The last time I’d been to this museum, in Fredericksburg, TX, it had been “the Nimitz Museum” and consisted of the Nimitz Hotel building, and the mini-sub in the new annex. This would have been the early 1990s. Today, it is much, much bigger, and has four main components. I saw one of them, because we ran out of time.
Short version – anything you want to know about the war in the Pacific: background, how it started, the Army as well as Navy’s contributions, US civilian experience, the atomic bombs – is here. Plan on at least five hours if you go through every display in the main building, eight hours if you do all the main building and the gardens, Pacific War Zone, and Nimitz Gallery. And the gift shop is great.
Longer version below.
Admiral Chester Nimitz began his career in submarines, which is why a submarine holds pride of place as you walk up to the main entrance. The garden sweeps over the sub, like waves of water. This is not your usual military history museum. Because it is part of the Smithsonian, which is Federal, you are supposed to follow current mask and social distancing guidelines. In reality, once you are past the main desk? Common sense. It wasn’t all that crowded, or at least didn’t feel crowded when we were there, because it is laid out in a twisting, turning fashion that packs a lot of displays into a small area, without feeling claustrophobic. There are attendance caps currently in place, so I’d suggest buying tickets on-line, or going early. Once they hit their cap, that’s it.
The museum begins with a video/map outline of the chronology of the War in the Pacific, from 1940-1945. If you have no idea what happened, this is a good introduction to the raw dates and places. Then you move back in time, to China and Japan in the 1840s, and follow events in those countries, along with the US. This provides a lot of background, including things I wasn’t aware of. If also focuses on the Kuomintang/Guomindong and the Nationalist government. Since they were the official government of China during the war, this makes perfect sense. US isolationism following WWI is also discussed. I’d say almost 20% of the museum is prelude and pre-December 1941.
I won’t go through every single display, because I’d overload the blog and my readers. All the major events are highlighted and discussed, with oral histories, models, excellent maps, video projections of the action, life-sized displays of a picket ship’s bridge, an actual Australian tank from the New Guinea campaign . . . It’s very impressive. While the US Navy is the central focus of the museum, as one would expect, the Army and the Allies get lots of coverage as well. It was refreshing to see displays about the ANZACs, Coast Watchers, British, and so on.
If you follow just the main displays, you will get a wonderful chronological history of the Pacific Theater. If you also look at the side displays, you get information about women’s roles, war work in the US, life in the US during the war, internments, the Japanese home front and Japanese government, and other things.
I come from a Navy family, grew up reading naval history, especially Pacific War, and so a lot of this was familiar. Even so, I learned an amazing amount. It took my folks and I over five hours from start to finish, and we didn’t go to anything but the main museum building. If you are not familiar with the war, it may take longer, or you might choose to skip some of the side displays in favor of an overview approach.
I’d almost recommend a day and a half for this. One day for the main building, then buy a second admission the next morning and go to the rest – Pacific War Zone, Japanese Peace Garden, Nimitz Gallery, and so on. And come back to the main museum and hit what you skipped the previous day.
The gift shop has lots of books, prints, books, toys, maps, books, videos, books, tee-shirts, glassware, ball-caps, flags, “tasteful” Hawaiian shirts with subs, planes, and aircraft carriers on them, books, and kids costumes.
Admission is free to WWII vets, discounted for active duty or retired military (DD214 or other proof of service is required), different discount for police/fire/ems, and so on. Admissions ranges from $18 to free, with two-day passes available. They are open every day except Thanksgiving Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Years. The web-site says closed on Tuesdays, but you might double-check that.
If you are at all interested in WWII in the Pacific, Admiral Chester Nimitz, naval history, and related topics, I highly recommend this museum. It has not been too badly afflicted by the current deconstructionist trends (yet), and I suspect the governing board keeps a close eye on things. It is unabashedly pro-sailor and soldier. It doesn’t glorify war, but it doesn’t run down any of those fighting in the Pacific. There is enough about the atrocities and horrors to give visitors a sense of how bad things got, but it is suitable for kids. Parents can explain or not as they choose. Don’t be surprised to hear veterans elaborating on “their war” if one is visiting. The displays are very well done and can be skimmed or read in detail. It is one of the best military history museums I’ve been to, and probably one of the best museums in the US period.
Highly, highly recommend if you are at all interested in the topic. Oh, and if you just want to hit the gift shop? There are two – one in the main complex, and one up on Main Street beside the Nimitz Hotel building. Those are free to go into.