Law Paves Way for 5 Medal of Honor Upgrades

Law Paves Way for 5 Medal of Honor Upgrades

Medal of Honor
Photo by: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Elizabeth Baker

Five soldiers could receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor, for their actions in Korea and Vietnam under the 2022 defense authorization bill.

Signed by President Joe Biden late last year, the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act also authorizes award upgrades for four soldiers who fought in Somalia during Operation Gothic Serpent, better known as the Battle of Mogadishu.

Any Medal of Honor must still be approved by the president, but the NDAA waives the time limit that requires the medals to be awarded within five years of the combat action. The same limitation applies to an upgrade to the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest valor award. The upgrades for the soldiers who fought in Somalia must be approved by the Army.

Medals of Honor 

These soldiers could be awarded the Medal of Honor:

* Pfc. Charles Johnson, who was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for valor, for his actions while serving with the 3rd Infantry Division in Korea.

On June 11–12, 1953, Johnson and his fellow soldiers came under a fierce enemy attack. “Ignoring his own injuries, he treated several wounded comrades, dragging one Soldier through the trenches while under direct artillery, mortar and small arms fire to a secure bunker, stopping only to clear the path of enemy soldiers in close combat operations,” the award citation says. 

* Pfc. Wataru Nakamura, who served with the 2nd Infantry Division, was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in Korea.

On May 17, 1951, Nakamura and his unit came under a “vicious attack” that cut off communications between the platoon and its company command post, according to the award citation. Fighting into the early morning hours of May 18, Nakamura volunteered to check and repair the damaged line. 

“Unaware that the enemy had infiltrated and captured heavily-fortified friendly positions, he moved forward until he came under a withering hail of hostile fire,” the citation says. “Disregarding his safety, he made a one-man assault, silencing a machine-gun and its crew with his carbine and bayonet and destroying two other enemy positions with grenades.”

When he ran out of ammunition, Nakamura fell back, briefed the officer in charge and replenished his ammunition and returned to the fight. “Supported by rifle fire, he wiped out an enemy position and attacked the remaining bunker, killing one and wounding another enemy soldier before he was mortally wounded by grenade fire,” the citation says. 

* Pvt. Bruno Orig was assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division, and he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in Korea.

On Feb. 15, 1951, Orig was on his way back from a mission when he saw several of his fellow soldiers wounded in a fierce enemy attack, according to the award citation. Orig rushed to help and remained in an exposed position to continue administering first aid. 

Orig then volunteered to man a machine gun and began laying down effective fire on the enemy.

“Later that day, when the lost ground was recaptured,” according to the citation, “Private Orig was found dead beside his weapon and the area in front of his gun was littered with enemy dead.”

* Spc. 5 Dennis Fujii was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions while serving as a crew chief aboard a helicopter ambulance with the 67th Medical Group in Vietnam.

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 award citation. Under heavy enemy fire, the helicopter crashed. A second helicopter landed 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.

Fujii waved off the helicopter and remained behind, the only American on the battlefield. During the night and throughout the next day, Fujii disregarded his own wounds and tended to the allied casualties.

The next night, when the allied perimeter came under another fierce assault, Fujii called in American gunships to help repel the attack. Over 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 air strikes against them,” the citation says. 

* Staff Sgt. Edward Kaneshiro, a member of the 1st Cavalry Division, was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in Vietnam.

On Dec. 1, 1966, Kaneshiro was a squad leader in an infantry platoon during a search and destroy mission. 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 award citation.

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

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.

Distinguished Service Crosses

The soldiers who could receive the Distinguished Service Cross would be recognized for their actions on Oct. 3–4, 1993, in Somalia. They are Sgt. 1st Class Earl Fillmore Jr., retired Col. Robert Mabry, Master Sgt. John Macejunas and retired Command Sgt. Maj. William Thetford.

A member of the Army’s elite 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, better known as Delta Force, Fillmore and his team fought through the streets of Mogadishu to reach the crash site of a downed MH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, his Silver Star award citation says.

Fillmore was fatally wounded as he defended his force. “As a direct result of his superior marksmanship and demonstrated bravery, many members of the assault force were spared injury or possible death,” the citation says. 

Mabry, who served for 11 years as an enlisted soldier, was an enlisted Delta Force medic during the operation in Somalia. He would go on to serve as a Special Forces battalion surgeon in Afghanistan and become an emergency physician and emergency medical services specialist. 

“Mogadishu was a big game changer for me,” Mabry said in a 2015 Army news article. “I have been driven to improve the care of soldiers on the battlefield since then.”

In Somalia, Macejunas led several efforts to find missing personnel from the downed Black Hawks, according to an account by Mark Bowden, who would write the book Black Hawk Down about the battle.

Thetford retired in 2019 after serving as the 14th command senior enlisted leader for U.S. Central Command. In addition to serving in the 75th Ranger Regiment, Thetford also was the senior enlisted leader for Joint Special Operations Command and later U.S. Special Operations Command.

These awards come after the Army announced last July that it had approved the upgrade of 60 awards for soldiers who fought in Somalia. Fifty-eight of the awards were upgraded to Silver Stars and two were upgraded to the Distinguished Flying Cross.