WASHINGTON –- In the rural, hilly farming community of Bell, Oklahoma, years before engaging in actions that would earn him the Medal of Honor, Dwight Birdwell faced his first bout with death.
At five years old, he and his father walked through a field near a neighbor’s farm when a mother pig had stormed toward him on a summer afternoon, knocking him into the dirt. Bewildered and in a daze, Birdwell looked up at the large animal and saw its jaw widening.
Birdwell said a fellow Cherokee boy named Lawrence Eagle emerged and miraculously calmed the pig with his words, spoken in his native language.
Eagle rushed toward him and pulled him away from the pursuing animal.
“That big hog had teeth that I can see to this day,” said Birdwell, now a 75-year-old Army veteran.
Another neighborhood boy, James Lee Henson, rescued Birdwell twice -- at three Birdwell accidently hung himself between wooden boards in a neighbor’s barn -- and at seven years old he nearly drowned in Bell’s Little Lee Creek.
In an area where many earned minimum wage and lived with no electricity or running water, the Cherokee residents found strength by banding together and helping one another. Most Bell residents in the 1950s didn’t own automobiles and either walked or travelled by horse and wagon.
"It was hard living,” Birdwell said. “But we got by.”
The U.S. government dissolved the Cherokee Nations own government and traditions before Oklahoma became a state in 1907. But inside Bell’s local Christian church the native residents could keep their language and traditions alive. In the warmer months they gathered on Little Lee Creek to swim and fish for crawdads.
The small community’s other source of pride came from its military veterans.
And there, during golden summers and springs, local Cherokee veterans in uniforms caught Birdwell’s eye as a child. They’d tell him stories of their travels to France, Korea and Germany. To Birdwell, it seemed most of the men in Bell had served in a major war.
Today Native Americans serve the U.S. armed forces at five times the national average. During the Vietnam War, 90% of Native Americans who fought in the conflict volunteered.
“I grew up knowing that I had to serve,” Birdwell said. “It was a duty and an obligation.”
Nearly everyone who called Bell home hailed from the Cherokee tribe.
We belong to the land
Birdwell grew up on a 200-acre farm, entrenched within Cherokee land given to the Native American people nearly two centuries ago by the U.S. government. His family used wood they gathered from the nearby Ozark Forest to heat their modest home.
His stepfather, Edd, instructed him on basic hunting and fishing along the eastern Cherokee plateau near the Oklahoma-Arkansas border. He also taught him to live in harmony with all living things, a sacred belief held by the Cherokee people. Birdwell said these lessons would one day help him survive on the battlefield.
Except his stepfather traced his heritage to England, not the Cherokee Nation. Birdwell’s mother, a white woman married and later divorced Birdwell’s biological father, a Cherokee Indian. She later married Edd.
“He was very tuned in to nature,” Birdwell said of his stepfather. “That’s the way he was … He was the most -traditional non-Cherokee I think I’ve ever met.”
Birdwell said his near fatal childhood experiences helped him grow into the man he would later become. Nearly two decades later, in the middle of one of the Vietnam War’s most fateful battles, Birdwell would have his chance to become the rescuer.
Brothers in spirit
On Jan. 31, 1968 at 4 a.m., Birdwell awoke to an alarm at Cu Chi Base Camp on the northwest outskirts of Saigon. The U.S. troops heard the sounds of mortar rockets careening towards the camp.
Within moments, the troops gathered their gear and received orders to quell encroaching North Vietnamese forces near Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam’s busiest airport.
Birdwell and Soldiers of the 4th Cavalry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division didn’t know then, but that day started series of surprise attacks by North Vietnam forces in what would be known as the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns in history.
With flares from a nearby helicopter as their guide along the darkened road, Birdwell’s tank and armored vehicle convoy moved south. When Birdwell and members of Troop C, 4th Cavalry approached Tan Son Nhut’s west gate, a wave of enemy fire suddenly engulfed the U.S. convoy.
Birdwell’s unit found themselves under attack by three large North Vietnamese battalions comprised of more than 2,000 troops, with enemy rounds flying toward them from both directions of the road.
In seconds, several of the U.S. troops were killed and wounded. The North Vietnamese hit several of the American vehicles with rockets.
Birdwell, sitting in the lead vehicle, saw a bullet strike his tank commander in the head. The specialist sprung from his seat and pulled the Soldier to safety.
Birdwell swiftly climbed into the tank and assumed command. With his body exposed to enemy fire in the tank commander’s hatch, he used the tank’s 90 MM cannon and machine gun to suppress the enemy attack and fired until he exhausted all of the weapon’s ammunition.
“As those bullets whizzed by, as rockets whizzed by, it created fear,” Birdwell said. “But I knew I couldn’t break. I knew if I did, there was nobody else that would do the job.”
A helicopter crashed within feet of Birdwell. Birdwell gathered grenades and two M-60 machine guns from the wreckage of the aircraft and handed one firearm to a fellow Soldier.
Enemy rounds hit the machine gun, causing debris to injure Birdwell in the face, neck and chest. Birdwell abandoned the overheated gun and pulled out his M-16 rifle to keep counterfire upon the enemy.
Birdwell’s close friend, Oliver Jones, a combat medic and member of the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe of Washington state, rushed to his aid and began to treat his wounds. With North Vietnamese troops closing quickly on their position, Birdwell convinced his friend to stop tending to him and take a defensive position at the front of the column.
“He was more concerned about me than I was about myself,” Birdwell said.
Birdwell threw grenades while Jones fired his M-16.
The North Vietnamese fire grew in intensity, churning through a large tree like a buzz saw. But Birdwell remained steady, and his accurate aim forced enemy troops to duck for cover.
Birdwell’s courage under heavy enemy fire rallied the men of the 3rd Squadron to overwhelm the North Vietnamese forces. Jones fought bravely alongside his friend.
“We fought for hours,” the late Jones told Indian Country Today in a June 2011 article. “All of our weapons were burnt. The barrels were melted and warped.
“All the blocks and breaches of our automatic weapons, our 50 caliber machine guns and our M60s were burned up because we had to fire them so many times.”
Finally, Birdwell accepted medical attention. Birdwell said Jones would treat him again on Feb. 19, 1968, aboard a medical helicopter. Birdwell was treated again on June 13, 1968 by another medic, not Jones, for injuries caused by an enemy mine.
“If Birdwell had not performed in such a courageous manner, we would have lost the battle and the base,” Jones said in a statement decades later. “I believe if not for Birdwell, our history would be different.”
A dark-haired Soldier of sturdy build, Birdwell remembered Jones’ caring nature. Jones however also possessed steely courage.
The two Soldiers met in December 1967 shortly after Jones joined the unit. Birdwell said Jones held him to a high standard during their tour in Vietnam.
“With Oliver, I always watched my Ps and Qs because he always expected so much of me and gave so much of himself,” Birdwell said. “He did not want any Native people embarrassed or looking foolish.”
A few days after the battle at Tan Son Nhut, Birdwell’s squadron commander, then-Lt. Col. Glenn Otis told him that he would recommend Birdwell for the Medal of Honor.
Unfortunately, Birdwell said that troops in the orderly room did not give their best effort in preparing his awards package that resulted in the downgrading of the award to a Silver Star.
After Vietnam, Birdwell would not see his friend again for 44 years.
“We totally lost contact,” Birdwell said. “I didn’t know if Oliver had lived or not.”
Under the advice of his peers, Birdwell left the Army in 1968 to attend and graduate from law school at the University of Oklahoma. In the years that followed, after serving as an attorney, he eventually rose to become the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court Chief Justice. Birdwell said he primarily represented oil corporations but as chief justice, he helped Cherokees retain rights to their land and other assets over the years.
One day at his Oklahoma City, Oklahoma office, Birdwell received a phone call. He didn’t immediately recognize the voice. Then he did.
Birdwell agreed to meet his old Vietnam War friend Oliver in May 2012 at a gathering for survivors of his Vietnam unit in Nashville.
Birdwell almost didn’t recognize the once fit, burly Soldier who now had graying hair and needed a walker to move around. Doctors diagnosed Jones with post-traumatic stress disorder in 1980, 12 years after he returned from Vietnam. He didn’t receive treatment until 2000.
That May night in Tennessee, Jones called Birdwell to the stage.
He placed a Pendleton blanket on Birdwell’s shoulders to honor him. Jones then played a hand drum and sang to Birdwell in his native language, as tears welled in Birdwell’s eyes.
Birdwell and Jones would keep in touch through emails, phone calls and texts over the next five years.
Birdwell said that Jones had not received all of the valor awards he earned in Vietnam, including his Combat Medic Badge. Through years of petitioning Birdwell helped his friend finally acquire the award.
Then, in November of 2018, Birdwell received a phone call from a family friend and learned that Jones was killed in a single-vehicle car accident.
Last June, Birdwell stood with two other Vietnam combat Soldiers, and the family of one Soldier who was posthumously recognized, in the White House East Room to receive the Medal of Honor, the highest accolade awarded to U.S. Service members. As he received the Medal from President Joe Biden, Birdwell, thought of all the Cherokee veterans from his hometown, and of his late friend, Oliver. Birdwell said he plans to visit Oliver’s grave in Washington state. “As long as I live, Oliver’s spirit will be a part of me.” says Birdwell.
“That just makes me proud,” Birdwell said of the Medal. “Proud to be Cherokee and proud of the Cherokee people.
“In a way, it defines who we are; proud and willing to serve and do our duty. Besides everything from the past … we’re here.”