By SVETLANA SHKOLNIKOVA • STARS AND STRIPES • July 4, 2022
WASHINGTON — One soldier led his unit through a deadly ambush in 1968. Another defended a besieged fire base in 1972. A third directed airstrikes after a crash landing in 1971. And a fourth single-handedly cleared a trench of enemy troops in 1966.
Together, the four men — Spc. 5th Class Dwight Birdwell, Maj. John J. Duffy, Spc. 5th Class Dennis M. Fujii and Staff Sgt. Edward N. Kaneshiro — will receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest battlefield honor, for their courage in the Vietnam War.
President Joe Biden on Tuesday will award the medal to three of the four Army veterans at the White House while Kaneshiro, who died during combat in 1967, will be honored posthumously.
More than 3,500 service members have received the Medal of Honor since its inception for each of the service branches in the 1860s.
“It’s not about me, I’m just part of the story,” Duffy said Sunday about the award. “It’s about the young gentleman who wants to join the military and find a career choice, which I did as a 17-year-old. It’s [about] inspiring him that anyone can do this.”
Birdwell sped to Tan Son Nhut Air Base with his unit expecting a fight with a small, unexperienced contingent of Viet Cong guerrillas. But the attack on the vital military installation near Saigon on Jan. 31, 1968, went far beyond a mere skirmish.
Hundreds of enemy soldiers had descended on the base in one of the first assaults of the Tet Offensive, a campaign of surprise attacks on the South Vietnamese army, U.S. troops and their allies. Birdwell’s unit found itself in the middle of a horseshoe ambush, caught in a crossfire of 700 enemy troops on one side and 300 on the other.
Gunfire ripped through the air, piercing bodies and vehicles. One of the bullets hit Birdwell’s tank commander and without hesitation, Birdwell pulled him to safety and took over the commander’s seat, according to the Army.
“That’s what I was trained to do,” he said. “I was trained to do my best and part of doing your best is to become a leader in a time of need and there was no one else left to do it. If I didn’t do it, who would? So it was me.”
Birdwell’s decision to assume control made him a target of the North Vietnamese. They were “very effective” that day of shooting those in command positions in the head, he said.
He vividly remembers the unique whining sound of bullets whizzing by him. The closer they got, the more they whined, he said.
“Sometimes I was scared,” Birdwell said. “But it’s what I was trained to do. It’s what I was told to do.”
He provided situation reports to his squadron leader and fired every weapon at his disposal, launching volleys from the tank’s cannon, machine gun and his rifle until all the ammunition was spent. Birdwell then dismounted and found his way to a downed American helicopter, retrieving two M60 machine guns and ammunition.
With another soldier, Birdwell continued the firefight from the top of a tank until the enemy blew his gun out of his hands. The explosion wounded Birdwell in the face and torso.
The injuries did not stop Birdwell from staying in the fight. He refused evacuation multiple times, at one point disembarking from a rescue helicopter packed with other wounded men just before takeoff.
Birdwell rejoined the battle to collect more ammunition for his comrades from damaged vehicles. He then led a small group of soldiers behind enemy lines, took cover behind a tree and threw hand grenades until reinforcements arrived.
Birdwell stayed on the battlefield to help with casualties and only left when he was ordered to seek care for his own injuries.
“Throughout the entire engagement, Birdwell repeatedly placed himself in extreme danger to protect his team and to defeat the enemy,” according to the Army.
Birdwell’s actions that day previously earned him the Silver Star, the third-highest military decoration for valor in combat. Other members of his unit had lobbied for an upgrade for years.
“It’s overwhelming,” Birdwell, a Native American, said of receiving the Medal of Honor. “It brings honor and credit to my creator, it brings credit to the Cherokee people, it brings credit to the U.S. Army, 25th Infantry Division, those I served with, those who were killed that day or were terribly maimed as well as their families… At least the families know that we did our job.”
Five months after the air base attack, Birdwell earned another Silver Star for putting his life on the line to rescue Americans stranded in an enemy-occupied village. He again exposed himself to enemy fire to load wounded troops into a damaged personnel carrier and returned for more rescues after seeing them to safety.
Birdwell left the Army on Dec. 29, 1968, and pursued a career in law, rising to chief justice of the Cherokee Nation Judicial Appeals Tribunal. He is now a practicing attorney in Oklahoma City.
Chuck Hoskin Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee nation, said Birdwell is the first Native American to earn the Medal of Honor for fighting in Vietnam.
“We’re tremendously proud of Dwight Birdwell as a fellow Cherokee,” Hoskin said. “He represents thousands of Cherokees over the generations who have served for or alongside this country in conflict for things that are important, just as Dwight did.”
Birdwell credits his upbringing in the Cherokee nation for prompting him to join the Army in high school and giving him the courage to put his life on the line for the United States.
“A lot of the older veterans from prior wars instilled in me the idea that you’ve got to serve and don’t you bring any dishonor to us or the Cherokee people,” Birdwell said. “So I wasn’t going to break.”
The siege of Fire Support Base Charlie in Kontum Province of South Vietnam began April 14, 1972. North Vietnamese soldiers first surrounded the encampment where Duffy was serving as a senior adviser to South Vietnamese paratroopers. Then the enemy unleashed a 24-hour bombardment.
Duffy, a Special Forces officer, could have left the base two days earlier. A battle that day had given him a concussion that he said felt like “three hangovers separated by whipped cream,” and killed the battalion commander and destroyed the battalion command post. Duffy was offered an evacuation but refused.
“I was a one-man team,” he said. “You had to have Americans to control the American air assets so there was no way that I was going to leave with the Vietnamese still there fighting. If I left, they would have been killed, destroyed without much effort.”
Duffy was also given specific orders before he deployed to the base: “Fight to the death.”
As a veteran of two previous combat tours, Duffy knew air support was crucial for defending the base. So Duffy moved close to the enemy’s anti-aircraft guns and started calling in airstrikes — nearly 200 of them.
Fragments from a rifle round punctured Duffy’s skin but he again refused to leave the battle.
“I was never frightened,” he said. “You volunteered, you trained, now do your job. It’s that simple… I was doing what I was trained to do and I was good at it and I knew I was good. So I was confident. When you’re confident, you’re in control and if you’re in control, you’re not going to panic.”
Duffy continued to put himself in the line of fire to direct aircraft at enemy positions even as the North Vietnamese launched a massive barrage of artillery. His targeting efforts eventually silenced the barrage, if only temporarily.
The respite gave Duffy an opportunity to survey the damage, ensure wounded South Vietnamese troops were moved to safety and distribute their ammunition to other defenders.
The enemy resumed its attack on the base with a burst of another 300 artillery rounds. In the late afternoon, ground forces stormed in from every direction. Duffy shifted from position to position to coordinate strikes and treat wounded South Vietnamese soldiers, spotting targets for artillery observers while dodging bullets.
When enemy forces advanced within 10 meters of him, Duffy directed American aircraft to launch runs on his position.
“They killed the battalion commander and almost killed myself,” he said.
In the early hours of April 15, the enemy rushed the South Vietnamese battalion and inflicted more casualties. Duffy helped hold off the ambush and with the enemy in pursuit, led the remaining service members, many of them heavily injured, on a nighttime escape down a mountain.
At the evacuation site, Duffy marked a landing zone for a helicopter and fended off the enemy for an hour. He was the last man to board the helicopter, remaining behind to adjust aircraft covering the evacuating troops until the last possible moment.
“They wanted me to get on first. I said, ‘I’ll be the last man out,’” Duffy said. “I had the radio, there was no other choice.”
As the helicopter lifted off, Duffy caught a South Vietnamese soldier falling off the aircraft and tended to a wounded helicopter gunner.
Duffy previously received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest award for valor in combat, for his actions on April 14-15, 1972. He later pursued a career in publishing, founded an investment firm and became a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet.
Duffy is reluctant to be called “heroic” for his performance on Fire Support Base Charlie, preferring to instead heap praise on the “bravery and heroism” of the airmen. Without them, Duffy was “just a rifleman” with some radios, he said.
He later paid homage to the men in a poem, writing, “It is the lonely mission, the forward air controller. His are the eyes above the battle. His is the link to those below.” The ode was inscribed on a memorial in 2008 to forward air controllers in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“Was I heroic? Well I survived, I was lucky,” Duffy said. “Yeah, if you want to call that heroic, I’ll go for it.”
Fujii was serving as the crew chief of a medevac helicopter when a group of seriously wounded Vietnamese troops called for rescue from a position of heavy fighting in a Laos valley on Feb. 18, 1971.
The helicopter made several passes over the battlefield, thick with smoke from artillery and mortars, before attempting to land.
“We started taking so much ground fire, I had never seen it in Vietnam. All the years I was there I had never, never seen anything like that,” Fujii said in a video interview the Army posted in 2018. Fujii deployed to Vietnam in 1968.
A torrent of enemy fire ripped through the helicopter as it finally managed to touch down. Fujii and the rest of the crew piled “screaming” Vietnamese troops onboard as fast as they could but as the aircraft attempted to lift off, mortar rounds brought it crashing to the ground.
Fujii scrambled off the helicopter with two other medics and sought cover in a nearby bunker. A mortar exploded near Fujii as he ran, injuring his shoulder. The second mortar hit was far more damaging.
A piece of shrapnel flew into Fujii’s eye as he dashed out of the bunker to another rescue helicopter arriving on the scene. Temporarily blind and dazed, Fujii fell back and watched helplessly as his crew, carrying two injured pilots, jumped in the aircraft.
“I knew that there was no way I could make it from where I was into the chopper,” he said. “And the longer I stayed there and waited, I was putting everybody at risk so I just waved the bird off.”
Fujii did not think the departing helicopter would survive the barrage of artillery but it did. As the chopper slowly disappeared into the distance, Fujii realized he was all alone.
“It scared me,” he said. “It scared me because the enemy wasn’t hiding, they were all out in the open.”
Plans to go back for Fujii were deemed too dangerous. He remained the lone American on the ground and spent the night and the next day providing first aid to injured South Vietnamese troops.
As night fell on Feb. 19, the enemy launched a ruthless artillery assault on the Vietnamese unit. Fujii found a radio and called in American helicopters to help defend the outmanned South Vietnamese allies.
For 17 hours, Fujii “repeatedly exposed himself to hostile fire as he left the security of his entrenchment to better observe enemy troop positions and to direct airstrikes against them,” according to his Distinguished Service Cross citation.
“At times, the fighting became so vicious that Specialist Fujii was forced to interrupt radio transmittal in order to place suppressive rifle fire on the enemy while at close quarters,” the citation read.
The South Vietnamese unit held on through the night. The next day, an American helicopter successfully landed to airlift Fujii and other injured military personnel from the area.
But the rescue was short-lived.
Enemy fire forced the air ambulance to make an emergency landing at another South Vietnamese base about 2 miles away. Fujii had to wait two more days for another ride out, finally departing on a helicopter on Feb. 22 to receive medical care.
The ordeal initially earned Fujii the Silver Star, later upgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross.
Fujii returned to his native Hawaii a week after his heroic acts and joined the Hawaii Army National Guard and the Pacific Army Reserve. He went on to work as a utilities and logistics technician at the Johnston Atoll Wildlife Refuge Island in the North Pacific.
Reflecting on his service years later, Fujii said he had no regrets about joining the military and fighting in Vietnam.
“I’d do it all over again,” he said. “I thought it was part of a young man’s obligation to our country. After all, freedom doesn’t come lightly and it doesn’t come cheap and I thought that I should do my fair share.”
Kaneshiro and his infantry squad entered the village of Phu Huu 2 on Dec. 1, 1966, on a search-and-destroy mission.
Some teams from the platoon deployed to the hamlet while Kaneshiro directed his team to scour the more open terrain in the east. None of them were aware that North Vietnamese troops had fortified the village with a camouflaged trench and bunker system teeming with a vastly larger force.
The enemy, seeing an opportunity for an ambush, opened fire. The hail of bullets killed the platoon leader and the point man, struck four others and pinned down the squads, according to the Army.
Kaneshiro rushed his troops toward the sound of gunfire. He saw most of the firepower coming from the main trench and realizing it had to be subdued to give troops a chance at survival, asked his men to cover him. Alone, he crawled forward to attack the enemy.
With his body pressed to the ground, Kaneshiro lobbed a series of grenades over the top of the trench. One fell into a bunker and killed the gunner who had started the firefight, silencing his machine gun.
Kaneshiro then jumped into the trench himself. He swept through 35 meters of the ditch, using his M16 rifle to destroy one enemy group and grenades to kill two others.
By the time Kaneshiro single-handedly cleared the trench, survivors of the other squads were standing and preparing to move the dead and wounded.
“Kaneshiro’s actions enabled the orderly extrication and reorganization of the platoon, which was the beginning of a larger action that ultimately led to a successful withdrawal from the village,” according to his Distinguished Service Cross citation.
Kaneshiro served in Vietnam until March 6, 1967, when he was shot and killed while trying to evacuate a fallen comrade. He was born in Hawaii and grew up working on his family’s farm alongside 16 siblings.
After stints with several civilian employers, Kaneshiro enlisted in the Army in 1959 and served in noncombat roles in Japan and South Korea. He was 38 years old at the time of his death and left behind his wife, Mitsuko, and five children.
Mitsuko, who died on April 10 at the age of 90, did not speak of her husband after his death. But she will be buried next to him at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii on July 22, Kaneshiro’s birthday.
“The grief was so profound and growing up it was sort of like an unspoken thing not to mention him because it was so, so tragic for her,” said Naomi Viloria, Kaneshiro’s daughter.
Viloria was eight when her father was killed and only remembers snippets of his personality — quiet and humble, with a love for fishing and photography. John Kaneshiro, Kaneshiro’s infant son, remembers nothing at all but believes his father’s military service subconsciously inspired him to join the Army and then the Army Reserve.
The Kaneshiro siblings spent decades pushing for the Medal of Honor to be awarded to their father. Viloria said she was overwhelmed when Biden called her with the good news.
“My whole body was shaking,” Viloria said. “Sometimes I try to imagine what [my dad] went through, like would I be able to do that? It’s very inspiring that he was just fearless or maybe he had fear but did it anyway. That takes a lot of courage, to do that alone. Since he was so humble, I believe in his mind he was just serving his country.”
Maj. Gen John B. Richardson, commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division, said Kaneshiro embodied the Army’s values of honor, duty to country and fighting for your fellow man by putting your own life at risk.
“He put deeds behind those words,” Richardson said. “We can now carry his story back to today’s troopers and share with them that these aren’t just words, these are actions and that’s what makes us the greatest Army in the world.”