Streetwise Professor

September 1, 2013

Guadalcanal (or Peleliu) in the Hill Country

Filed under: History,Military — The Professor @ 7:32 pm

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.

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  1. Fredericksburg was the birthplace of Chester Nimitz

    I was just going to point that out. There’s an interesting anecdote about him, told in the wonderful book Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon. From memory, Chester’s grandfather owned a hotel which was in the shape of a ship’s bow, in which young Chester used to play at being a sea captain. (And whaddya know, I go to look it up on Wikipedia and find the hotel has been turned into the museum you visited.)

    He also managed to run a shop aground earlier in his career. I can’t imagine there are too many who do that and become admirals.

    Comment by Tim Newman — September 1, 2013 @ 11:01 pm

  2. Good counsel does no harm.

    Comment by Victor Wooten — September 2, 2013 @ 11:34 am

  3. @Tim-Knowledgeable fellow. (Not surprised.) They have reconstructed the hotel to include the “steamboat” appearance. The Nimitz Museum is located in that building, and the Pacific War Museum is in a huge complex to the rear of it.

    Re the grounding of Nimitz’s ship (the USS Decatur). That was the era of “Sea Daddies”-senior officers who would look out for talented junior officers and protect them in the event of a mishap. Halsey benefited from similar protection. Nowadays, it’s zero tolerance and the vertical chop. Very Russian, in a way.

    Not an improvement.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 2, 2013 @ 3:58 pm

  4. To be fair the USMC had little choice in the island campaign but to use grinding frontal assaults. There was no way to flank the Japanese positions of force them out by maneuver warfare.

    The Japanese were expert at well hidden mutually supporting positional warfare, their positions were shown time and again to be able to resist some of the heaviest bombardments the US/UK/ANZAC forces could throw at them both in the pacific and in Burma. The only option (as with the battles of 1914-1918) was to grind through.

    The only other option would have been to not fight them at all.

    Comment by Andrew — September 3, 2013 @ 9:17 am

  5. The only other option would have been to not fight them at all.

    They chose to do that on quite a few islands, and I always wonder why they didn’t do that more often. I’m sure nowadays, faced with the same situation, it would be deemed more sensible to just leave the Japanese on the smaller islands and atolls and look to control the seaways and airways to stop any resupply.

    Comment by Tim Newman — September 3, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

  6. Tim, they tended to take the islands which had airfields or were at choke points along navigation routes, especially those with considerable coastal artillery.

    The best way to take out airways is to take out the air bases.

    The islands they attacked were considered vital military targets at the time. Some, such as Peleliu, seem less important in hindsight, but it had a considerable hard paved airfield which could serve bombers capable of attacking shipping all the way to the Philippines.

    Comment by Andrew — September 3, 2013 @ 10:24 pm

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