The National Museum of the Pacific War in this vibrant and historic town claims to be “the only one of its kind in America” –– quite possibly the world –– “telling the entire story of the war in the Pacific.”
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There’s a mission impossible to achieve, in my reckoning, but the museum is already well on its way toward the goal. One of the most distinguished historians in Texas, Dr. Ralph Wooster of Lamar University, commends the museum for its “remarkable progress” in telling the story through exhibits and interpretive programs. It’s the word “entire” that bothers me. The subject is too vast and too complicated, with too many millions of people and dramas involved, for a total telling. I hope nobody’s job hangs on the world.
I was all set to write a regular feature article on the museum when I suddenly got sidetracked by the face of a friend, Roger White. So I’m writing a letter instead.
One Thursday recently, at a luncheon of a loosely-knit group of men I belong to, I noticed Roger spinning a tale to Doug Hagie, who was sitting next to him. All the laugh lines in Roger’s face were showing up.
“Norman Rockwell would have loved to put that face in a painting,” I thought. Roger’s is the classic face of Everybody’s Granddaddy or Great-Great Granddaddy, or Favorite Neighbor, or Long Lost Uncle Come Home, or some such role in a Rockwell masterpiece of Americana. Roger is in his eighties.
You might wonder, as I did at the luncheon, what causes lines to crease a face, any face, the way they do. I knew a bit about Roger’s lines. No doubt some come from squinting in the sun of the Amarillo plains, where he was raised, but more from a lifetime of grinning, minus four years of scowling and clenching the jaw muscles. He spent most of those years, 1941-45, as a Prisoner of War in the Java jungles and Japan. When he was captured, he weighted a strapping 192 pounds, and barely 100, when he was freed. Such years can carve out lines like a road map.
“Hero,” I thought, and said the word under my breath. Turning my gaze to Doug Hagie, I remembered that he was a bomber pilot in the Pacific War, winding up with a chest full of medals and battle stars, and an extra buttock. On one bombing mission, an armor-piercing bullet from enemy fire ripped into the plan’s cockpit and tore through both sides of his rear end. The ER surgeons decided to fix the mess by sculpting a third pad for Doug. He says old buddies still call him the Three-Butt Colonel.
“Hero.” Again the word popped to mind.
Six seats down the same table, Leland Sims rose to refill his coffee cup. It's a sight to see Leland on the rise. Even sitting down he's taller than everybody else. He relaxes at about six-foot-five, but gains another inch or two from the way the barber cuts his hair, straight up and spiky, leveled on the sides. Leland's a solemn man, but he tells a joke every Thursday in a wry, dry tone, which makes it funnier. He's a survivor of the Bataan Death March, one of the most harrowing and barbarous chapters in the history of warfare. Afterward, he survived three years as a Prisoner of War.
"Hero." Once more, that word.
Right there, a truth hit me between the eyes: I was living and moving among heroes. And a larger truth: We all live and move among heroes in our day-to-day lives, whether we realize it or not or appreciate the fact. They're among our families and friends, in our neighborhoods, clubs, churches, stores, and streets.
How feather-brained could I be if I had visited the War Museum alone, as planned? I left that meeting of the Romeos–my name for the group stands for Rowdy Old Men Eating Out–and sat down at my 1947-model Royal Portable typewriter. I tapped out an invitation to Roger, Doug, and Leland to meet me at the museum, 70 miles up the road, one morning soon, and let me tag along to hear their stories triggered by the exhibits.
You might think that the Romeos are some kind of exclusive outfit for retired warriors. Not so. It's a lot like clubs in every town, a Mulligan mix, so to speak. We've got a fireman, house painter, CPA, banker, railroad man, photographer, merchant, radio disc jockey, rancher, even a retired Hollywood movie director, to name a few. The common bond among the 25 or so guys who gather each week is that we've recently lost our wives and try to offer each other whatever support and solace we can.
The three Romeos I'd invited agreed to the outing in Fredericksburg, and I added two more for special measure, Chester Gould and Joe Lajzer. Chester, a U.S. Marine sergeant, carried out a sensational assignment in the battle for Iwo Jima. Joe, who with Leland and 76,000 others was captured on Bataan, also survived 38 days on one of the war's darkest and most despised elements, the Hell Ship.
I can tell you now, after several visits to the museum, that you have a handful of choices for enjoying and learning from it. The best way is to go with a veteran of the Pacific War, a hero if you will, perhaps a kinsman, friend, or neighbor. He–or she, if you know a member of that small, brave, indefatigable, resourceful, angelic band of nurses in the wartime Pacific–can bring real life to the exhibits.
(Incidentally, a Texas girl from Mission, Lillian Dunlap, was one of that nursing contingent, serving in New Guinea and the Philippines during the fighting. She rose to the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Army and became head of the Army Nurse Corps. She died on April 3, 2003, at age 81, full of honors.)
The next best way in my view is to eavesdrop. Just sidle up to a group where an old guy is talking. Ask him a good question or two; he'll be flattered by your interest. If he's with a family group, take heed to not get between him and his grandson.
Another good way is to get with a group that has a guide, maybe a museum volunteer or staffer, who knows the exhibits well and can spin a yarn or two. A fourth way can be a keen one, too–go with a history teacher. Or, go it alone, and you'll have the freedom to pore over the exhibits and read the information as you see fit.
Our bunch spent about two hours among the exhibits inside and outside. The main series of rooms and halls, named the George Bush Gallery after the former president, himself a Pacific War hero, contains more than a thousand artifacts. They range from a midget submarine, carried piggyback on a regular Japanese submarine to sink U.S. warships in Pearl Harbor; to a rare, fully restored B-25 bomber that revs up its near-deafening engines and gets its propellers twirling as if for takeoff; to a mock Marine jungle-site on Guadalcanal being bombed. Numerous exhibits feature uniforms, weapons, historical documents, maps, photographs, posters, love letters, personal effects, news of the homefront, news of the war in Europe, and other reminders of a globe-shaking spasm.
There's hardly an aspect of the war not touched upon by the museum. It starts the story in 1854, when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Yedo Bay, Japan, and opened that isolationist nation to the rest of the world. Now fast-forward to the 1930s. Japan desperately needed sources of oil and craved higher political stature among world powers. Its army invaded Manchuria. Hitler rampaged through Europe. America was immersed in the Great Depression and a sense of isolationism itself. By 1941, relations between the U.S. and Japan had splintered. Japan brought the diplomatic disputes to all-out war on December 7, 1941, with its devastating attack at Pearl Harbor. For America, World War II officially began on that date, and hostilities ended on August 14, 1945–both events occurring in the Pacific Theater. In that theater, too, atomic warfare was born.
All those events, and the main events in between, are portrayed in the museum's exhibits.
Outside, the grounds include memorial walls with plaques naming various fighting units of the war; a plaza saluting the 10 U.S. presidents who served during the war; torpedoes, tanks, and other artifacts best placed outdoors; and the Garden of Peace, a gift from the people of Japan. Here, rocks, plants, water, and a "sea" of raked pebbles form a Japanese meditation garden, anchored by a meditation study fashioned by Japanese craftsmen with ancient hand tools. If you're moved to reflect on humanity's pursuit of peace and passion for war, here's the place to pause.
Two blocks north of the museum, an area designated as a "Pacific Combat Zone" spreads over three-and-a-half acres for reenactments of a typical 1944 assault upon an island. Reenactors in American and Japanese uniforms, bearing the weapons of each side–even flame-throwers–demonstrate the strategies and tactics of air, land, and sea forces during attack and defense.
The museum launched a $15.5 million expansion plan three-and-a-half years ago. In 2005, it will add 20,000 square feet for a Center for Pacific War Studies to aid historians and researchers, and an additional 20,000 square feet will accommodate even more exhibits. The money raised thus far has funded the Combat Zone and brought in a PT boat from the Navy's World War II "Mosquito Fleet," plus the deck of a baby carrier with a TBM Avenger aircraft.
The historic Nimitz Hotel, built in the late 19th Century, will be re-furbished in the expansion plan. It was a boyhood home for Chester W. Nimitz, a Fredericksburg lad who became a five-star Fleet Admiral and Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas, with more than 2 million men and women of the Armed Forces under his command in the Pacific War. The present museum evolved from the modest Admiral Nimitz Museum, housed in the old hotel since the 1960s.
A museum of any size would be challenged in attempting the story of the war in the Pacific. The "battlefield" alone, the ocean stretching from the Southern Ocean to Alaska, and from Asia to the west coast of the Americas, covers a third of the globe and is some 15 times larger than the entire U.S. land mass.
"Distances were vast and port facilities few," reads a plaque in the museum. "Men, weapons, vehicles, food, fuel, medicine, spare parts, and ammunition had to be shipped across thousands of miles of ocean. It took 12 tons of shipping just to get one serviceman and his equipment to the Pacific Theater, and another ton each month to keep him there…." Always lurking beneath the surface of the shipping lanes were enemy submarines.
Just think. Here was a war where you communicated by radio, telephone, telegraph, teletype, hand-delivered mail, and semaphore flags. A top-secret code was phrased in Navajo, the language spoken by the famous Navajo Indian code-talkers. For keeping track of the war's operations, you had the manual typewriter, hand-cranked mimeograph machine, and four-function "adder." Such was the technology of the times.
Women played a far bigger role than they get credit for, an oversight that museum officials promise to remedy in new spaces. Symbolized by Rosie the Riveter, women kept the country's manufacturing industry producing at a furious clip, all the while keeping the home fires crackling. In the battle zones, women nursed the sick and wounded under conditions that Lillian Dunlap, the girl from Mission, Texas, described simply as "terrible." She added, "We remember the horror, but also with a great deal of pride how we were able to provide nursing care."
A total of 100,997 lives of American soldiers, sailors, airmen, nurses, Marines, and civilians were lost in the Pacific actions. To that figure, add 190,543 wounded. For all of World War II, the total U.S. casualties came to 954,154. Those figures seem unbelievable today. They did then, too.