By Ronald Penh
Vincent Okamoto was a Vietnam war hero and/decorated Vietnam War veteran that became a judge at the Los Angeles Superior Court after his service. He died on Sunday, Sept. 27 at the age of 76.
Born in a relocation camp during WW2, Okamoto grew up to fight for his country, as did all six of his older brothers. Two of his brothers fought in Europe during WW2 with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a combat unit that was best known for being almost entirely composed of second-generation Japanese-Americans. Another brother served in the Korean War, while Okamoto would go on to serve in Vietnam in the late 1960s.
During his service, Okamoto was wounded twice and made 22 helicopter combat assaults, four of them as commander of Bravo Company. The success or failure of a given mission was measured by enemy body count. “Field commanders were told very succinctly,” Okamoto recalled. “We needed to rack up as much body count as we could. How many enemies did you kill today? A kill ratio determined whether or not you called a firefight a victory or a loss. If you kill twenty North Vietnamese or Vietcong and lost only two people, they declared it a great victory.”
Okamoto received the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S. Army’ second highest honor. He also received a Silver Star Medal and two Bronze Star Medals for valor and several Purple Heart Medals. By the end of the war, he was the most highly decorated Japanese-American to survive the Vietnam War. He was inducted into the Army’s Ranger Hall of Fame in 2007.
For Okamoto, the real heroes were the men who died — the teenage dropouts that didn’t have enough wealth to exempt them from service.
Following his discharge from service in 1970, Okamoto attended law school. He became a district deputy attorney in the mid-1970s and was one of the few Japanese-American trial lawyers at the time.
Okamoto took part in the founding of the Japanese American Bar Association and emphasized the need for role models for younger people in the community.
In addition, Okamoto served as a councilman for the city of Gardena and was a member of the Board of Directors for the California Veterans Affairs Commission. He also played a significant role in the establishment of the Japanese American Vietnam Veterans Wall at the Japanese American Community Cultural Center.
In 2002, California Governor Gray Davis appointed Okamoto to the Los Angeles County Superior Bench.
After Okamoto’s family was released from the relocation camp in 1945, they moved to Gardena, California when he was 12 years old. He attended Gardena High School, served as senior class president, was a three-year letterman in track and football, and belonged to the Men’s Honor Society.
Okamoto attended El Camino College from 1962 to 1965. And from 1965 to 1967, he attended the University of Southern California and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations in 1967.