OBITUARY: Vincent Okamoto, 76; Judge, Vietnam War Hero

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RAFU STAFF REPORT

Bravery, sacrifice and honor forged in the firefights of Vietnam informed the remarkable life of Superior Court Judge Vincent H. Okamoto, who passed away unexpectedly on Sunday. He was 76.

For his service in Vietnam, Vincent Okamoto was inducted into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame. He often spoke of the soldiers who never came home as the “real heroes.”

Okamoto was a 24-year-old lieutenant leading a platoon on Aug. 24, 1968 near Dầu Tiếng, when his unit came under attack by North Vietnamese troops. To protect his men, he led five men to plug a gap blown in the defensive perimeter by the enemy.

Realizing the need for supporting fire, he ran to a disabled armored personnel carrier and manned its heavy machine gun, pouring fire into the advancing enemy.

When the weapon became inoperable, he ran to a second damaged armored vehicle and manned its .50 cal. machine gun. This vehicle was on fire and could have detonated at any moment. The flames illuminated Okamoto and exposed him to more enemy fire. Yet he remained atop the APC, firing the machine gun until it ran out of ammunition.

Then, Okamoto ran to a third armored vehicle, removed the dead gunner from the turret, manned the heavy machine gun and resumed firing into the advancing enemy troops, blunting their attack until he ran out of ammunition.

In an act of courage Okamoto launched a one-man attack against the attackers. Arming himself with grenades, he crawled toward the enemy until he was only ten meters away from a heavy machine gun being set up to rake the American position. Okamoto destroyed the weapon and its gun crew with hand grenades.

He returned to the perimeter wounded, yet assisted another injured American soldier to the aid station. Refusing aid for himself, he returned to direct the defense of the threatened sector of the perimeter. His actions saved the lives of scores of his fellow Americans.

During his tour of duty, Okamoto was wounded three times and received 14 combat decorations, including the Distinguished Service Cross. In 2007, he was inducted into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame in Fort Benning, Ga. — the first Japanese American so honored since World War II. He memorably shared his experiences as a young soldier, including eating a bowl of rice for the first time in a long while, in the 2017 Ken Burns documentary “The Vietnam War.”

Judge Vincent Okamoto

At veterans’ gatherings, Okamoto would often speak about the “real heroes,” the young men who died too young, often the sons of working-class families who didn’t have wealth and privilege to let them avoid military service.

Okamoto wrote two books: “Wolfhound Samurai,” a novel based on the story of a Japanese American soldier during Vietnam, and “Forged in Fire,” the story of the friendship between Medal of Honor recipient Hershey Miyamura and Joe Annello during the Korean War.

Ken Hayashi, president of the JA Vietnam Veterans Memorial Committee, said Okamoto was the driving force behind the Japanese American Vietnam Veterans Wall at the JACCC. The black granite monument was the beginning of what is now the Japanese American National War Memorial Court, which honors JAs who perished in combat.

“Vince approached politicians, businessmen and community leaders, all of whom did not offer a home. The still remaining controversy of the long and unpopular war was an obstacle none wanted to be associated with. Through almost five years of rejection, Vince continued to persevere. Finally Min Tonai, then president of the JACCC, said ‘Yes’ and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial had a home. The Japanese American Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated on Nov. 11, 1995,” Hayashi said.

“He was a dear friend and I will miss him dearly, but the JA community and the country has lost an inspirational leader and role model,” Hayashi said.

At that dedication, Okamoto recalled visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., with his wife Mitzi and son Darby.

“We have a limit on the tomorrows allotted to us. I say to the veterans of Vietnam, let us put the tomorrows that remain to us to good use. To savor each day and not let the anger and bitterness of the Vietnam War poison our lives,” Okamoto said. “I hope, as veterans, that we can come to this place and find a sense of peace. I hope that a healing process can begin. I hope that this memorial will remind you what a precious gift life is. I hope you can bring your families here and allow yourself to accept the love and support they want to give you.”

Vincent Okamoto, joined by wife Mitzi, was honored as Nisei Week grand marshal in 2018. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

As news spread of Okamoto’s unexpected passing, friends and fellow veterans paid tribute.

“His eloquent voice of reason, logic and humor will be sorely missed,” stated David Miyoshi.

Mia Frances Yamamoto, posted on Facebook that she had lost a friend of more than 50 years. Both had served in Vietnam and attended law school after the war.

“He was the best, most soulful people I have ever known and I already miss him. Rest in Power, my good brother, you showed us a life well-lived,” Yamamoto said.

Okamoto was born on Nov. 22, 1943 in the Poston, Ariz. internment camp; the 10th child and the seventh son born to Japanese immigrants. All six of his older brothers served in the U.S. military. The eldest two fought in Europe during World War II with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Another brother volunteered for the Marines and fought in the Korean War.

After three years of active duty, Okamoto left the Army with the rank of captain. He attended the USC School of Law and served as a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney for five years before entering private practice.

Vincent Okamoto (center, standing) with fellow Japanese American Vietnam War veterans and Rep. Maxine Waters in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial replica in Gardena’s Mas Fukai Park in April 2018. (Courtesy of Terry Weber)

In the 1970s, as a deputy district attorney, Okamoto was among the founders of the Japanese American Bar Association. He also was elected to the Gardena City Council, and served on the board of the California Veterans Affairs Commission.

In 2002, Okamoto was appointed to the Los Angeles County Superior Court bench by Gov. Gray Davis. He submitted an application for a judgeship at the encouragement of his mentors, role models, and friends in the Japanese American legal community.

In 2018, Okamoto was named grand marshal of the Nisei Week Parade. That same year he spoke at the opening of a temporary display of a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Gardena.

His last public remarks were for the annual Memorial Day service at the JACCC, held this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hayashi explained that when organizers produced a video, they didn’t want to intrude on the judge during the shelter-at-home restrictions. And so his daughter Kristyn read Okamoto’s words, which offered comfort to families who have lost loved ones in combat.

“Recognize that unwritten beside each name is the broken heart of a mother, a father and the grief of family and loved ones left behind,” Okamoto wrote. “The wall serves to tell the parents of those who perished that we remember and honor their sons and share the pain of their loss.”

Okamoto’s survivors include his wife, Mitzi, and son, Darby.

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