U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki with World War II veterans of the 100th, 442nd and 36th Division in front of the “American Heroes: Japanese American World War II Nisei Soldiers and the Congressional Gold Medal” exhibit at the Holocaust Museum. Veterans shown left to right: George Fujimoto (442), Nelson Akagi (442), Susumu Ito (442), Lawson Sakai (442), Tommie Okabayashi (442), Robert Pieser (36th). (Photo by Kris Ikejiri)

HOUSTON – Amid the hustle and bustle of holiday travelers heading to gatherings of family and friends around the globe, a few courageous men, humble heroes of a war that happened generations ago, were bound for a reunion of their own in Houston, Texas.

They came to witness the ribbon-cutting at the final stop on a seven-city tour of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to them and their comrades in the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service of the U.S. Army who served during WWII. “American Heroes: Japanese American WWII Nisei Soldiers and the Congressional Gold Medal” will be on display at the Holocaust Museum Houston through Jan. 26, 2014.

What makes their acknowledgement, an accolade 70 years in the making, so significant that the Smithsonian Institution was compelled to allow a Congressional Gold Medal for the first time ever to go on tour is the irony of its recipients – the Nisei soldiers. These Americans, many of whom voluntarily served, were instrumental in liberating Jews from the Holocaust even while their own families were incarcerated in U.S. internment camps during the conflict just because they were of Japanese descent.

Commonly known as the “Go For Broke” regiments, the 100th /442nd is one of the most highly decorated units in U.S. military history for its size and length of service, having earned more than 4,000 Purple Hearts, 560 Silver Stars, seven Presidential Unit Citations and 21 Medals of Honor. The MIS, whose highly specialized contributions helped hasten the end of the war and is credited with saving millions of lives, was honored with a Presidential Unit Citation in 2000. More than 19,000 Japanese American soldiers served in these units during World War II.

A journey that began as a grassroots campaign became the catalyst for a bill that went on to earn unanimous consent in both houses of Congress, acquire the signature of President Barack Obama and result in a Congressional Gold Medal being presented on Nov. 2, 2011. Most of the living recipients, currently in their 90s, were unlikely to travel to Washington for the ceremony, prompting national sponsors to come on board and bring the medal to them.

This collaboration, spearheaded by the National Veterans Network, engaged Donna Fujimoto Cole, president and CEO of Cole Chemical & Distributing Inc. and the daughter of a 442nd, the Smithsonian, AARP, Comcast/NBC Universal, Pritzker Military Library, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Mountain Community Fund and Bob Nakamoto of the Japanese American Veterans Association.

Each site on the tour also solicited local support. In Houston, companies including BP America, CenterPoint Energy and Green Bank along with AARP Texas, Asia Society Texas Center, Holocaust Museum Houston, and Kathy and Glen Gondo and Donna Cole, who made personal contributions.

The opening ceremony, reception, program and dinner events were held on Dec. 19 and an educational brunch featuring a screening of “Honorable Journey” and a Nisei panel discussion of Dec. 20 brought together a Holocaust survivor and some of her rescuers, veterans Tommie Okabayashi, Lawson Sakai, Susumu “Sus” Ito, Nelson Akagi, George K. Fujimoto, Kenneth Takehara and Willie Tanamachi.

They were joined by Bob Peiser, a member of the replacement battalion of the 36th (Texas) Division for patrol duty and a former POW. The 36th, also known as the “Lost Battalion,” was rescued by members of the 442, including Sakai, Ito and Akagi.

Several educational opportunities are also offered to the public over the course of the five-week exhibit at Holocaust Museum Houston and Asia Society Texas Center.

Despite the holiday rush, the opening was attended by U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki; Rep. Al Green, representing the 9th Congressional District of Texas; Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, representing the 18th Congressional District; Houston Mayor Annise Parker; and City Councilmember Ellen Cohen, representing District C. The color guard from the National Buffalo Soldiers Museum, who presented the colors, the Jewish Veterans of the USA and staff members from Houston’s Michael E. DeBakey VAMC were also on hand to show support.

Shinseki, reflecting on his private viewing of the exhibit with the veterans in attendance, said, “The legacy of the men — living and deceased — whom we honor here today is a heritage of patriotism as old as the American Revolution and as new as the frontlines of freedom in Afghanistan. Their accomplishments are a uniquely American story that, thanks to the Smithsonian Institution, will be told and re-told for generations to come.”

Also taking part in the festivities were Dr. Konrad Ng, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center; Frederica “Fredie” Adelman of the Smithsonian; Dr. Kelly Zuniga, executive director of Holocaust Museum Houston; and Charles Foster, chairman of Asia Society Texas Center.

“We underscore the Smithsonian Institution’s deep commitment to chronicle the history of American civil rights and, in fact, to honor the very essence of our Constitution, by telling the story and contributions of Japanese Americans during World War II,” said Adelman.

At the conclusion of the tour, the Congressional Gold Medal will be on permanent display in “The Price of Freedom” exhibition at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

NVN Chairperson Christine Sato-Yamazaki, whose grandfather was a Nisei veteran, said, “We look forward to the opening of the Congressional Gold Medal  exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on Feb. 19, 2014 and our partnership with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center to develop a digital exhibit that will interpret and bring to life the stories of the Japanese American World War II veterans.”

The National Veterans Network is a coalition of Japanese American veteran and civic organizations representing eight regions in the U.S. that advocates on a national level to educate and enlighten the public about the experience and legacy of the Japanese American World War II soldiers.  For more information, visit www.nationalveteransnetwork.com.

Founded in 1846, the Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, nine research centers, and numerous educational and cultural programs. To learn more about the collaborating Smithsonian offices involved in this project, visit http://sites.si.edu, www.americanhistory.si.edu and www.apa.si.edu.

For more information about the Holocaust Museum Houston or the exhibition, call (713) 942-8000 or visit www.hmh.org.

World War II veterans Tommie Okabayashi of Houston, left, and Texas 36th serviceman Robert Peiser of Harlingen, Texas reunited during the opening ceremony of the Congressional Gold Medal Exhibit at Holocaust Museum Houston on Thursday. (Photo by Tom Shea)

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