World War 2 Veterans
Lest We Forget
By Bret Holt*
November 2016 – An old man stops suddenly, transfixed by a photographic mural on a wall of the National Museum of the Pacific War. He looks into the faces of a group of young U.S. soldiers. His grandson watches in silence as tears well up in Gramps’ eyes. Finally after what seems an eternity, the youngster dares to speak.
The old soldier snaps back to the present and turns to his grandson, then points toward the mural.
“That’s me,” he whispers.
Saving the stories
That story and countless others like it help the NMPW fulfill its mission to “honor the eight million Americans who served in the war against Japan and the more than 100,000 who gave their lives.”
“We want to tell the human side of the story,” Brandon Vinyard told AFA Journal. Vinyard, director of marketing and public relations, believes the museum is unique – telling both American and Japanese stories.
The Fredericksburg, Texas, site is the only museum dedicated exclusively to the Pacific Theater of World War II. It has over 50,000 square feet of exhibit space filled with actual tanks, planes, and ships that were used in the Pacific.
The museum is financially supported by and under management of the Admiral Nimitz Foundation whose mission is in part to “preserve and exhibit the material history of the war in the Pacific-Asiatic Theater during World War II.”
The Nimitz Foundation was established in 1971 to provide development funding for a museum honoring Admiral Chester Nimitz, Fredericksburg’s native son and Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces, Pacific Ocean Area. Annually, the museum welcomes over 100,000 visitors, including about 15,000 middle and high school students.
Archiving the artifacts
The George H.W. Bush Gallery, the main exhibit space, tells the chronological story of the war in the Pacific. This gallery features a state-of-the-art 33,000 square foot exhibition housing 40 media installations, approximately 900 artifacts in 97 climate controlled cases, 15 macro artifacts, and hundreds of photographs.
“Here visitors go a hundred years back, before Pearl Harbor…and we’re going to lay the groundwork for why Japan attacked Pearl Harbor,” explained Vinyard. From that point, patrons are taken through the entire period of the war through the Doolittle Raid, the dropping of the atomic bombs, and the final signing of the articles of surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri on September 2, 1945.
The Bush Gallery boasts a number of exceptional artifacts including a Hell Cat fighter, a B25 Bomber, and a Stuart tank that was under the command of the Australians. Amazingly, the unrestored Stuart tank, complete with a hole blown through the front and the actual Japanese gun that took out the tank, is on display along with videography of the Japanese tank commander describing the incident.
Another particularly interesting artifact is a real Japanese submarine that ran aground on Oahu at the start of the war. The captain of that submarine became the first WWII prisoner of war taken by U.S. troops. These artifacts are accompanied by state-of-the-art audio and video presentations that provide additional information and context.
An actual door from the U.S.S. Arizona shows an oil stain and a hole cut through it in an attempt to rescue survivors, poignantly reminding visitors of the human side of the conflict.
According to Vinyard, one of many unique artifacts on display is a Japanese Rex Float Plane. Fewer than 89 of these planes were made during the war, and only three remain in existence today. The museum is the only place in the world that has one of these unique aircraft on display.
Honoring the heroes
Over the years, many WWII veterans have visited the museum with their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Vinyard said many emails he receives from children of World War II vets describe the impact visiting the museum had on their parents and about how they had never spoken about their service in the past, but now “we can’t get him to shut up about it.”
Vinyard often sees veterans open up and begin sharing their stories as they move through the exhibits.
Another popular component of the museum is the Pacific Combat Zone. This interactive indoor/outdoor exhibit allows guests to experience a taste of what soldiers went through during the war.
In October 2015, the museum began construction of a two-phase $8 million renovation. Phase one, now complete, includes a PT 309 Boat exhibit in which visitors step on deck as the boat is being equipped for a mission.
Visitors go below deck on an aircraft carrier and see a TBM preparing for a mission. Interactive games allow guests to launch torpedoes at enemy ships and man anti-aircraft guns. Phase two of this renovation project is scheduled to open in the spring of 2017.
An exhibit that stands in stark contrast to others is the Japanese Garden of Peace. Here, in the midst of a museum dedicated to possibly the greatest military conflict in human history, sits an oasis of peace and tranquility, a gift from the people of Japan to the people of the United States in honor of Admiral Nimitz. Walking along the streams and pools or sitting among the stones, visitors are encouraged to quietly reflect, in whatever manner they choose, on the war and those who fought.
With these vastly diverse components and many more state-of-the-art exhibits, the NMPW portrays the sheer enormity of the war in the Pacific-Asiatic Theater. At the same time, the museum never loses sight of the fact that this grand conflict was fought by millions, each of whom has a unique story that deserves to be told. It was fought by sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers, many of whom never returned home.
Their endless stories are masterfully woven into the larger narrative of the War in the Pacific. Additionally, hundreds of artifacts allow the visitor to travel back in time and view real pieces of history that played a critical role in the war.
As more and more WWII veterans pass away – 555 every day according to the National WWII Museum – it becomes all the more important to ensure that their stories and their sacrifices are recorded in a way that honors the profoundly significant service they performed for their nation and the world.
In essence, these men and women were called upon to save the world. And they delivered. This remarkable museum in Texas Hill Country just west of Austin is playing a crucial role in assuring that the history of WWII in the Pacific is properly preserved, and that these veterans are remembered with the respect they deserve.
“It’s a place where they feel comfortable,” Vinyard said, “because their story is being told correctly.”
*Bret Holt is administrative assistant at the Chickasaw Inkana Foundation in Tupelo, Mississippi.
The museum is a premiere research site for any student of history. The Nimitz Education and Research Center was established to share the NMPW’s vast archives. Professional historians and students find NERC to be an invaluable resource.
Highlights of the collection include more than 4,100 oral histories, 700 memoirs, the American Volunteer Group (Flying Tiger) Collection, the LCI association collection, and several personal collections. NERC also holds a library of more than 5,000 books.