Military history often focuses on the generals, admirals or other leaders credited with winning battles. At the National Museum of the Pacific War (NMPW) in Fredericksburg, TX, leaders are amply acknowledged, but the museum aspires to bring history to life by telling the stories of the millions of men and women who fought in or supported WWII efforts – the ordinary people who did the extraordinary to ensure that the freedoms and values of Americans were protected.
Such is the story of one of the museum’s most treasured artifacts, the flag pictured here. The exhibit explains, “Paul Spain, Joe Victoria and Eddie Lindros were ordered to burn the American flag flying over an air base at Del Monte on Mindanao in 1942 to prevent its capture by the Japanese. Before the flag was destroyed, they decided to remove the 48 stars and hide them. For the next 42 months, the three men were moved to several different prisoner of war camps and eventually taken to Japan on a “hell ship.” During this time, they concealed the stars in their clothes, barracks and a steel factory. In the days before their liberation, they sewed together a new flag using a rusty nail for a needle, an old sewing machine, parachute material and the stars they had saved. The new flag flew over the camp when American troops arrived on Sept. 7, 1945.”
Ordinary Americans doing the extraordinary.
The museum’s tradition of honoring the many, not the few, began with Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, a Fredericksburg native, who led the Navy to victory in the Pacific. In 1964, Fredericksburg citizens suggested to Nimitz that a museum be established in his name. He agreed only on the condition that the museum honor all who served in the Pacific War. Originally the Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz Naval Museum, it was renamed the National Museum of the Pacific War in 1997. Congress approved the designation in 2006. With over 5,000 archived oral histories and countless other accounts, there are many stories to be discovered and told, including those of indigenous peoples of the Pacific and Japanese citizens.
Within the Pearl Harbor exhibit, visitors can see and touch one of five Japanese midget submarines that participated in the infamous attack that catapulted the U.S. into WWII. What brings this stunning artifact to life are the stories of real people: the capture of Imperial Japanese Navy Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki, who piloted this two-man sub and who became the first Japanese prisoner of war; and the story of a sharecropper’s son, Doris Miller, who worked on the farm and as a cook before enlisting in the Navy in 1939. He was a mess attendant on the USS West Virginia when the Japanese attacked. Although untrained, he manned a 50 caliber anti-aircraft gun to defend the ship, and after the “abandon ship” order, he stayed to aid fellow sailors to safety. This young man rose to the occasion from obscurity and was awarded the Navy Cross for his extraordinary valor during the attack.
Hundreds of personal artifacts displayed at NMPW provide glimpses of the battles fought. Marine Staff Sgt. Jack T. Lent took part in the amphibious landing on the island of Tarawa. Lent shot an enemy sniper and was immediately fired upon in retaliation. A bullet pierced his helmet and knocked him out, leaving a minor cut on his head. Upon recovery, his damaged helmet was returned to him, and he was ordered back to action.
The war tested the mettle of all Americans. Over 16 million Americans served in the military during WWII – the vast majority in the Pacific. Millions more supported the war effort on the home front as civilian-military support, working in industry, families helping to recycle, planting victory gardens, and much more. The country came together with extraordinary unity and effort to meet the challenge.