[Guest post! Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai of Angelo State University returns and is kind enough to write for Edge on memorializing the Pacific War in Texas. Post and photos copyright K. Wongsrichanalai 2013.]
On the face of it, Fredericksburg, Texas could be any other tourist town in America with its small local craft stores brimming with knickknacks and its main street embracing the image of a town very much in touch with its roots. Founded by German immigrants in the nineteenth century, this central Texas town has capitalized on its past to tempt travelers from Austin (only an hour and a half away), San Antonio (one hour away), and other regions of the country with sweet and tempting aromas of freshly baked German pastries, frothy beer steins, and piles of sausage, schnitzel, sauerkraut, and, at one spot in particular, the best peach bread pudding you’ll ever taste (not exactly German fare but Fredericksburg is also surrounded by fertile peach and pecan orchards).
Fredericksburg, Texas could be any normal little town with a warm charm that makes visitors wonder what lies beneath this façade of good and plenty. But there is something that makes this spot unique. While shopping for new quilts, wine, or other kitschy souvenirs in Fredericksburg, one may suddenly hear the sound of automatic gunfire emanating from near the town center. As one of my friends remarked, only in Texas could this happen.
Several weekends out of the year, travelers to Fredericksburg might look around in nervous wonder at the sounds of explosions and gunfire from down the street. The anxious visitor need not fear for they have just come to the town on one of the weekends when the Second World War comes alive again. Aside from its picturesque setting, Fredericksburg is also the home of the National Museum of the Pacific War, established here because one of this landlocked community’s most famous residents was Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of America’s Pacific fleet in the Second World War.
The National Museum of the Pacific War is a fitting legacy to the soldiers of humanity’s largest military conflict. Rich in artifacts from the era, the museum takes seriously the burden of honoring the individuals who fought in the war. It provides visitors with a full experience, which includes commendable sections on the social and cultural heritage of China and Japan before the war. This is not a museum that waves flags and celebrates in a jingoistic manner the accomplishments of America alone. War and all its horrors come through well here even as the endurance of the common soldier and marine are on display.
This nuanced presentation of the complicated roots and strategic challenges of the multiple campaigns, however, can easily overload the visitor. Be prepared to spend a full day in the main gallery, the Nimitz House and the outdoor display area. Some of the museum’s most stunning possessions include the only surviving two-man mini-submarine used in the attack on Pearl Harbor and an unused atomic bomb casing, which would have been employed if Little Boy and Fat Man had not compelled the Japanese surrender.
If the museum is an example in how to present the multi-faceted elements and complexities of history, the reenactment and displays provide the red meat for blood-and-guts enthusiasts. Although the presentation began with an introduction to Japanese sailors and soldiers—on the day I attended that included reenactors from Japan—as well as some of their arms, much of the program revolved around the United States Marines and their arsenal of weapons. Different historical interpreters, most of whom were themselves actual veterans, took the floor to introduce a specific firearm before demonstrating its fire capacity.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Tommy Gun,” one gruff marine declared. One individual stood out and seemed to revel in his role, taking enormous glee in firing at, one can only imagine, apparitions of long dead Japanese soldiers. And so they paraded out all the weapons—a Colt .45-caliber pistol, a Browning Automatic, an M-1, a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on a jeep, and the aforementioned Thompson Sub-Machine Gun. After a while, it really became just a gun show with the men who wielded these weapons—the fighting men of the war—seemingly relegated to the sidelines. This was definitely not a message that the organizers wanted to send and an unintended consequence of their weapon-heavy program.
The arms demonstration took place on a recreation of a Japanese-held beach, complete with pillboxes and trenches. The program’s organizer recruited Hollywood special effects crews to set up the climatic show for which the packed stands of audience members waited in eager anticipation. And so the reenactors took their places, audience members screwed their earplugs (included with admission) in a bit tighter, and the battle commenced. Explosions rang out as bits of shell and dirt flew into the front row of the crowds.
Out came the marines, protecting the man bearing the flamethrower. The heat from that contraption, by the way, once unleashed, traveled the hundred or so feet to the stands. One did not need to be in that recreated pillbox to get a sense of that weapon’s utility. It was a captivating and well organized show. When it was over, however, one felt somewhat empty. Wow, what wonderful weapons the Americans had, you’ll say. Perhaps the museum’s treatment of soldier life was supposed to be enough but, at least for this visitor, the fighting man, who was certainly mentioned numerous times, seemed to fade away into the gun smoke. As the crowds left to seek lunch or snacks or more gifts in Fredericksburg’s stores, people went up to the tanks and brought replica grenades and shells as mementos of America’s war machine. The people who ran that war machine, however, seemed to be missing in all the action.
Note: The author would like to thank David Dewar and Christine Lamberson for sharing their recollections of the presentation.