HOUSTON -

During World War II, thousands of Japanese-Americans were sent to camps in the United States while thousands more were fighting for the country in the Pacific and Europe.

For the bravery and sacrifice of those soldiers, in 2011, their units were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

For the first time, that medal left the Smithsonian Museum for a seven-city tour. It makes a stop in Houston beginning Thursday at the Holocaust Museum Houston.

"On a daily basis using the lessons of the Holocaust, we teach people the dangers of hatred, prejudice and apathy," said Kelly Zuniga, executive director of the Holocaust Museum Houston.

One of the unique aspects about the Japanese Americans awarded the Congressional Gold Medal is while they were in Europe helping to liberate Jews, some of their family members were being interned back in the United States.

Many volunteers from those camps helped form the units that fought so bravely and became one of the most decorated in military history, earning more than 4,000 purple hearts and 21 Medals of Honor.  

Tommy Okabayoshi was born in Beaumont and grew up in Houston. While his family was not sent to a camp, he said he enlisted and spent two years in Europe to try to make a difference.

"I’m proud to have it," said Okabayoshi. "I'm glad that all of us got it. I thank everybody for pushing it through and getting it for us."

One those who pushed is Donna Fugimoto Cole, president of Cole Chemical and one of the exhibit sponsors whose life experience being bullied as a child in South Texas helped fuel her desire to spread the word.

"We know about the Navajo code talkers, we know about the great Tuskegee airmen, but hardly anybody knows about the Japanese-American veterans and the military intelligence service and their contribution to the war," said Cole.

"It's just fantastic we were finally recognized… after so many years," Okabayoshi said.

The "American Heroes: Japanese American World War II Nisei Soldiers and the Congressional Gold Medal" exhibit will be in Houston December 19 through January 26 at the Holocaust Museum Houston. The exhibit will be accompanied by public films, lectures and other presentations.

After its stop in Houston, the Congressional Gold Medal will be on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of History in Washington D.C.

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