World War II hero was never 'enemy'

James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle
Houstonian Tsutomu “Tommie” Okabayashi, 87, received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011 for WWII service.

By Erin Mulvaney

Houston Chronicle, Saturday, January 12, 2013

Tsutomu Okabayashi’s father had spent months behind the barbed wire of a South Texas internment camp, sent there a year after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. It was one of the saddest times of Okabayashi’s life. But after his father was released, the then-19-year-old Houston son decided to enlist in the military and serve the country that treated his family as the enemy. “My father had mixed feelings when I went into the 442 unit, but I felt it was my duty. " Then Okabayashi said. "I hoped it would make live better for my family in Houston."

This weekend, the 87-year-old will share his story of serving on the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of three segregated units of mostly Japanese-Americans that received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011. He’ll be in New Orleans, where the medal begins a yearlong tour across the country. Congress also recognized the 100th Infantry Battalion and the Military Intelligence Service.

The tour, organized by the Smithsonian and the National Veterans Network, shares the story of the more than 19,000 Japanese-American soldiers who fought on the battlefields in Europe, even while many faced discrimination and many of their families were being held in internment camps back home.

Okabayashi is one of two Houstonians making the trip. George Fujimoto, 92, joined the 442nd after serving in the Army at Fort Riley in Kansas.


The 442nd team, known as the “Go For Broke” regiment, is one of the most highly decorated units in U.S. history. Members were recognized for their exceptional service, sacrifice and loyalty to the U.S. The regiments earned more than 4,000 Purple Hearts, 560 Silver Stars, seven Presidential Unit Citations and 21 Medals of Honor.

After the end of the tour, which will make a stop at Houston’s Holocaust Museum, 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.

Tsutomu “Tommie” Okabayashi was born near Beaumont and spent the majority of his life in Houston. He served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1945 and fought in Italy and France with the Cannon Company, who knew him affectionately as “Tex” because of his strong accent.

While in the Army, Okabayashi received the Bronze Star as well as unit citations and campaign medals. Okabayashi keeps a short Houston Chronicle article from Oct. 7, 1945, that describes how he received the Bronze Star for heroic achievement in France as a member of the “famed Japanese-American 442nd combat team.”

He received the medal while in Italy, where members of the 442nd were guarding German prisoners of war, according to the article.

Upon returning to Texas after being discharged from the Army, Okabayashi worked on the family vegetable farm in Houston. He later worked as a brick mason and retired in 2011 from his work as an auto mechanic.

He now lives in Houston near his four children, seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren. He bowls in two leagues.

He said he feels proud of his regiment for helping diminish the prejudice against Japanese-Americans during the war.

“All the rest of the boys in combat really deserve it,” he said. “I’m glad for the whole bunch.”