Down in the South Texas hill country, situated between vast open green fields and numerous vineyards, sits the picturesque town of Fredricksburg. Many of the buildings are built of white stone flecked with streaks of orange. The people are friendly, and the whole place just has a good vibe to it, with rows of antique shops, restaurants, and boutiques along the main strip. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend stopping over there.
Fredricksburg also has the distinction of being the hometown of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet during World War II. In fact, there’s a large bronze statue of him right next to the old hotel where he grew up, which is now the Nimitz Museum. Just look for the distinctive ‘steamboat’ structure off the main street — you can’t miss it.
If you circle that block, you’ll also find that the town is home to the National Museum of the Pacific War. The place is enormous. It contains hundreds of displays and exhibits, models of ships, uniforms, presentations, and mini-featurettes. It starts with the roots of the conflict between China and Japan, and then takes you all the way through the Pacific War, from Pearl Harbor to the U.S.S. Missouri. Every major engagement and landing is covered here, and in pretty extensive depth. If you tried to read every panel and display, it would take you days to get through it all. Believe me, I’ve tried.
Full disclosure: This latest outing to the museum is my fourth trip there. Each time I go, something new resonates with me. The last time I went was when my son was two. The thing that moved me the most then was the famous “Bloody Saturday” photo of a baby crying amid the ruins of a bombed out train station in Shanghai. It’s still a powerful photo, and indeed the entire museum is a moving experience. It’s hard to look at the dizzying scope of the conflict, along with the countless examples of courage and valor, and the loss of so many lives, and not feel something.
Case and point: Just after the presentation about Pearl Harbor, there is a little alcove that contains a rusty metal hatch. There is a noticeable black stain across the middle of it. Above those black lines is an egg-shaped hole cut into the metal.
At first, it might seem an odd artifact – that is until you realize that it is a hatch from U.S.S. Arizona. The black line is where the oil floated at the waterline. The hole was cut by Navy divers to see if there were any survivors in the compartment. Powerful stuff. Just seeing it is enough to make me tear up.
We see it all in black-and-white photos and newsreels, but the time that has passed disconnects us from it. This one piece of rusted metal has a way of bringing me back to one of the darkest days in U.S. naval history.
I hasten to add that, though the museum does present the war from the USA’s point of view, it does not balk at showing the devastation and loss that Japan endured. There’s always the temptation to downplay that aspect of the war, but the museum does not. When a warship went down in the Pacific, several hundred people died, regardless of which flag it was flying, hundreds or thousands at a time.
In fact, on this trip the image that struck me the most was a photo of two dead Japanese soldiers washed up on the shore at Guadalcanal. Both were half-buried in the tide, and looked painfully young. I can’t imagine they were older than 18 or 19. I won’t display it here, but you can find it easily enough on Google.
Now I’m not trying to diminish the impact of those photos of dead American soldiers, such as those taken from the Bataan Death March, just simply reflecting that wars have a cost on both sides. Every one of those boys that didn’t go home left a hole in someone’s life. A mother, a father, wife, son, daughter – you name it. You don’t have to go much farther than the exhibit about the five Sullivan brothers aboard the U.S.S. Juneau to see what I mean.
But, as an anodyne to these feelings of loss and pain, there is one other feature of the grounds that is a ‘must see’ as far as I’m concerned. Just behind the Nimitz museum, there is a Japanese peace garden, a gift to from a group of retired Japanese admirals.
It is absolutely stunning. There’s a koi pond, with a flowing water course that winds around the periphery to a replica of Admiral Togo’s study. In the middle of the garden there is a Zen garden made of raked white stone. It’s…pretty sublime standing there, a place of tranquility and introspection.
If you’re ever at the museum and things get just a little too intense, stepping into the garden is a good way to reaffirm the beauty that people can create, even between those who were former enemies. I always like to end a tour of the museum with a stop here. Just my personal preference. It’s the cleansing breath that brings you back to center.
Again, if you’re ever in the area, I can’t say enough good things about Fredericksburg and the Pacific War Museum. I hope that you find it as illuminating, emotional, and powerful as I have.
But don’t take my word for it…