The Museum of the Pacific War

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.

Hello, Mr. Submarine. All photos by author.

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.

Can I interest you in a slightly used Japanese mini-sub?
Jimmy Dolittle Was Here. Yes, that’s a B-25. Not a model.

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.

We had a steep learning curve. Those of you who have read The Fleet the Gods Forgot or the Ghost that Died at Sunda Strait know how the story went.

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.

Yes, it comes with a little polka-dot head scarf. Rivet gun not included. For boys there’s a USMC dress blues outfit. No sword, though. Sorry.

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.

12 thoughts on “The Museum of the Pacific War

  1. It’s a fantastic museum – and I first visited it when it was just the old Nimitz Hotel and adjacent garden. Then the new building, which at first looked a bit like a tin warehouse … and it slowly filled up with exhibits and displays.
    One of my favorite items – and I looked for it last time I went through — was a pair of undies and a bra crocheted out of string by one of the nurses held as a PoW in the Philippines. It wasn’t on display any more – they have so many relics now that they can’t put them all out there. Another is the operating room instruments from a Japanese Army surgeon, in a tin case, and all laid out on open grid panels so they can be sterilized by pouring boiling water on them.
    I have a picture in my archives of half a dozen young reenactors, in WWII USMC garb, who were going along Main Street handing out information about the various activities at the museum, including the annex. I was amused because they were all of about the same age that WWII-era Marines would have been…which isn’t usually the case with reenactors!

  2. Hadn’t expected that much. Definitely on my list, when/if I get to Texas. That’s a huge story to tell.

    • It is, and I’m amazed that they do it so well. Even though it’s obviously aimed at people who don’t know much beyond “the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and started* WWII,” my parents and I were engrossed.

      *Pop-culture knowledge, not academic historian knowledge. Even the question of “when did WWII start for the US?” is open to debate unless you tailor it to “direct military action against an officially declared enemy state.”

  3. I live near Seguin, TX, which is about 90 south of Fredricksburg (and on the original trail of Germans settling Texas from the ports on the Gulf to Fredricksburg). Inexplicably I have never been to the Nimitz museum. I am going to correct that this summer.

    In Seguin itself there is a restaurant called the Power Plant Texas Bar and Grill, also known as the Seguin Power Plant, because it is housed in the first electrical power plant in the city of Seguin. Henry Troell, an early German-Texan, built the a hydroelectric power plant at Saffold Dam on the Guadalupe River at on the south side of Seguin in the 1890s. Initially privately owned, Troell later sold the power plant to the city of Seguin. If you come by Seguin, the restaurant is a good place to eat and they did a nice job with the restoration of the power plant facility. There’s a nice big outdoor deck with a good view of the river while you eat.

    In the main indoor dining room there is a large diesel engine, which I suppose was added at one point to back up the hydro generation. If you go to the website of the restaurant it appears in some of the videos and still pictures. On the side it says “Busch-Sulzer Bros Diesel Engine Company”. I got curious one day while eating there and started internet searching on that company.

    Turns out the Sulzer Brothers (est 1834, still extant as Sulzer Ltd) manufactured steam engines, then with the help of Rudolph Diesel began building diesel engines in 1898, and had some facilities in Germany. In 1911 Adolphus Busch (yes, THAT Adolphus Busch) in America started a couple diesel engine companies, ultimately forming a partnership with Sulzer Brothers to manufacture diesel engines in the US (also with help from Rudolph Diesel). In that same era, a certain German-speaking US Navy lieutenant named Nimitz was of course researching diesel propulsion in both Germany and the US, and at one point the Busch-Sulzer Brothers Diesel Engine Company offered Nimitz a job, which he declined. However, the Busch-Sulzer company became a supplier of diesel engines (apparently using American rather than Swiss designs) to the US Navy for its submarines from WWI all the way through WWII.

    And as well supplied the Seguin power plant with a diesel to run its generators, only 90 miles from Nimitz’s home town.

    I love Texas history.

    • Whoops – I left out that the Sulzer Brothers were/are a Swiss company which makes my comment about them having facilities in Germany a bit confusing. They sold their German holdings prior to WWII, but were still blacklisted by the Allies because they refused to agree to not sell to Axis power countries.

      And no I have no idea (yet) if Sulzer Brothers diesel powered German submarines squared off against Busch-Sulzer Brothers diesel powered American submarines.

      • That’s fascinating, Eric, thank you! And it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the two flavors of subs squared off.

        • It’s extremely unlikely, unfortunately. American submarines did not operate at all in the Atlantic or Indian oceans, the areas where most German U-boats were. There were a couple of times that U-boats tried to sail to Japan and crossed the paths of American submarines on war patrol in Indonesian waters, but that was it as far as American vs German submarines.

          That trick of ‘zigzag the path all over the place so to give yourself more usable floor space’ is used very, very effectively by the United States Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. They also keep the place fresh by always changing the displays. The airplanes generally stay where they are, but the wall displays and freestanding displays change quite frequently. Even just a couple of months between visits can find significant changes.

  4. Thanks for your post today . I’ll have to keep that museum in mind if I’m ever in that part of Texas.

    That B-25 looks really nice. The USAF Museum has one very similar, with a little bit of mock carrier deck and a bunch of Doolittle Raiders manikins.

  5. That does look very very cool. A tad bit far away from here, but obviously that’s something to do if we’re ever headed that way.

    Btw, I recently learned what I guess I should have known — the UK had to stop letting their folks do ham radio during WWII, so there were a lot of sad times when people had to say goodbye to their ham buddies for the duration, and maybe forever. And then the very next day, the Blitz started.

  6. It IS a great museum! And one piece you left out on the Aussie tank- The Japanese gun that shot it is also there!!! (Friend of mine did the AV for the new iteration of the museum). He has some stories about things found and things brought by veterans!!!

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