Recounting Dwight W. Birdwell’s heroism during a fierce battle in Vietnam in 1968, President Joe Biden paused for a moment on Tuesday from his script at the Medal of Honor ceremony to register his own amazement.
The president had just described how Birdwell’s machine gun was blown out of his hands by enemy fire, the shrapnel causing wounds to his face, chest, arms and hands.
“When he was ordered to load onto the medivac helicopter, he complied — this I find amazing — only to crawl right back off the other side and keep on fighting,” Biden said.
“That’s what you call taking orders and causing trouble. God love you.”
Birdwell, 74, of Norman, was one of four men awarded the Medal of Honor at the White House on Tuesday for valor in Vietnam.
The others were Army Staff Sgt. Edward N. Kaneshiro, posthumously; Army Spc. Five Dennis M. Fujii, of Hawaii; and Army Maj. John J. Duffy, of California.
“We’re upgrading the awards of four soldiers who performed acts of incredible heroism during the Vietnam conflict … It's just astounding when you hear what each of them has done,” Biden said at the White House ceremony.
The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest military award, given only for extraordinary bravery and only after an exhaustive review of a potential recipient’s deeds. The award, by law, must be given within five years after the valorous acts; Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe co-authored a bill that waived the five-year requirement for the four men honored on Tuesday.
Biden said Birdwell, a member of the Cherokee Nation, had credited Cherokee war veterans for his own military service and noted that a higher percentage of Native Americans serve in the U.S. military than any other group. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. was in Washington for Tuesday's ceremony.
“I’m grateful for all you have given to our country and that at long last — at long last — your story is being honored as it should have been always,” Biden said to Birdwell, acknowledging the presence of Birdwell’s daughter, Stephanie, and saying that Birdwell's wife, Virginia, was unable to attend.
Birdwell was born in Amarillo, Texas, and moved to Adair County, Oklahoma, when he was 3, according to an interview with Birdwell that is part of the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame collection at the Oklahoma History Center.
He graduated from Stilwell High School in 1966 and entered the U.S. Army soon after.
On Jan. 31, 1968, Birdwell was a specialist five in Troop C, 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam when the Tet Offensive began and the Republic of Vietnam air base at Tan Son Nhu came under attack from enemy forces.
Birdwell’s unit rushed to provide aid, and the lead platoon was wiped out in seconds.
“I was the first vehicle in the third platoon and we were totally surrounded,” he said in the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame interview. “And it looked like it was gonna be curtains — as they say in the movies — for those of us left.”
Instead, as the president recounted on Tuesday, Birdwell used every weapon he could get his hands on to hold back the enemy and protect his fellow soldiers. After a tank commander was wounded, Birdwell got the commander to safety.
“He used the tank’s cannon, he used the tank’s machine gun, he used his personal rifle, he sustained fire and drove back the attackers and created a place of relative safety for the injured men,” Biden said.
“He provided battlefield updates to his commanders until the enemy shot the communications system right off of his helmet.”
When he ran out of ammunition he retrieved a machine gun from a downed helicopter, the president said.
“Only after reinforcements arrived and only after he helped treat the evacuees — his fellow wounded — did Spc. Birdwell agree to evacuate himself,” Biden said.
Another unit arrived, and the air base was saved, Birdwell recalled in his Military Hall of Fame interview.
Birdwell received a Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest military award for valor, but it was decades before his commanding officer realized he hadn’t received the honor he deserved, the president said.
Birdwell received a second Silver Star for saving wounded members of his unit from an Army Personnel Carrier that was hit by enemy fire in July 1968.
After leaving the Army, Birdwell went to Northeastern State University in Tahlequah and got his law degree at the University of Oklahoma. He then began practicing law in Oklahoma City. Birdwell served 12 years on the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court.
He co-authored a book about his Vietnam experiences called “A Hundred Miles of Bad Road.”
Kaneshiro received the Medal of Honor for his actions in the village of Phu Huu in 1966. He destroyed one enemy group with rifle fire and two others with grenades, allowing his platoon to withdraw, according to the White House. He was killed in Vietnam in 1967.
Fujii was the crew chief aboard a helicopter ambulance that crash landed during a rescue mission in February 1971. Though injured, he administered first aid to allied casualties on the battlefield and exposed himself to hostile fire to help direct air strikes against the enemy, according to the White House.
Duffy was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in April 1972, when he was wounded three times but continued to direct artillery and gunship fire on enemy positions and marked a landing spot for the helicopters to evacuate wounded soldiers.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Biden recounts 'amazing' deeds of Oklahoma Medal of Honor recipient