Museum of the Pacific

PacificToday, Aug. 9, marks the 70th anniversary of when we dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Five days later, the Japanese would surrender and effectively end World War II, even though V-J Day wouldn’t be formally declared until Sept. 2.

Here is the piece I wrote in 2010 for The Wall Street Journal on the Museum of the Pacific in Fredericksburg, Texas, what I consider one of the best World War II museums in the world.

The Full Story Behind the War in the Pacific

By Mark Yost

The Wall Street Journal

May 21, 2010

If “The Pacific,” the 10-part miniseries that just concluded on HBO, has piqued your interest in the war against Japan, then I’d suggest you make your way to this little town about 90 miles west of Austin. It’s home to the National Museum of the Pacific War, which tells the story of Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima in exquisite and engaging detail. Having been to all the major war museums in Europe and the U.S., I left here thinking this is perhaps the most comprehensive, well-organized and informative military museum I’ve ever seen.

When visitors enter the newly remodeled George H.W. Bush Gallery, their tickets are given a 48-hour time stamp. Many will use all 48 hours. The museum is organized into small galleries that proceed chronologically from the opening of Japan and China by the Western powers in the 19th century to the war-crimes trials that followed the Japanese surrender that ended World War II. Each gallery provides an overview of the topic—a particular island campaign, U.S. treatment of the Nisei, flying “the Hump” in India—and then breaks it down with informative plaques, interactive kiosks and relics that keep visitors engaged without overwhelming them with too much information. I particularly liked the panels posted periodically that told visitors what was going on in the European theater at the same time.

The museum opens with a film about the Depression and the economic hardships that made Germany and Japan vulnerable to the fervent promises of nationalism. It then steps back nearly 100 years to examine the internal struggles and regional conflicts that ultimately led to war in the Pacific. Most interesting is the fact that while China shunned Western imperialism, Japan embraced it as a model, especially its expansionist ambitions. Given this and Japan’s martial shogun culture, it’s no surprise that when Japan’s 1890 education code asked students, “What is your dearest ambition?” the correct answer was “To die for the emperor.”

Furthermore, while World War I left Europe and the U.S. with a distaste for war, it only served to convince the Japanese of the need to wage all-out war against Korea, China and Russia for regional hegemony. This mindset—victory at all costs and the shame of surrender—provides important insight into the enemy the Allies would eventually face. It was the motivation for the genocide of Shanghai and Nanking. It explains why “they just kept coming,” as one of the characters in HBO’s “The Pacific” notes after the battle of Alligator Creek on Guadalcanal, and why the U.S. had to use not one, but two atomic bombs to subdue Japan.

This is all told well here. The exhibits proceed at a deliberate pace, from the prewar history to the sea battles and the Marines’ island-hopping campaigns. Some of the names are familiar (Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa), some less so (Kwajalein Atoll, the Aleutians, Eniwetok). But all are important, and we’re told why with interactive maps, oral histories and explanations of strategies.

For example, we learn that the Allies took out the airfield at Rabaul, but left the 135,000 Japanese troops on New Britain, Papua New Guinea, nearly untouched. Cut off from air and sea, they were essentially trapped with no supplies. Visitors also learn that Gen. Douglas MacArthur spent much of 1943 slogging it out on New Guinea, an island 1,500 miles long, 400 miles wide, mostly covered with dense jungle and peaks as high as 16,000 feet. The fighting was so fierce that at Buna the Japanese took coastal defense guns, lowered their angle to five degrees, and used them to destroy Stuart tanks.

Other interesting facts: During World War II, the U.S. lost 52 submarines, 48 of them in the Pacific. Iwo Jima was the only island battle where U.S. casualties outnumbered Japanese. Total civilian deaths of the Pacific war: Allies, 22.6 million; Japanese, 580,000. And contrary to popular belief, the firebombing of Tokyo killed more than the two atomic bombs combined.

There are profiles of some the great military leaders of the Pacific war, such as Gen. Alexander Patch, who sent the following message to Adm. William Halsey at the end of the Guadalcanal campaign: “Tokyo Express no longer has terminus on Guadalcanal.” And Adm. Chester Nimitz, who was born here in Fredericksburg. The Nimitz Foundation operates and provides much of the support for the museum.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the Japanese atrocities chronicled here, especially given recent remarks by “The Pacific” producer Tom Hanks, who said it was American racism that fueled the war against Japan. If anyone was motivated by racism, it was the Japanese, who had a sense of racial superiority that made the Nazis look like card-carrying members of the ACLU. It’s what drove the Japanese to wage a “war of terror”—the museum’s words, not mine—against the Chinese, be the first to use aerial bombardment against civilian populations, and commit the atrocities at Shanghai and Nanking.

But the museum is even-handed in dealing with America’s shortcomings, as well, primarily our treatment of the Nisei, the Japanese-Americans who were interned shortly after Pearl Harbor. I didn’t know that there were 5,000 Japanese-Americans who were serving in the armed forces in December 1941. They were immediately declared either 4F (unfit for service) or 4C (enemy aliens). When Nisei boys turned 18, they were drafted like other Americans. Those who refused were dubbed “the No-No Boys” and sent to federal prison.

If I have one criticism, it’s that the museum is in the middle of Texas Hill Country. It’s beautiful here, but because of its location the museum draws only about 100,000 visitors a year. A museum of this quality—and importance—needs to be seen by many more. Maybe “The Pacific” will spur attendance.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Chicago.

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

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