WASHINGTON — Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Vincent Okamoto was honored as one of the “Heroes of America” by the American Veterans Center during an awards ceremony on Nov. 6.
Over 500 people, including veterans and their families, generals, admirals, celebrities Kevin Spacey and Julianne Moore, and cadets from West Point and the Air Force Academy, gathered to honor the veterans.
TV personality Pat Sajak, via CCTV, introduced Okamoto, recognizing his extraordinary heroism in the Vietnam War, for which he received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor.
The citation reads, in part: “On Aug. 24, 1968, his unit’s night perimeter was hit by an intense barrage of mortars, RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and small arms fire, followed by a ground attack by three companies of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese infantry. The initial attack destroyed a strategic section of the perimeter, destroying two bunker positions, three armored personnel carriers, and a tank, creating a gap in the barbed wire through which the enemy could enter and overrun the American position.
“Lt. Okamoto, under heavy enemy fire, with complete disregard for his own safety, left his bunker and led five of his men to restore this vital position. Realizing the need for suppressive counter-fire, he ran to a partially destroyed armored personnel carrier and manned its machine gun, firing on the North Vietnamese until it ran out of ammunition.
“He then ran to a second APC and manned its machine gun, continuing to pour fire into the advancing enemy until the weapon malfunctioned. Lt. Okamoto then ran to a third APC and manned its machine gun and continued pouring out withering suppressive fire, blunting the enemy assault.
“Spying another group of North Vietnamese soldiers maneuvering toward the American perimeter, Lt. Okamoto crawled under heavy AK-47 and RPG fire to within ten meters of the North Vietnamese and destroyed them with fragmentation grenades. Returning to the perimeter, he resumed directing the defense, holding back the attacking enemy infantry.
“Although wounded, he refused medical aid and kept fighting until the enemy was forced to withdraw. Lt. Okamoto’s extraordinary heroism kept the American position from being overrun, thereby saving dozens of American lives, and reflects great credit on himself, the Rangers and the U.S. Army. Several eyewitnesses recommended Okamoto for the Medal of Honor.”
In addition to the DSC, Okamoto received 14 combat decorations, including the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, and three Purple Hearts. After three years of active duty, Okamoto left the Army with the rank of captain.
Okamoto was born in a “relocation center” during World War II, the tenth child and seventh son of Japanese immigrants. All six of his older brothers served in the military, the two eldest with the Army’s famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a racially segregated unit that went on to become the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in U.S. military history. Another brother volunteered for the Marine Corps and fought in the Korean War.
“There was that tradition of the 442nd … Many of them came out of the internment camps, volunteered to fight for their parents and their families who were locked up behind barbed wire for three years,” Okamoto said during the ceremony. “And that was a big part. They had to show that they were loyal Americans, that they were prepared to sacrifice to prove it, and they did.
“I think the critical lesson is that the people and the government of this nation collectively had better prepared to support our troops when they go into combat, both during the war and when they return. That was not the case for many of the returning Vietnam veterans. They survived a year in Vietnam, they came back and met cold indifference or over hostility. But they were magnificent soldiers and they gave their all for this country.
“What I think a lot of Vietnam veterans are proud of is that it took years but the public, I think, accepted the fact that they had treated the Vietnam veterans shabbily. I think that transformed itself into today, when you go to the airport or you go to a bus terminal and you see a young man or woman in uniform, and someone comes up, shakes their hand and says, ‘Thank you for your service.’
“I think if those words could have been heard by a lot of young Vietnam veterans, their lives would have been substantially changed. But we did our bit, that’s passed. We have young men and women now going off to war. So again, the government that sends them and the people that allow them to go had better be prepared to support them and respect them.”
Okamoto graduated from USC Law School and served as deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County. He won election to the Gardena City Council and served as mayor pro tem.
For his work helping veterans suffering from PTSD and to obtain veterans’ benefits, Okamoto received a presidential commendation from President Ronald Reagan. In 2000, he was honored as Man of the Year by the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute.
He was appointed a Superior Court judge by Gov. Gray Davis in 2002. In 2006, he was honored as UCLA ROTC’s most decorated alumnus and selected as Los Angeles County Veteran of the Year. In 2007, Okamoto was inducted into the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame at Fort Benning in Georgia.
He has served on the boards of many charitable nonprofit organizations and corporations, and was one of the founding members of the Japanese American Bar Association.
Okamoto is the author of “Wolfhound Samurai,” a novel of the Vietnam War, and “Forged in Fire,” the story of Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura, a recipient of the Medal of Honor in the Korean War. Okamoto has lectured on the Vietnam War in the history departments of UCLA, CSU Fullerton and Loyola Law School, and at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
He and his wife Mitzi and their mutt Iggy live in Torrance. They have one son, Darby, and two grandchildren, Penny and Derek.
The other honorees were:
– Surviving veterans of Pearl Harbor (U.S. Navy), representing all who served in the epic battle that plunged the U.S. into World War II 75 years ago;
– James McEachin (U.S. Army), recipient of the Silver Star and Purple Heart for valor in Korea and an award-winning author and actor;
– Maj. Scott Smiley (U.S. Army), the first active-duty blind officer in Army history after being wounded while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom;
– Lt. Col. Richard Cole (U.S. Army Air Forces), co-pilot of Jimmy Doolittle on the Doolittle on the legendary Doolittle Raid of 1942 and the last survivor of the 80 Doolittle Raiders;
– Kenneth Fisher, chairman and CEO of Fisher House Foundation and chairman of the Organizing Committee of Invictus Games 2016;
– Col. Charles McGee (U.S. Army Air Forces), one of the Tuskegee Airmen, who flew a record 409 combat missions in World War II, Korea and Vietnam;
– Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts (U.S. Army), a Medal of Honor recipient for valor in Afghanistan;
– Maj. Heather Penney (U.S. Air Force), one of the first female combat pilots in the Air Force, who flew on a mission to intercept the hijacked Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001.
The awards ceremony can be viewed online at www.americanveteranscenter.org.