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Museum of the Pacific War, along with other historic sites, reopen by degrees

Staff Writer
Brownwood Bulletin
Michael Barnes

Think, Texas is a weekly column about Texas history.

One of the last places that your Think, Texas columnist toured before the pandemic lockdown in March was the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg.

Believe it or not, it was my first visit to this ample museum dedicated to Allied campaigns against the Japanese Empire during World II. Part of the museum is housed in the old hotel that belonged to the family of Fredericksburg native son Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz. He served as commander in chief of the Pacific fleet, then later took charge of the entire Pacific front. A majority of the exhibits, however, can be found in the large, modern George H.W. Bush Gallery, which opened its doors in 1991 and was expanded in 2009.

It’s stunning. No wonder USA Today readers earlier this year ranked it among the Top 5 history museums in the country.

As soon as I put fingers to keyboard to write about it for our statewide readers, however, the museum, along with other sites operated by the Texas Historical Commission, closed temporarily after authorities discouraged inessential travel.

In late May, as the state reopened, so did the historic sites.

“Most grounds at our state historic sites have reopened,” said Texas Historical Commission spokesman Justin Minsker. “Select museums have reopened for self-guided tours, but reservations are required by phone in advance.”

The commission has established health and safety guidelines to help ensure visitors and staff members stay safe. Those include social distancing and encouraging the use of masks; read them all at thc.texas.gov/publichealth.

Specifically regarding the Fredericksburg museum, self-guided tours are now available to groups of up to 12 people. In addition, the museum offers free admission to medical professionals and first responders and their families. The three-hour tours start at 9 a.m. at the new Admiral Nimitz Gallery, located in the old Nimitz Hotel building at 340 Main St. The last group will be admitted at 2 p.m.

The shady Memorial Courtyard and Plaza of the Presidents are accessible to the public during museum hours, but not the Japanese Garden of Peace.

My guide during my late February tour of the museum’s campus — which includes additional gallery buildings, as well as the Pacific Combat Zone, an amphitheater where re-created battles and other events take place — was director Rorie Cartier. Eminently amiable, Cartier earlier in life had pursued unrelated scholarly study in Ireland, but when he returned to the U.S., he found an unexpected job open at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. That helped place him later in Fredericksburg as a fundraiser for Admiral Nimitz Foundation that funds the sprawling Pacific War site. He became director in 2018.

No, I’m not going to attempt to describe the entire museum in one column, but be sure to devote the full three hours now available during your visit. It’s a place dense with well-designed exhibits that appear to explain every battle in the Pacific theater as well as the broader wartime culture. When the museum fully reopens, plan your visit to Fredericksburg to stretch over the course of several days and shoot for early in the week when the museum crowds are thinner.

Don’t skip the new Admiral Nimitz Gallery, which covers the Texan’s life and naval career.

How mind-boggling is the 6-acre museum? Director Cartier admits it took him a whole year to learn the information from all the exhibits. I believe him. And I can’t wait to return when the time is right to learn more.

While the foundation manages the site, the museum belongs to the Texas Historical Commission.

The historical commission also operates more than two dozen other historic sites, including Caddo Mounds in East Texas, which have recently opened a temporary visitors center after tornado damage, Casa Navarro in San Antonio, home to one of the state’s most illustrious leaders, San Felipe de Austin, site of Stephen F. Austin’s first Anglo-American colony, the handsome Fulton Mansion in Rockport, and Washington-on-the-Brazos, known as the “birthplace of Texas.”