American Heroes: Japanese American World War II Nisei Soldiers and the Congressional Gold Medal
Dec 19–Jan 26
Mon–Fri 9–5l Sat–Sun noon–5
Holocaust Museum Houston, 5401 Caroline St.
On Dec 7, 1942, exactly one year after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the FBI came to the Houston home of Tommie Okabayashi. They were there to take Okabayashi’s father, who had been born in Japan, to an internment camp in Kennedy, Texas to be held with other Japanese nationals suspected of collaborating with the Japanese government. Although Okabayashi, now 88, doesn’t like to talk about the experience, it was clearly a traumatic moment.
“All they told us was that he had to go,” he remembered. “We figured it was going to happen one day. We were upset, but there was nothing we could do about it.”
Okabayashi’s father was kept at the camp for three months, until finally being released after the family’s lawyer, an American, vouched for him. (Interned Japanese could only be released upon the word of white person.) You might think that this event would sour Okabayashi on America, but three months after his father’s release he took the surprising step of voluntarily enlisting in the U.S. Army.
Okabayashi was assigned to an all–Japanese American regiment, one of several units composed of second-generation Japanese Americans (known as Nisei soldiers, and including the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service) that fought on the American side during World War II. Like Okabayashi, many of these soldiers had family members being held American internment camps. In recognition of their service, the 19,000 men who served in these three units were collectively awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor—the highest award that can be given to a member of the armed services—in 2011. To publicize this honor, the Smithsonian Institution curated a show that has toured seven cities, concluding this month in Houston at the Holocaust Museum.
Okabayashi, who was born in Hamshire, Texas and grew up in Houston, said he never gave much thought to his race because everyone else in his unit was also second-generation Japanese American. Because of his accent, Okabayashi was given the nickname Tex. The only friction came from the unit’s officers, who were all white. “They had to learn to get along with us,” he said. “Some of them took a little time, but most of them were loyal to us.”
Kelly Zúñiga, the executive director of the Holocaust Museum, said that the Nisei soldiers exhibition was a perfect fit for the museum’s mission. “We’re promoting understanding the remembrance of the Holocaust, and the dangers of prejudice and apathy,” she said. “These soldiers stood up for their country and put themselves at risk at the same time that their families were interned. They experienced a lot of prejudice and discrimination.”
The exhibition features the actual Congressional Medal of Honor and photographs of the soldiers, and will be accompanied by a series of educational programs. Members of the Asia Society Texas Center can buy reduced-price tickets to these programs (the exhibition itself is free).
To Okabayashi, who still attends annual reunions with the surviving members of his company, receiving the medal was a bittersweet honor. “It was a little late for a lot of the veterans, but it’s still great to get,” he said. “All the boys were real thankful for it.”