstanding and is the keystone of an array of attractions and accommodations that are both unique and add an experiential element to the visit.
Admiral Chester William Nimitz was born in Fredericksburg on February 24, 1885. His grandfather, Karl Heinrich Nimitz purchased a hotel built in the late 1840s and in the 1850s and expanded it from four rooms to fifty. The hotel was extremely popular with residents and travelers alike and is said to have offered the only hot baths on the route between San Antonio to San Diego. Around 1875, Charles added a Mississippi steamboat façade. The addition included a hurricane deck and crow’s nest.
Ownership passed to his son on the death of Charles Henry and it remained in the family until 1926 when it was sold and remodeled by a group of investors who removed the riverboat exterior. After having been closed for one year the hotel was sold to the Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz Naval Museum in 1964 and the museum opened on the anniversary of Admiral Nimitz’s birth in 1967. Today the hotel has reconstructed the steamboat exterior and serves as the administrative center of the Admiral Nimitz State Historical Park.
Chester Nimitz was raised in the hotel and from Fredericksburg he went to the Naval Academy in Annapolis where he was seventh in his class. His first command was on the USS Panay and his first submarine was the USS Plunger. In December of 1941 he was named Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas. He retained this position until December of 1944 when he was promoted to Fleet Admiral. Nimitz was a leading WWII strategist during the war in the Pacific. On September 2, 1945, Chester Nimitz represented the United States in Tokyo Bay as a signatory aboard the USS Missouri when the Japanese signed the terms of surrender.
When Nimitz was approached regarding creating a museum to honor his role in WWII he declined. He felt that all who served deserved to be honored and agreed to lend his name to the museum only if it was representative of the millions who fought, the 100,000 who gave their lives and those who supported them on the homefront. He also wanted the hotel restored to its 1880’s appearance.
A visit to the National Museum of the Pacific War complex is best begun in what was the Greek Revival Nimitz Hotel on Main Street. There are three areas that include two galleries and the restored Grand Ballroom. The first gallery introduces you to the area’s German heritage and the Nimitz family through portraits, artifacts and interpretive information. Gallery Two is dedicated to the life and career of Chester Nimitz. Highlights of this collection are hotel furnishings and the christening gown in which Nimitz was christened.
The trail that winds from the museum to the main exhibit area, the George H. W. Bush Gallery, is filled with sites of interest.
The Garden of Peace is a meticulous reproduction of Admiral Togo’s study. Togo was a hero of Nimitz who particularly admired his role in the 1905 victory by Japan over the Russian Navy. Landscape designer Taketora Saito and a team of seven were sent from Japan to create the garden. It was gifted, in honor of peace and friendship, to the museum on May 8, 1976.
Since December 7, 1977, more than 2,000 plaques have been placed on the walls of the Memorial Courtyard. These commemorations memorialize individuals, units and ships from all the allied nations and benefactors include individuals and organizations. The courtyard serves as an event space. Central to the setting is a limestone pool with the screw of a WWII Essex-Class aircraft carrier anchored in the water.
Ten U.S. presidents served in the military during WWII, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and H. W. Bush. They served consecutively from 1941-92 and are memorialized with a series of granite pillars in the Plaza of the Presidents.
The Bush Gallery houses more than 50,000 tangible items and 4,000 oral histories owned by the state of Texas and this state-of-the-art museum makes full use of the latest technology to enhance your visit. Outside the gallery six medallions represent the six branches of the armed service that participated in the Pacific action, the US Army (Army Air Force), Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine.
The tour begins with a comprehensive overview of the road to war with “Seeds of Conflict: China-Japan-United States.” This leads to a multimedia presentation that provides a minute-by-minute immersive experience of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The theater displays one of the museum’s premier artifacts, the HA-19, one of five midget submarines involved in the attack. This one malfunctioned, crashed and the pilot was captured. Also in this section is a presentation on Doris Miller, an African American who was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism aboard the USS West Virginia.
There are 36 exhibit galleries of varying sizes and the noteworthy artifacts are too numerous for individual identification. The tour is both chronological and by campaign. There are a few singular objects I must point out. An M3 Stuart tank, used by the Australians in the battle for New Guinea, is displayed opposite the 3″ Japanese gun that shot it out of commission and killed the hull gunner. The bombs dropped on Japan were referred to as Fat Man and Little Boy. On display is a bomb casing of the type used on Fat Man.
The film at the end of the tour is of the Japanese signing the documents that officially ended the war.
General Order No. 1 was issued by General MacArthur on August 16,1945. It ordered the Japanese to reveal the location of all POW camps. One of the most poignant artifacts is an American flag created with an old sewing machine and a rusty nail by three POWs. They had removed the 48 stars from their flag when they were captured and hidden them. They managed to safeguard the stars through 48 months of captivity. Upon learning they were to be liberated they used parachute material to recreate the flag and attached their precious stars. The flag is on display.
The National Museum of the Pacific War has taken great pains to present all sides of the story. Audio kiosks recount battle stories from the viewpoint of the US and the Japanese and well-placed displays relate stories from the homefront. I rate this one of the top sites in the state. Visit and see what you think. www.pacificwarmuseum.org
The Pacific Combat Zone is located a short distance from the National Museum and it too houses indoor and outdoor exhibits. The highlight of the interior exhibits is a Patrol Torpedo Boat, PT-309. This mahogany boat is 80-ft. long, 20-ft. wide and is the last combat veteran to survive of the 650 that were constructed.
To reach the outdoor exhibit site visitors walk through foliage designed to mimic the physical environment found in some of the areas in the Pacific. The exhibit site itself was created to replicate a generic Tarawa Beach setting and the battlefield flies the Japanese flag and features bunkers. Visitors sit in bleachers and learn about WWII weaponry, the costs of war and the people involved. The most interesting artifact here is a “Nambu,” a type 99 machine gun used by the Japanese. True to their Samurai heritage the gun was the only one used during WWII that had a sword attached.
It must be noted that the museum does not glorify war. It casts a light on all aspects of war, without judgment, and allows the story to be told through images and the words of those who lived it. No person can come away unmoved or devoid of the knowledge that “war is hell.”
The Hangar Hotel, a WWII themed complex, provides ideal accommodations for this trip. The décor is upscale retro and no detail has been overlooked including front desk staff members dressed as pilots. Furniture is covered with bomber jacket leather and the artwork is equally thematic.
The Officer’s Club, a great place for conversation and conviviality, lives up to its name and the on-site Airport Diner is a replica of a 40s eatery with a menu that is both delicious and affordable. Add to this the fact that there is a Conference Center that is decorated to look like a USO Club that has scheduled dances and can also be rented for private functions and the fact that the entire complex abuts an airstrip, and it just can’t be more atmospheric. Well, no, it can. It is not unusual to look out your window and see an historic aircraft parked on the airstrip. It can’t get better than that. Information is available online. www.hangarhotel.com
Fredericksburg has a great deal to offer and you can find it all on the web. www.visitfredericksburgtx.com
I wish you smooth and versatile travels!
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