Military Roll of Valor Act of 2007

From the News Story Archive


March 1, 2008

His heroic efforts during the disaster earned Orozco the Navy Cross, one of the Navy's highest honors. But it wasn't the last time the young sailor saved the lives of his comrades.

War in the Yellow Sea

Orozco graduated from Santa Monica High School in June 1952, and at just 17, immediately enlisted in the Navy. "My older brothers were already in the Navy, and I figured I would just do the same," he said. The youngest Orozco brother was sent to the Navy base in San Diego for basic training and then to nearby Camp Elliott, a Marine base, for combat training.

"Even though we were in the Navy, they wanted to get us ready for ground combat just in case," Orozco said. "I guess they wanted us to be prepared for every kind of battle."

After several weeks of training, Orozco received orders to report to the Naval air station and board a plane bound for Pearl Harbor. Once he arrived in Hawaii, he was assigned duties aboard the USS Missouri, known to all who served aboard the battleship as "Mighty Mo."

By November 1952, Orozco and his shipmates were headed to active duty in the Yellow Sea outside of South Korea. The Missouri's crew provided shore combat to assist the American ground troops.

But shortly after their arrival, the Missouri came under attack. Orozco manned a 40 mm machine gun but was hit by an enemy bullet that ricocheted off the mount of his gun and landed in his back. "I just remember feeling the stinging and the burning," Orozco said. "I couldn't even really move right after I got hit." Orozco was transferred to a Navy hospital ship, where he remained for more than a month recovering from his wound.

When his wound healed, Orozco reported back to active duty, this time as a baker aboard the USS Ute, a supply ship and seagoing tug that provided support for other ships as well as ground troops stationed in Korea. But after only three months aboard the Ute, the ship sailed over the sea mine, and Orozco was wounded once again. (Note: there is no record of the UTE hitting a mine during the Korean War.) This time, the injuries were much worse, and there wasn't a hospital ship close enough to help.

Prison camp in South Korea

A North Korean ship was the first to arrive after the explosion, and enemy troops aboard took Orozco and the three shipmates he saved as prisoners. "We were all still bleeding pretty bad," Orozco said. "They gave us some medical care, but only enough to get by. They didn't really treat us enough to heal."

The four men were taken to a prison camp in Inchon, South Korea. (Note: Following MacArthur's brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon in the fall of 1950, Inchon was and remained in ALLIED hands.)

"I had no idea how many Americans had already been captured," Orozco said. "I got to the camp and saw so many other guys there, and it was a bad situation." The North Koreans provided little food for the prisoners and beat the wounded for their inability to work. Those who were able to work became slave laborers for the enemy troops. "I wasn't able to work because of how bad off I was after the explosion," Orozco said. "They ended up just feeding me leftover garbage they had."

In July 1953, two months after he was captured, Orozco and the other Inchon prisoners were greeted by U.S. Marines, who told them the war had ended.

"I had no idea that it had ended," Orozco said. "We were completely cut off from any communication, so it was a complete surprise. But a good one."

Orozco entered the Navy weighing 185 pounds and left the Inchon prison camp weighing only 85 pounds. He was sent to an American hospital in Japan, where he stayed for one year.

"I couldn't even walk by the time I got to the hospital," he said. "They gave me baby food to help me gain weight, and I crawled everywhere until I could walk again."

From Japan he was transferred to a Navy hospital in Bremerton, Wash., where he remained for one more year. It was an experience that changed his life, but one he wasn't ready to leave behind.

The war in Vietnam

Orozco re-enlisted in the Navy shortly after he finished recovering from his Korean War wounds. "I was proud of my service in Korea, and I wanted to make a career out of it," he said.

He was stationed aboard the USS Indiana in tours throughout the Pacific in the late 1950s and then served as a baker aboard the USS Hooper Island in routine tours in Japan and China.

When the war in Vietnam began to escalate, the Hooper Island provided supplies and first aid assistance for the ground troops fighting in the region. (The Hooper was Decommissioned, 15 July 1959, at San Diego, CA, and stricken from the Navy Register on 1 July 1960.)

While at sea just outside Khe Sanh, Vietnam, (NOTE: as virtually ALL RVN veterans know, Khe Sanh was nowhere NEAR the coast) in 1968, Orozco received orders to take food and supplies to shore, and bring wounded soldiers back to the ship for care.

But while helping the wounded on to the transport boat, Orozco was hit by shrapnel and was once again transferred to a Navy hospital ship, and then to the American hospital in Japan where he stayed one year.

After he healed, Orozco was sent back to the naval shipyard in Bremerton, and spent the next two years stationed aboard different ships throughout the Pacific. He retired in July 1972 after 20 years of service.

"I don't have any regrets about it, and I'm glad I served as long as I did," he said. "If I wasn't too old now, I'd go back in."

Ten years after he retired from the Navy, Orozco was notified he had been nominated to receive the Medal of Honor. He traveled to Washington, D.C., but was told his records had been misplaced. He has yet to receive the award.

But Orozco has chosen not to focus his time on the Medal of Honor. Instead, he has committed to paying tribute each year to his fallen comrades at Ventura's Memorial Day ceremony.

He also visits local schools to educate students about the blind after losing his own eyesight seven years ago from complications of diabetes.

"A lot of people don't know much about the blind or the white cane we use to get around," he said. "So I try to educate them as early as possible. It's a way for me to stay active while also helping others out."

Of War and Life is a twice-monthly column by Jannette Jauregui that tells the stories of Ventura County's veterans. Veterans who want to share their stories can contact her by e-mail at jmjaureg@callutheran.edu or by mail at Jannette Jauregui, c/o Ventura County Star editorial department, P.O. Box 6006, Camarillo, CA 93011.

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