Fredericksburg, Texas, appears to be typical of small-town America: quaint, family-owned shops and restaurants line Main Street.
However, tucked behind a gift store, a German restaurant and other casual eateries stands the National Museum of the Pacific War. The museum complex sits on six acres and hosts 50,000 feet of exhibit space, including a stunning collection of artifacts, memorabilia and interactive exhibits in the 33,000-square-foot George H.W. Bush Gallery.
Among the items on display:
• An HA-19 Japanese submarine that was used in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Visitors can peer inside the sub, one of five used in the attack and the only one on display in the United States.
• A door from the USS Arizona.
• The casing that would have held the third atomic bomb had Japan not surrendered to the Allies.
• A B-25 plane from the Doolittle Raiders.
• An M3A1 Stuart tank and the Japanese gun that punctured a hole in the front of the tank — the two items are set off by the exact distance when they were in combat. The tank was used by the Australian Army at Buna on the north coast of New Guinea in December 1942.
• An American flag that was stitched together with a rusty nail by three POWs. They hid the flags from a real American flag for 42 months during their captivity and stitched together red and white strands from a parachute for the stripes.
It’s no wonder the museum has received high accolades; The Wall Street Journal wrote, "A museum of this quality – and importance – needs to be seen."
And just how did the museum end up in Fredericksburg, about an hour north of San Antonio? "Fredericksburg, Texas, is actually the birthplace of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz," museum director of marketing Brandon Vinyard explained. "The building he was born in is up Lincoln Street, and across the street is a toy store. He was born in a room in the back of that."
The restored Nimitz Hotel, located on Main Street, houses the Admiral Nimitz Museum. "His grandfather owned the hotel," Vinyard said. "In the 1800s, Admiral Nimitz spent a good part of his life there before the family relocated."
The smaller Nimitz museum focuses on the town’s German influence, the Nimitz family and the life and career of the admiral.
The main museum begins in the 19th century with the expansion of western trade to provide background and context to visitors.
"We began with the collapse of the Qing Dynasty because that is when the Japanese began to lose respect and fear of China," said retired U.S. Army Maj. Richard Koone, the museum’s education director. "The Japanese also realized that they must modernize their military to prevent the Europeans from doing the same to them as was being done in China. Japan then began to seize Chinese territory and demand concessions eventually resulting in their conquest of Manchuria in 1931 and their invasion of China in 1937. It was the conflict in China that brought the United States and Japan into what would eventually become open conflict."
As visitors leave that part of the gallery, they enter a barely lit room and encounter a black hulking mass: the Japanese sub from the Pearl Harbor attack. "The Japanese subs were known to have their gyroscope malfunction and leak toxic fumes, and their batteries would not always work," Vinyard said. "The gyroscope malfunctioning is what caused this one to run aground and led to the pilot ending up being the first prisoner of war of World War II."
From there, visitors walk through watershed moments in the Pacific theater – Manila, Battaan, the Doolittle raid, Midway, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands, Iwo Jima and more.
Less than 10 percent of the museum’s collection is on display at any one time. "To be displayed, the artifacts must have some kind of connection to the storyline or the event being portrayed in the exhibit," Koone said, adding that a temporary exhibit gallery is used to showcase other items on a rotating basis.
The museum is aiming to continue to grow and tell the story of the war in the Pacific.
"The collections on the second and third floors will eventually be accessible to researchers and authors to come in and research, go through the archives, access the oral histories," Vinyard said. "Our plan in the next year is to become the pre-eminent center for research on anything about the Pacific War."