Proving Loyalty: Vincent Okamoto in Vietnam

Imagine being born in a concentration camp. Now imagine your family being placed there by your government only because of your cultural heritage. How would you prove your loyalty to the country that put you there? That is what happened to Vincent Okamoto and his family in 1943 at the outbreak of World War II.

vincent-okamoto-1968

Vincent Okamoto, Vietnam 1970 photo credit Japanese American Veterans Association

Lesson of Loyalty

Japanese-American Vincent Okamoto was the youngest of ten children when he was born at the Poston Internment Camp in Arizona. He was the youngest 7th son of a total of 10 kids. It was a spartan existence with close sleeping arrangements, a communal toilet and dining facilities in an austere environment.

When Okamoto was two years of age, the government released his family from the camp. However, his parents shared a valuable lesson- the importance of loyalty. An interviewer asked Okamoto in December 2017 if there was any lingering bitterness toward the U.S. with their treatment. Okamoto said, “…one of the things I’m most grateful to my family; there was no bitterness….their message to us was ‘this is our country, and if necessary, we need to fight for it.’” That is precisely what all seven brothers did.

Two of the elder Okamoto brothers volunteered for WWII and fought with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an infantry unit comprised of all Japanese-Americans. The unit is one of the most highly decorated in U.S. history. Another brother fought in the Korean War with the U.S. Marine Corps. The tradition of service and loyalty to country held true with young Vincent Okamoto as well.

Loyalty to Country

After graduating from University of Southern California (USC), Vincent Okamoto earned his commission as an officer in 1967 via the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). By this time, the Vietnam War was in full swing. 2nd Lieutenant Okamoto wanted the best training offered by the U.S. Army and completed the airborne, ranger and infantry schools. By 1968, he was leading a platoon in the dense jungles of Vietnam with Company B, 2d Battalion, 27th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division, a.k.a, the “Wolfhound Battalion.”

vincent-okamoto-1970

2nd Lt. Vincent Okamoto 1970 photo credit, www.discovernikkei.org

Loyalty to Unit

On Aug 24, 1968, Okamoto’s rifle company was located in Southwest Vietnam and tasked with supporting a Fire Support Base. The base was located a half-mile from Cambodian border to stem the influx of enemy entering the country along the Ho Chi Minh trail. At 10 pm, the jungle erupted with accurate and deadly mortar attack supported by rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire from the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Shrapnel and hot lead filled the air as the Soldiers hugged the ground and ducked into their fortified bunkers.

Not long after the attack began, the defense on the North side of the base started to collapse. The NVA was close to taking the base. Lieutenant Okamoto’s platoon held the Southern sector of the base, but he could see the defense failing. Grabbing five of his best men, Okamoto left the cover of his bunker and moved to support the North sector. By the time he arrived, the enemy fire had hit the Soldiers manning the machine guns in three armored personnel carriers (APCs).

Loyalty to Warriors

Suppressive fire was vital to the defense. Okamoto jumped into the APC and began returning fire. Bullets ricocheted from the sides of the vehicle and turret. His machine gun was hit and inoperable. The concussion of the impact tossed him back, but he was not seriously injured. He continued to the second APC, ran out of ammo, and manned the third. At the third APC continued to fight until he ran out of ammo and observed the NVA setting up a machine gun position.

Okamoto jumped to the ground and crawled towards the machine gun and into a ditch to within 30 feet of the machine gun. He tossed four hand grenades and destroyed the crew manning the machine gun. The enemy detected Okamoto and responded with a hand grenade. The explosion wounded Okamoto in the back and legs, but it was not fatal. He was able to crawl back to the cover of a bunker and continue to fight.

By twilight the next day, air support beat back the enemy and help poured into the base. Helicopters began the evacuation of the wounded by daylight. Of the 150 men, a total of 40 U.S. Soldiers died that night. Okamoto recovered from his injuries that day. He was promoted to Captain and went on to fight the rest of his combat tour. He was wounded in combat a total of 3 times, being awarded the Purple Heart for each incident. The Army recognized Okamoto for his courage. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Bronze Star making him the most highly decorated Japanese-American alive today.

Vincent-Okamoto-2016

Vincent Okamoto photo by C-SPAN 2016

Lifetime of Loyalty

After returning from Vietnam, Vincent Okamoto returned to USC to earn his law degree. It was a confusing time in U.S. history. He disagreed with how American citizens treated loyal warriors when they arrived home. He also disagreed with the prosecution of the war by the government. Okamoto’s loyalty never faltered. He continues to serve a country that interred his family, sent his brothers to war and fought in one himself.

After graduating from law school, Okamoto practiced law with a private firm. He became a prosecutor and later appointed as a judge for Los Angeles Superior Court. He continued to serve the community on veterans boards and city government. Okamoto was instrumental in his support of the Japanese American Vietnam War Veterans Memorial at the National Japanese American Memorial Court.

Loyalty is a powerful virtue. It can propel us to take extreme measures to prove allegiance. That is what Vincent Okamoto’s family has shown over a lifetime. Bearing true faith and allegiance is a matter of believing in and devoting yourself to something or someone. A loyal patriot is one who supports the country and stands up for fellow countrymen. Okamoto’s provides a powerful message to the idea of loyalty to a country that doesn’t always seem fair. It is vital that we remember those who demonstrated support for our Nation in the gravest of circumstances. It helps to put our own lives in perspective.

If you want to learn more, check out this interview from the American Veterans Center by clicking HERE.

If you enjoyed this story and want to stay connected with me, subscribe to my newsletter, The Dispatch by clicking HERE.