Reliving Pacific Island Battles

Hometown Heroes, Iconic Communities, On the Road, People
on March 4, 2001

Marines with a vintage flamethrower storm a Japanese pillbox, bringing the Pacific island battles of World War II to life in Fredricksburg, Texas. The “battle”—complete with foxholes, trenches and bunkers—is part of a popular living history demonstration at the National Museum of the Pacific War in this town of 8,320.

The museum, also called the Admiral Nimitz Museum, began in the historic steamboat-shaped Nimitz Hotel, the boyhood home of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who commanded Allied Forces in the central and northern Pacific during World War II. His grandfather, Charles Henry Nimitz, owned and operated the hotel when Nimitz was a child.

Nimitz initially balked at having the museum named for him.

“When the old Nimitz Hotel was scheduled to be torn down in 1966, a handful of Fredericksburg citizens purchased it,” says Helen McDonald, the museum’s Curator of Exhibits and Programs. “They went to Nimitz, who was born here, to have it dedicated to him and he turned them down five times.”

Nimitz finally agreed, but only if the museum was dedicated to the 2.5 million men and women who served with him in the Pacific War. The name was changed to The National Museum of the Pacific War (Admiral Nimitz Museum) when a new 25,000-square foot gallery devoted to the Pacific War opened.

Besides the popular living history demonstrations, the museum hosts symposiums on major aspects of the Pacific War—gatherings that sometimes bring old enemies face-to-face.

Kaduo Sakamaki, commander of a two-man midget sub that assisted in the attack on Pearl Harbor, became the first Japanese POW when he was captured on Dec. 8, 1941. Sakamaki was at a museum symposium in 1991 and met with the Army lieutenant who interrogated him when he was captured, McDonald says.

“It’s the personal stories that bring the war alive. Our idea is not to glorify war but to gain a better understanding and put a personal face on it so, hopefully, by understanding it we don’t repeat it,” she adds.

The Pacific War isn’t the only history that lives in the town nestled in the heart of Texas Hill Country. Fredricksburg’s German heritage is evident in the annual Oktoberfest and in numerous buildings like the sturdy German structures preserved at the Pioneer Museum Complex, as well as limestone block buildings and gingerbread-trim homes scattered throughout the town. A few authentic “Sunday houses,” small homes built by German pioneers for bringing the family to town for the weekend, still exist. Many, though, were renovated and expanded as families moved to town.

Barbara Heinen owns one historic home, a two-story Victorian cottage called Keidel Gasthaus, just a half block from the Nimitz Museum. Her uncle, Albert Keidel, started the movement to preserve the town’s historic architecture, and Heinen is carrying on his work.

“Now that I’m retired from teaching, I want to volunteer some time helping to restore the ballroom in the old Nimitz Hotel,’’ Heinen says.

The town doesn’t neglect the state’s natural beauty, either.

In the spring, Texas wildflowers such as bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush are in full bloom around Fredericksburg, home to Wildseed Farms, which claims to be the largest working wildflower farm in the United States.

“There’s a succession of color ’til frost, with fabulous color even in hot weather,” owner John Thomas says.

And the Butterfly Ranch and Habitat at the 1846 historic Loeffler-Weber House on Main Street specializes in larval and nectar plants and native Texas butterflies.

“Our mission is to promote and encourage the creation of backyard habitats to help increase butterflies’ natural population,” explains owner Deborah Payne.

The town can expect national attention in December, since it was selected by the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association as the official mainland site for the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The museum and the town plan a heroes parade, a flyover by vintage World War II planes, and a ceremony on Dec. 7, 2001.

John Finn, the last living Medal of Honor winner from Pearl Harbor, will be the grand marshal of the parade.