Melvin “Mike” Tomita had lots of nicknames, but to his Honolulu firefighter buddies at Hawaii Kai Station No. 34, he was known as “da BULL.”

He was a strong, solid fellow in his prime, and for years his youngest daughter Roxsanne Ruff-Tomita figured the station crew called him that because of his build. She figured out the truth much later.

Tomita, 87, was a Vietnam veteran, a recipient of the Bronze Star, and a man of many talents. He was a former Army cook who mixed top-tier poke and tako, and had a fine singing voice. He played harmonica, loved to gamble and led tour groups to Las Vegas when he wasn’t working as a firefighter.

Last year Tomita suffered a stroke and needed help with rehabilitation, which is why he was living at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo last month when COVID-19 began to rage through the facility, infecting staff and residents.

Tomita tested negative for the coronavirus four times, and was housed on the second floor with the residents who were not infected, Ruff-Tomita said. On the afternoon of Sept. 3, he had a virtual visit on Zoom with family members including his cousin Daniel, who is pastor at Kinoole Baptist Church in Hilo. They prayed together.

Melvin “Mike” Tomita with his youngest daughter, Roxsanne Ruff-Tomita. Melvin Tomita is one of 12 residents of the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home who died after becoming infected with COVID-19 as of Saturday. Courtesy: Roxsanne Mie Ruff-Tomita

“Looking back, it was just wonderful that we all got to pray with my dad. … We didn’t know it, but that was the last time we saw him,” Ruff-Tomita said.

That evening, he was admitted to Hilo Medical Center with a fever, and he had difficulty breathing. He tested positive for COVID-19 at the hospital, and was placed on a respirator.

Ruff-Tomita said she stood outside her father’s room in the COVID-19 unit of the hospital emergency room for hours that night, watching him through the window. She was not allowed inside, but she texted the nurse the words to say in her father’s ear.

The nurse told him, “Roxsanne said you can go. Daddy, go home, it’s OK, you can go home,” said Ruff-Tomita, who cried as she described the moment. “My dad kept calling to me.” Tomita died shortly after 1 a.m. on Sept. 4.

Alarms Are Being Raised

There have now been 12 deaths among the Okutsu veterans infected with the coronavirus including Tomita, and a total of 66 residents and 27 staff members at the care home had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Saturday.

Yukio Okutsu Veterans Home in Hilo is the site of a large outbreak of COVID-19. Photo: Tim Wright
Yukio Okutsu Veterans Home in Hilo is the site of a large outbreak of COVID-19. Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2020

The death toll at Okutsu has prompted U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz to call on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to intervene. Schatz announced Friday the VA mobilized a team of infection control experts, nurses, and other health care professionals to provide support at the veterans home.

Okutsu is operated by Avalon Health Care Management, and on Saturday Schatz urged Avalon to review its staffing and improve its infection control practices. He noted there have been infections reported at all three care homes that Avalon operates in Hawaii, which are Okutsu in Hilo and the Avalon Care Center and Hale Nani Rehabilitation & Nursing Center in Honolulu.

Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim went even further on Saturday, calling for the state to suspend Avalon as the manager of the Okutsu care home until a review of the operation is completed.

Kim said additional infections of staff and residents were reported Saturday morning, and called on the state to bring in a replacement administrator to fix problems that were identified in a state review of the operation last week.

“What is happening is a sadness to the families and the veterans who are there that cannot ever, ever be corrected,” Kim told reporters. “The only thing I hope for now is that we will prevent any further harm.”

He said in an interview that staff from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency mentioned there were shortcomings in the controls over the movements of staff, including some who work in other facilities.

Tomita with Catherine, his wife of 50 years. Courtesy: Roxsanne Ruff-Tomita

Avalon spokeswoman Allison Griffiths said members of the VA team were at the home Friday along with the long-term care lead physician from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. Avalon expects the outside experts will provide guidance, she said.

Schatz said the VA team will assess the home for infection control issues, and make recommendations for interventions and changes in procedures to address an outbreak.

“We appreciate the support and collaboration of the state and the VA and welcome any thoughts or proposed improvements that they have,” Griffiths said.

Tomita’s family held an online final viewing of Tomita on Wednesday with only eight people present in person, with social distancing and a sign language interpreter for some family members who are deaf.

The family plans to hold a full service with military honors at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl when the pandemic finally lets up. Tomita’s wife Catherine, who died in 2002 shortly after the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary, is already interred at Punchbowl.

“My dad’s thing was pono,” said Ruff-Tomita. “He has a hat that he wore forever that said ‘Pono,’ do the right thing. That’s my dad. That’s him.”

From Vietnam To The HFD

Tomita was born June 25, 1933 at Puunene Hospital on Maui, a sansei or third generation American of Japanese ancestry. The oldest of four children, Tomita’s father was a stevedore, and Tomita learned to love to cook from his grandmother.

Melvin Tomita with his family as he prepared to depart for Vietnam at age 35. From left, family members are daughters Gail and Roxsanne, Tomita, his wife Catherine, daughter Lauren, and son Mikey. Courtesy: Roxsanne Mie Ruff-Tomita

He graduated from Baldwin High School in Wailuku in 1951, and married Catherine Itsuko Arai in 1952. He worked selling and repairing typewriters on Maui and in Honolulu, and joined the Army National Guard in 1952.

Years later he transferred to the U.S. Army Reserves and the 100th Battalion 442nd Infantry Regiment, and his unit was activated for service in Vietnam in May 1968.

By then, Tomita was 35 years old and the father of four children — Mikey, Gail, Lauren and Roxsanne — and was suddenly shipped off to a combat zone overseas. He was a mess sergeant in Vietnam, Ruff-Tomita said, but ended up in some frightening situations.

He was serving in Cu Chi about 20 miles northwest of Saigon during the Tet attacks of 1969 when rockets and mortars pelted the base that served as headquarters for the 25th Infantry Division, and squads of attackers managed to sneak on base one night to blow up or damage more than a dozen helicopters.

Records filed with the Department of Veterans Affairs include an account by Tomita of another incident when he was assigned to Tay Ninh near the Cambodian border, and incoming artillery began to tear into the base.

“I didn’t know which way to run … which way it was coming,” Tomita said. “I dove … one hit about 25 yards away from me … I had a concussion from the blast. I was taken to surgery … I had a head wound and was bleeding.”

In all, Tomita served for 32 years in the National Guard, Army Reserves and on active duty, and ended his military career with the rank of warrant officer.

When Tomita returned from Vietnam, he joined the Honolulu Fire Department, where he was a fire engineer and equipment operator. He was described as the “family cook” for the Hawaii Kai Station, and retired from the department in 1991.

He loved sports, and after leaving the fire department worked as a golf course marshal for a time, said his daughter.

Ruff-Tomita said her father refused to talk about the war, and never even told her what he did to earn the Bronze Star, which is awarded for heroic and meritorious deeds performed in an armed conflict.

Melvin Tomita, a Vietnam veteran and Bronze Star recipient was a resident of the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home until he died Sept. 4. Tomita loved to gamble, and led tour groups on excursions to Las Vegas. Courtesy: Roxsanne Mie Ruff-Tomita

She knew he disliked loud noises, which made him jumpy, and he often could not sleep, especially late in his life. But he would light up when mingling and talking story with friends.

The nickname of “da BULL” was given to Tomita by Richard “Black” Perry, the longtime president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association and a close friend of Tomita. Perry was a fire captain at Hawaii Kai Station, and the two men were neighbors.

When Black Perry was first assigned to the station, he was told by the firefighters that “this guy is the bull over here,” recalled Perry’s son, Rick. Black Perry was a large and imposing man himself, and perhaps that sounded a bit like a challenge.  When he met Tomita, Black Perry exclaimed, “Who’s the bull? You the bullshit.”

That nickname stuck for all those years because “he bullshits,” said Ruff-Tomita. “Long stories, it’s a Tomita thing.”

“When I was little, I never really believed anything my dad said,” she said. “My dad loves to tell stories, he’s just a big story teller, but nothing he said, I believed.”

She recalled that Tomita once convinced one of his daughters that she and her siblings were part-Hawaiian, which was flat-out false, his daughter said.

Tomita is survived by his brother Paul (Joy) Tomita of Monterey Park, California; sister-in-law Harriet (Calvin) Goshi of California; son Mikey Tomita of Kahului; daughters Gail (Derrick) Nakahara of Centralia, Washington, Lauren Tomita of Washington, and Roxsanne (Randy) Ruff-Tomita of Paauilo; hanai daughter Trudy Morita of Griffin, Georgia.; nephews Kevin and Kyle of Monterey Park, California; 11 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

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