Biden awards Medal of Honor to Vietnam soldiers for ‘incredible heroism’
By Michael D. Shear
President Joe Biden earlier this week honored four Vietnam-era soldiers for what he called “acts of incredible heroism,” bestowing on them the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military honor, nearly a half-century after the end of the conflict in Southeast Asia.
At a somber ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Biden recounted the acts of bravery of the four men, one of whom was killed in action in Vietnam just three months after he helped evacuate his platoon from a village while under heavy enemy fire.
“I mean, it’s just astounding when you hear what each of them have done,” Biden said, announcing the awards in front of an audience that included three other Medal of Honor recipients. “They went far above and beyond the call of duty. It’s a phrase always used, but it just, it takes on life when you see these men.”
The ceremony Tuesday marked the third time Biden has bestowed the medal on service members. In May 2021, the president honored retired Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., a veteran of the Korean War, for holding a hill near Unsan over two days in November 1950. In December, Biden awarded the Medal of Honor to three Army soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This week, Biden turned his attention to those who served in Vietnam.
Edward N. Kaneshiro, a staff sergeant in the Army, was an infantry squad leader when he and his men were ambushed inside a village. Biden described how Kaneshiro single-handedly cleared an enemy trench using six hand grenades and his M16 rifle, making it possible for his men and two other squads to escape and regroup.
He was killed in action during another operation.
“His memory lives on in the lives he saved, in the legend of his fearlessness,” the president said.
Dwight W. Birdwell, an Army specialist, helped to drive back as many as 1,000 enemy troops during an assault on a Saigon base during the Tet Offensive in January 1968, using his tank’s machine gun and his own M16. After being wounded and ordered onto a medevac helicopter, Biden recounted, Birdwell slipped out the other side of the helicopter to continue fighting.
After returning to the United States from Vietnam, Birdwell, a member of the Cherokee nation, started a law firm and later served for 12 years on the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court.
“I’m grateful for all you’ve given our country and that at long last, your story’s been honored as it should have been always,” Biden said.
Dennis M. Fujii, an Army specialist, was a crew chief of a helicopter ambulance that was shot down in Laos in 1971, landing in the middle of a firefight. Rescue helicopters were unable to get to the wounded Fujii, who later waved off more attempts as too dangerous, Biden told the audience Tuesday. He stayed to tend to other wounded soldiers for two days, and when the rescue helicopter was finally able to retrieve him, it too was shot down about 4 miles away, stranding him for two more days.
“Specialist Fujii downplayed his own contributions and honored the skills of the allied Vietnamese troops he fought with, simply saying, I quote, ‘I like my job. I like to help other people who need help out there,’” Biden said after recounting his story. “It’s amazing.”
John J. Duffy, an Army major, repeatedly risked his life in 1972 to direct airstrikes against the enemy during an assault on the 11th Airborne Battalion, Biden said. The president said Duffy remained behind, fighting the enemy as the base was overrun and was the last person to evacuate, saving one last soldier who was shot in the foot and had fallen out of a helicopter as it took off. Duffy jumped out and helped the soldier back onto the helicopter.
Biden said Duffy served three tours in Vietnam and later became a successful author, once being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry.
“He is the definition of a warrior poet,” the president said.
Biden said the four awards Tuesday were the result of a congressionally mandated review of the actions of Asian Americans, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
“Honestly, it’s been a long journey to this day for those heroes and their families,” Biden said. “And more than 50 years have passed — 50 years — since the jungles of Vietnam where as young men these soldiers first proved their mettle.
“But,” he added, “time has not diminished their astonishing bravery, their selflessness in putting the lives of others ahead of their own and the gratitude that we as a nation owe them.”
Birdwell, Fujii and Duffy were at the White House to collect their medals. John Kaneshiro accepted on behalf of his father, Edward Kaneshiro.