The Edmond Sun

December 21, 2012

Museum of the Pacific War nestles in Texas hill country

Elaine Warner
The Edmond Sun

Fredricksburg, Texas — Fredericksburg, a small town in the Texas Hill Country, is noted for a number of things: Its German heritage; Its charming historic district, home to dozens of interesting shops and boutiques; its variety of accommodations from B & Bs to Sunday houses; and its connection to Admiral Chester W. Nimitz of World War II fame. It was this connection that spawned one of the nation’s premier history museums — the National Museum of the Pacific War.

Born in Fredericksburg in 1885, Nimitz, an Annapolis graduate, advanced through the ranks of the Navy, ultimately becoming the Pacific Commander-in-Chief during World War II.  Before the end of the war, he had been elevated to the rank of Fleet Admiral, one of only four five-star admirals to be chosen during the conflict.

Toward the end of his life, citizens of Fredericksburg contacted the admiral with the idea of turning a unique, ship-shaped building, once owned and run by his grandfather as the Nimitz Hotel, into a museum in honor of the naval hero. He replied affirmatively on the condition that the museum would be dedicated to all the men and women who served in the war in the Pacific.

Today the museum is spread over six acres and encompasses the George H.W. Bush Gallery, the Admiral Nimitz Museum (in the 1850 hotel building), the Pacific Combat Zone with a re-created battlefield for Living History programs, the Plaza of the Presidents, the Memorial Courtyard and the Japanese Garden of Peace.

Of course, the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought about the United States declaring war on Japan. Two days later, Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States — and our country was into World War II on both fronts. The story of the war in Europe may be more familiar to many visitors — it was to me. This museum tells the story of the carnage, heroism and consequences of the Pacific conflict.

Exhibits in the Bush Gallery take many forms — video, aural histories, artifacts and lots of explanatory reading material. To see the George H.W. Bush Gallery alone, visitors should allow several hours at a brisk pace. As is true, on most press trips, journalists only get to hit the highlights. Fortunately, we had Helen McDonald, the museum’s program director, taking us through. Even though we stayed a relatively short time, it was long enough to convince me that this is a museum every American needs to see — particularly every member of Congress!

Among the artifacts are a number of fascinating relics of the war. One of the first is one of five mini-submarines sent, carrying torpedoes, to attack Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. The sub ran aground on Oahu. One of the two crew members drowned. The other, Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki, was captured, becoming the first Japanese prisoner of war.

Sakamaki visited the museum in 1991 and told Helen about problems with the submarine.  Difficulties included high temperatures and noxious fumes inside the craft and a malfunctioning gyrocompass that made steering difficult. The sub’s two torpedoes were never fired, giving Americans insight into the advanced technology possessed by the Japanese.

During Sakamaki’s time as a POW, he was imprisoned in several different places. One of these was Crystal City, Texas. On a return visit in 1991, one of the museum’s board members drove him to Crystal City to see where he had been held. Sakamaki maintained a correspondence with staff at the museum until his death. The museum has become a place of healing for many on both sides of the war.

There is too much material and too many exhibits in the museum to even give a hint of all that visitors will see and learn. Notable exhibits include a piece of the life raft which Lt. J.G. George H.W. Bush inflated following his bail-out from his burning bomber; an American flag sewn by prisoners of war prior to their liberation; a Fat Man-type bomb identical to the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki and a very rare Japanese “Val” dive bomber.

One of the museum displays features the helmet and goggles of Japanese pilot Saburo Sakai. He has visited the museum many times. On one visit he was introduced to Sam Grashio, an American airman he had shot down over Clark Field in the Philippines eight hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Helen describes the meeting, “The minute they met one another, they were smiling and embracing. (After he was shot down) Sam became a prisoner of war in the Philippines and was on the Bataan Death March. He could have become very bitter toward Sakai but he was not. I have learned so much in this job. Every time I get cranky or irritated with someone, I just think of Sam and Saburo. They were so inspiring.”

Visit the National Museum of the Pacific War. You’ll learn a lot and you’ll be inspired, too.

ELAINE WARNER is an Edmond resident.