WASHINGTON — Vietnam veterans carried a heavy burden following their service in the war, the Army’s top civilian leader said.
The Defense Department and the Army recently honored four of those veterans — the newest Medal of Honor recipients — by inducting them into the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes during a ceremony Wednesday at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall’s Conmy Hall. Additionally, the DOD inducted two Army Rangers into the Hall — an active-duty Iraq War veteran who served during Operation Inherent Resolve and a Ranger pioneer and instructor who fought during the Korean War.
The four Vietnam War veterans — Spc. 5 Dennis Fujii, the late Staff Sgt. Edward Kaneshiro, Spc. 5 Dwight Birdwell and Maj. John Duffy — received the nation’s highest military honor during a White House ceremony Tuesday. The other two Soldiers, Rangers Sgt. Maj. Thomas Patrick Payne and retired Col. Ralph Puckett, received Medals of Honor in September 2020 and May 2021, respectively.
During a period of anti-war protests and civil unrest in the 1960s and early 1970s, the nation’s Vietnam War veterans weren’t always received well by the public when they returned home. Army Secretary Christine E. Wormuth said that veterans often had to pay the price as they faced negative public perceptions. Finally, nearly 50 years later, the Army and DOD fulfilled its pledge to grant full honors to these four heroes of that war.
“Our [Vietnam] veterans often bore the brunt of that political and social unrest, a burden that was never really theirs to bear,” Wormuth said.
“These Soldiers now have a venerated place in American lore and forever will represent the greatness of our country and those who serve it,” said the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff, Gen. Joseph M. Martin. “They will inspire generations of service members as they face their own battles.”
Birdwell, a member of the Cherokee nation and the 33rd Native American to be awarded the Medal of Honor, had the courage to stand before his college classmates when his professor asked who had served in Vietnam. Wormuth said that he didn’t fear public scrutiny for his military service. Birdwell later went on to become the chief justice of the Cherokee Nation and a lawyer in Oklahoma City.
On Jan. 31, 1968, Birdwell helped rescue Soldiers at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, something for which he felt his unit had not received proper credit. Birdwell assumed control of his vehicle after enemy rounds rendered his tank commander incapacitated. He suppressed enemy fire using a machine gun and grenades, helping to save his convoy and eventually Tan Son Nhut.
Vietnam now uses the air base as its international airport.
“By this award, the world will know now that we accomplished something very important: we saved Tan Son Nhut Air Base,” he said.
Fujii, a medical crew chief, faced a harrowing 17-hour battle after his helicopter crash-landed during a rescue mission to retrieve wounded South Vietnamese troops on Feb. 18, 1971. When a rescue chopper returned to retrieve the crew, the enemy directed fire at him, so he chose to strand himself on the ground rather than further risk the lives on the aircraft.
Fuji later declared the area too hot for rescue helicopters to retrieve him and chose to treat the wounded allies, as the lone American, and fought off attacking adversaries before eventually being fully rescued two days later.
Fujii stood next to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, to receive his honorary flag.
“Spc. Fujii said he was driven by a desire to do his fair share,” Wormuth said. “While he was deployed, friends and family back home asked him ‘what are you fighting for?’ Spc. Fujii told them that he felt called to … defend against communism and to preserve a better life for the people of Vietnam. Thank you, Mr. Fujii, for doing more than your fair share.”
Staff Sgt. Edward Kaneshiro attacked a large contingent of North Vietnamese troops alone in the Kim Son Valley on Dec. 1, 1966. After the North Vietnamese attacked and trapped two squads of his unit, Kaneshiro sent his own squad to safety and dispatched elements of the enemy force with six grenades and his M16 rifle.
Kaneshiro’s actions helped free the survivors of the North Vietnamese attack. Kaneshiro was killed in action three months later, leaving behind his 35-year-old wife, Mitsuko. Mitsuko who passed away in April, raised the couple’s five children alone.
Kaneshiro’s daughter, Naomi Viloria, shared the few memories they had of their late father from their childhood.
“Our mother never said a word about our father or the war because the grief was just too profound,” she said. “We were all very young when our father died. We [learned] our father was a proud Soldier who carried the traits of duty, honor and pride into war.”
Kaneshiro’s youngest son, John, followed his father’s footsteps and joined the Army, retiring as a master sergeant. He also accepted the Medal of Honor from President Biden on his father’s behalf.
As a senior advisor for the Republic of South Vietnam, Duffy bravely led the defense of Fire Support Base Charlie on April 14-15, 1972. Despite suffering multiple injuries and the loss of his commander, Duffy directed gunfire to counter a vicious North Vietnamese attack while also treating the wounded on April 14.
By the morning of April 15, North Vietnamese forces launched another attack, and he guided the evacuation of the survivors, refusing to be evacuated by a medevac helicopter until each of his fellow troops were safely loaded onto the aircraft.
“Major Duffy would not leave until all his brothers in arms had been on board,” said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin. “Major Duffy, thank you for all that you have done on behalf of our country.”
At 17 years old, the New York City native originally enlisted in the Army to become a paratrooper before commissioning. At the time of his Vietnam deployment, Duffy served as an infantry officer.
Duffy later helped found the non-profit Special Operations Association, and Fort Benning inducted him into its Infantry Hall of Fame.
Duffy went on to publish six books, and even earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
On Oct. 22, 2015, Payne, along with his Special Forces teammates, rescued 75 hostages from an ISIS prison in what became one of the largest rescue operations in U.S. military history.
During the night operation, Payne’s unit scaled a wall to enter the compound and broke into the first building to free the first 40 hostages. After answering a call for help in the densely fortified second building, Payne exposed himself to enemy fire and suicide vest detonations as his unit engaged in an intense firefight.
Flames erupted in the second building and, amid the smoke and flame, Payne successfully penetrated the entrance. Payne, while exposed to enemy fire, entered the blaze again and again until he freed every prisoner.
“Those men and women and their families will never forget that daring rescue,” said Austin. “And neither will we. I’m especially grateful because I’m the guy that sent you into that fight as the [U.S. Central Command] commander.”
Payne paid tribute to his fallen comrade, Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, who died after being struck by small-arms fire during the Oct. 22 raid.
The South Carolina native still currently serves in the Army as a Special Forces instructor at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
From Nov. 25-26, 1950, Puckett led 57 Rangers and Korean Soldiers in the courageous attack of Hill 205 near Unsan, Korea. As a young first lieutenant, Puckett served as company commander for the Eighth Army Ranger Company Task Force Dolvin.
Puckett repeatedly rallied his men with his actions. First he raced across an open field three times to draw enemy rounds, allowing his men to locate the source of hostile fire. Puckett then led his men who dispensed mortar rounds to repel five waves of North Korean Soldiers.
Puckett would suffer several more wounds but continued to persist by engaging an enemy sniper until his troops killed the shooter. He ordered his men to leave him on the battlefield. His teammates refused and Puckett proceeded to direct artillery fire once more at the enemy.
“Against all odds, his leadership and example helped to save his men,” Wormuth said.
Puckett became a pioneer for the modern Army Rangers when the West Point graduate re-created and commanded one of the first Ranger units following the disbanding of Ranger units following World War II.
Puckett also served as a Ranger instructor at the Army’s Ranger School at Fort Benning.
“He is considered to be the architect of the modern day Ranger regiment,” Wormuth said. “As a Ranger instructor … many Soldiers today still recall his encouraging presence with kindness.”
After the Korean War ended, Puckett chose to remain on active duty until 1971 and endured a long and difficult recovery from his wounds. He earned several distinctions, including induction into the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame and becoming the first honorary colonel of the 75th Ranger Regiment.