Seventy-four years ago, a teenage Paul Hilliard was having lunch with his family in Durand, Wisconsin, when his uncle walked in with surprising news.
An American naval base in Hawaii had been attacked, his uncle said, but details were sketchy. Hilliard didn’t think much of it at the time.
“We didn’t have any idea of the magnitude of what was happening in the world,” he said.
Hilliard was able to glean more details about the attack on Pearl Harbor over the next few days, as he read the newspapers he was throwing on his paper route. But the gravity of what was happening — both for the nation and for his life — didn’t sink in immediately.
“This was somebody else’s war someplace else,” he said.
It would hit home soon enough: Fourteen months later, Hilliard entered the Marines, and soon he was flying dive bombing missions over the Pacific in a Douglas SBD Dauntless, a single-engine aircraft that could carry 1,000 pounds of bombs. Hilliard was a gunner, sitting in the rear seat and handling the plane’s defense and radio communications.
“It was terrifying,” he said. “Hours and hours of boredom and minutes of terror.”
On Tuesday, the spry 90-year-old helped give a tour of the National World War II Museum’s newest permanent exhibit, “The Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries.” Walking through them, Hilliard, a member of the museum’s board, stopped to muse over several of the exhibits’ 400-plus artifacts from the Pacific campaign.
He described his time dropping bombs in the Pacific as an “impersonal war.” But for many Americans, it was all too personal, with close combat against relentless foes on jungle-covered islands. It was frequently brutal and intense and required the invention of new strategies and tactics, different from what Allied forces were using in Europe and North Africa.
“The Road to Tokyo” puts the museum visitor first on the simulated bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, a World War II-era aircraft carrier. A few feet away, a full-screen video taken from the deck of a carrier shows the frenetic activity of sailors charged with first getting the planes into the air and later safely back on board again.
From the deck of the Enterprise, visitors move through galleries designed to look like the islands on which so many battles would be fought.
There is even a large gallery dedicated to the Pacific war’s lesser-known western front. Battles raged in China, India and Burma as some Allied forces moved over land to counter Japanese armies on the Asian mainland.
The 10-gallery, 10,000-square-foot exhibit is tactile and engrossing; it creates an immersive effect that is intentional, said Owen Glendening, associate vice president of education and access for the museum.
The galleries are arranged chronologically, starting with the Enterprise and moving through the early battle of Guadalcanal and then the U.S.’s island-hopping strategy that moved closer and closer to the Japanese homeland. Visitors then learn of the bloody battles on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, close to Japan, and finally the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
In keeping with the fierce fighting in the Pacific, not all of the exhibits are easy to look at. Frank depictions of the violence — taken from archival footage or photos — bring home how intense the warfare was.
The exhibit also draws a contrast with another campaign detailed in the same building: “The Road to Berlin,” which opened late last year. In a similar style, “The Road to Berlin” recounts the Allies’ march through Europe to victory over Hitler’s Germany.
Getting to Tokyo was a far different challenge.
When the United States went to war in the Pacific, it found itself fighting a naval-oriented war in which the battlefields were tiny specks in an immense blue expanse. Those battlefields were often covered in thick jungles and lacked infrastructure like what was found in Europe. There were no roads, hospitals or airfields on many of the islands, Glendening said.
Soldiers also faced the threat of tropical diseases and challenges posed by the vast distances involved.
“No matter where we were, we were a thousand miles from where we’d been, and a thousand miles from where we were going,” Hilliard recalled.
Other challenges also arose, including the intractability of their foes, who frequently refused to surrender even when doomed to defeat, battling to the very last man.
To fight this new type of war, American military leaders like Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Adm. Chester Nimitz adopted an approach known as the island-hopping strategy. American forces skipped over some islands heavily fortified with Japanese forces, instead opting to take smaller, less well-defended islands and allow the former to wither on the vine.
Several galleries are dedicated to specific battles, including those on Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Guadalcanal was the first major U.S. battle in the Pacific theater; American leaders feared surrendering the small Solomon Island to the Japanese would give the enemy unfettered air access to attack Australia. The latter two were bloody battles in the latter stages in the war as American forces crept closer to Japan. The battle for Manila, in the Philippines, which was the only urban battle fought in the Pacific, is also documented.
Devastation in Japan is not ignored, either. A map comparing Japanese cities with American cities and then listing the percentage of each Japanese city that was destroyed is impactful and reminds viewers that the horrors of war were not limited to the Allied side. Another room features photos of flattened Japanese cities like Osaka and Toyama.
And of course, the final gallery presents displays focused on President Harry Truman’s fateful decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japanese cities, a decision Glendening said was fueled by the fear that a land invasion would cost hundreds of thousands of lives — even more than the bombs took, but on both sides.
It’s a decision Hilliard does not question.
“What people think 70 years later is irrelevant,” he said. “He had to do it.”
The “Road to Tokyo” will open to the public at 9 a.m. Saturday.
The National World War II Museum is also set to open the American Spirit skybridge, which crosses Andrew Higgins Drive, connecting the museum’s buildings and leading visitors into a gallery featuring members of the Merchant Marine, which ferried untold amounts of men, weapons and materiel to the battlefields.
Hilliard said the museum is an important reminder of “what happens when we weren’t paying attention.”
“We have to preserve the memories,” he said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.