Four Vietnam Vets to Receive Medals of Honor

Four Vietnam Vets to Receive Medals of Honor

Medal of Honor
Photo by: U.S. Army/Sgt. 1st Class Josephine Pride

More than 50 years after their heroic actions, four soldiers who fought in Vietnam will receive the Medal of Honor, the White House announced June 28.

President Joe Biden will recognize Staff Sgt. Edward Kaneshiro, Spc. 5 Dwight Birdwell, Spc. 5 Dennis Fujii and retired Maj. John Duffy with the nation’s highest award for valor July 5 at the White House.

Kaneshiro will be honored posthumously.

All four men had previously received awards for their actions in Vietnam—Kaneshiro, Fujii and Duffy received the Distinguished Service Cross, while Birdwell was awarded the Silver Star.

The upgrades are the result of extensive reviews of past valor awards to determine if a soldier’s actions merit a higher award. Additionally, the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision waiving the time limit that requires the medals be awarded within five years of the combat action for Kaneshiro and Fujii.

Staff Sgt. Edward Kaneshiro

On Dec. 1, 1966, Kaneshiro was an infantry squad leader with the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, on a search and destroy mission near Phu Huu 2 in Vietnam’s Kim Son Valley.

Two squads of soldiers entered a village that they didn’t know was heavily fortified and garrisoned by a much larger force of North Vietnamese troops, according to the citation accompanying his Distinguished Service Cross.

The enemy opened fire, killing the platoon leader and point man, wounding four others and pinning down the rest.

Kaneshiro and his men moved to the gunfire. Quickly assessing the situation, Kaneshiro crawled forward alone to attack a fully bunkered and concealed trench system the enemy was using to attack the soldiers.

Using grenades and his rifle, Kaneshiro silenced an enemy machine gunner and jumped into the trench to clear it, the citation says. “Over the distance of about 35 meters, he worked the ditch alone, destroying one enemy group with M-16 fire and two others with grenade fires,” the citation says.

His assault enabled his fellow soldiers to fall back, move the dead and wounded and reorganize, the citation says.  He died on March 6, 1967, from a hostile gunshot wound while serving in Vietnam, according to the White House.

Spc. 5 Dwight Birdwell

A citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Birdwell was serving with the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 25th Infantry Division, on Jan. 31, 1968, when a large enemy force attacked the Tan Son Nhut Airbase near Saigon, Vietnam, according to the White House.

Enemy fighters disabled or destroyed many of the unit’s vehicles and incapacitated Birdwell’s tank commander. Under heavy enemy fire, Birdwell moved the tank commander to safety and fired the tank’s weapons at the enemy, according to the White House.

After running out of ammunition, he jumped out of the tank, grabbed an M60 machine gun and continued fighting until he was wounded in his face and torso. Refusing evacuation, Birdwell led a small group of defenders to disrupt the enemy assault until reinforcements arrived, according to the White House.

Birdwell then helped evacuate the wounded until he was ordered to seek medical attention for his own wounds.

He received the Silver Star for his actions on that day. In all, he would earn two Silver Stars and two Purple Hearts during his time in Vietnam, according to the Oklahoma History Center.

He was honorably discharged on Dec. 29, 1968, and today practices law in Oklahoma City.

Receiving the Medal of Honor is “a bit overwhelming,” Birdwell told the Washington Post.

He also told the newspaper that he still replays the battle in his mind.

“I also think quite a bit about the bullets whizzing by me,” he said, according to the Post. “I can still hear that unique sound they make. It’s a bit terrifying. It stays with you.”

Spc. 5 Dennis Fujii

Fujii is being honored for his actions while serving as a crew chief aboard a helicopter ambulance with the 67th Medical Group during rescue operations in Laos and Vietnam from Feb. 18–22, 1971, according to the White House.

On Feb. 18, 1971, Fujii and his team were tasked with evacuating seriously wounded Vietnamese soldiers from a “raging battlefield” in Laos, according to the citation accompanying his Distinguished Service Cross.

As the helicopter approached, it came under heavy enemy fire and crashed. A second American helicopter landed near the wreckage and extracted all the downed crewmen except for a wounded Fujii, who was unable to board because of the intense enemy fire directed at him, the citation says.

Although injured, he waved off the other helicopter and remained behind as the only American on the battlefield, according to the White House. 

During the night and throughout the next day, Fujii disregarded his own wounds and tended to the allied casualties. The next night, the allied perimeter came under another fierce assault. Fujii got a radio transmitter and called in American gunships to help repel the attack.

For more than 17 hours, he repeatedly exposed himself to hostile fire as he left the security of his entrenchment to better observe enemy troop positions and to direct air strikes against them until an American helicopter could attempt to airlift him from the area, according to the White House. 

When he was finally rescued on Feb. 20, the helicopter he was in came under heavy enemy fire and was forced to crash land at another South Vietnamese Ranger base. Fujii stayed at the camp for two more days until another helicopter could fly him to safety.

Upon completion of his tour, Fujii joined the Army Reserve and today resides in Hawaii, according to the White House.

Maj. John Duffy

Duffy, who served multiple tours in Vietnam in various Special Forces assignments, is being honored for his actions on April 14–15, 1972, while serving as the senior adviser to the South Vietnamese army’s 11th Airborne Battalion, 2nd Brigade, Airborne Division.

Two days earlier, the commander of the 11th Airborne Battalion had been killed, the battalion command post destroyed, and Duffy was twice wounded, but he refused to be evacuated, according to the White House.

Early on April 14, after a failed effort to establish a landing zone for resupply aircraft, Duffy moved close to enemy anti-aircraft positions to call in airstrikes and was wounded again, but he still refused evacuation.

When the enemy launched a ground assault from all sides later that day, Duffy moved from position to position to adjust fire, spot targets for artillery and direct gunship fire, according to the White House.  He “ignored the massive small-arms fire as he adjusted gunships and artillery on the advancing enemy formations,” according to his Distinguished Service Cross citation. “When the enemy finally gained control of a portion of the base and advanced to within ten meters of his position, Major Duffy had the supporting gunships make a run directly on him.”

In the early morning of April 15, after an enemy ambush, Duffy led evacuees, many of them seriously wounded, to an evacuation area where he directed gunship fire on enemy positions and marked a landing zone for the helicopters.

Only after ensuring all evacuees were aboard did he board as well, assisting a wounded friendly foreign soldier and administering aid to a wounded helicopter door gunner.

A resident of Santa Cruz, California, Duffy retired from the Army on May 31, 1977, but he remains connected to his fellow soldiers.

In March 2016, two Army Cobra helicopter pilots who came to Duffy’s aid received the Silver Star for their actions on April 14, 1972.

Retired Col. William Reeder Jr. and retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Daniel Jones received their awards after Duffy reached out to his congressman upon learning the pilots had not been recognized for their actions, according to the Army.

“These two men refueled and rearmed and returned to bring fire upon the advancing North Vietnamese,” Duffy said at the time. “They were flying those Cobras at the treetops and being fired on from a ridge above, as well as taking on ground fire from small arms and anti-aircraft positions.”