So where is SWP spending this Labor Day Sunday, you ask? In the Hamptons, of course. Well. Not really the Hamptons. But close enough: I’m in the Hampton Inn in Fredericksburg, TX.
Took the 3.5 hour road trip to visit the National Museum of the Pacific War. Talk about an incongruous location: Fredericksburg is in the dusty Texas Hill Country, 4 plus hours drive from any salt water.
But there’s a reason it’s here. Fredericksburg was the birthplace of Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific, (“CINCPAC”) during WWII. He took an appointment at Annapolis because none were available at West Point-and he wanted to get out of Texas in the worst way He thrived in the Navy, despite never having seen water more than knee deep (according to his recollection) prior to his matriculation at Navy. An interesting commentary about the ability of people, especially smart and driven people like Nimitz, to adapt and learn.
The museum is quite good. A little overwhelming in fact. It is quite balanced between the various theaters and service branches. Indeed, if anything, the Navy gets short shrift: I thought the coverage of the submarine war was especially perfunctory. Army types would probably think the Marines hog all the glory in the exhibits, but IMO the museum does a good job at covering campaigns that were primarily US Army efforts (New Guinea, the Philippines), and is balanced in its handling of the big inter-service battles (e.g,. the Howland Smith vs. Ralph Smith episode at Saipan).
Interestingly, the museum gives extensive coverage to Peleliu, and discusses forthrightly the carnage, the dubious Marine approach of grinding frontal assaults, and the dubious strategic gain achieved for all the bloodshed. This is particularly notable because Nimitz made the decision to attack the island at MacArthur’s request, despite the objections of most of the Navy high command.
There is loads of personal memorabilia on display, from both sides. To me, the most fascinating piece was E. B. Sledge’s “lucky” battle jacket, which he claims to have worn at both Peleliu and Okinawa: it was lucky, he said, because he survived both campaigns without a wound. The thing looked pristine. Given the abuse it had to have gone through-the dirt, the sweat, being worn for days at a time while Sledge tried to become one with the earth to escape the shelling or advanced through foliage-I would have thought it would have been in tatters.
Another fascinating exhibit was a US M-3 Stuart light tank from Australian service that had been knocked out by a 75 mm Japanese AA gun-also on display-at Buna. There’s a video of the tank commander recounting the action. The tank and gun were retrieved years later with help from aboriginal Papuans, and brought to the museum.
All in all, definitely worth the trip from Houston. If you’re a WWII aficionado, it’s worth a trip from longer distance.
The Pacific War was unbelievably grim. The ferocity of the combat and the forbidding terrains in which it was fought (from stinking jungles to stinking volcanic islands to the huge expanses of open ocean, forbidding in its own way) made the war in that theater distinctive, as compared to other theaters in WWII, and other wars. The integration of air power, sea power, land power, and logistics-by both sides-were unique Victory depended both on high technology and the most elemental face-to-face human combat. The museum does a good job at telling the very complicated story of this theater in a comprehensive and mostly objective way.