A soldier who would go on to serve in the National Guard was one of four Army veterans to receive the nation’s highest honor for valor last week for actions in Southeast Asia some 50 years ago.
During a ceremony at the White House, President Joe Biden awarded the Medal of Honor to Spc. 5 Dennis Fujii, who served in the Hawaii Army Guard from 1979 to 1983, Spc. 5 Dwight Birdwell, Maj. John Duffy and Staff Sgt. Edward Kaneshiro, who died in battle and received it posthumously.
“It’s been a long journey to this day for those heroes and their families,” Biden said to the recipients and their loved ones during a ceremony in the White House’s East Room. “And more than 50 years have passed since those soldiers have proved their mettle. But time has not diminished their astonishing bravery, their selflessness … or the gratitude that we as a nation owe them.”
Each of the soldiers had their previous awards upgraded.
Fujii was in the midst of a rescue operation of South Vietnamese troops Feb. 18, 1971, when enemy fire brought his helicopter to the ground.
He scrambled off the helicopter with two other medics and sought cover in a nearby bunker. A mortar exploded near Fujii as he ran, injuring his shoulder. A second mortar strike sent shrapnel into his eyes.
“We started taking so much ground fire, I had never seen it in Vietnam. All the years I was there I had never, never seen anything like that,” Fujii said in a video interview the Army posted in 2018. Fujii deployed to Vietnam in 1968.
A second helicopter successfully evacuated all U.S. troops except for Fujii, who waved the chopper away for the safety of his fellow service members after the enemy concentrated gunfire at him.
For 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 airstrikes against them,” according to his Distinguished Service Cross citation.
“At times, the fighting became so vicious that Specialist Fujii was forced to interrupt radio transmittal in order to place suppressive rifle fire on the enemy while at close quarters,” the citation read.
Finally, a helicopter rescued Fujii before enemy rounds forced it to crash-land at a friendly camp.
The native of Kauai, Hawaii, remained there for two more days before finally being evacuated.
Reflecting on his service years later, Fujii said he had no regrets about joining the military and fighting in Vietnam.
“I’d do it all over again,” he said. “I thought it was part of a young man’s obligation to our country. After all, freedom doesn’t come lightly and it doesn’t come cheap, and I thought that I should do my fair share.”
Fujii is one of at least 147 Medal of Honor recipients with service in the Guard. The number now includes 11 from Hawaii.
One-hundred forty-four are listed on plaques in the Medal of Honor Alcove in the National Guard Memorial Museum, the NGAUS headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The National Guard Educational Foundation plans to add the names of Fujii and two others it recently became aware of in the near future.
—By John Goheen