Army Spc. 5 Dwight W. Birdwell was one of the first U.S. soldiers to engage with the enemy during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. He wasn't in charge of his unit, but when soldiers fell, he stepped forward to fill the leadership gap. The Silver Star he earned for his bravery was recently upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Birdwell was born on Jan. 19, 1948, in Amarillo, Texas, but he grew up in the small town of Bell, Oklahoma, a mostly Native American community. Birdwell, who is Cherokee, said he learned to fish and hunt from his father— skills that likely helped him survive in Vietnam.
Birdwell graduated from Stilwell High School in 1966 and joined the Army shortly thereafter. He received training at the Armored School in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and was sent to Korea, according to the Stilwell Democratic Journal. According to the newspaper, after coming home on leave in September 1967, Birdwell was reassigned to the 2nd Battalion, 34th Armored Division, which was already in Vietnam. Birdwell was eventually reassigned to the 4th Cavalry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division.
The 20-year-old was near Saigon in South Vietnam when the Tet Offensive began in late January 1968. He was assigned to Troop C of the regiment's 3rd Squadron.
On Jan. 31, Troop C was ordered to move south to help repel an enemy attack on Tan Son Nhut Air Base. They were the first U.S. ground unit from outside of the air base to respond.
As their column of tanks and armored vehicles approached the base's west gate, they came under intense enemy fire. The unit didn't know it, but they had driven directly into the midst of three enemy battalions. Troop C tried to push through the attack, but their lead tank had been crippled by a rocket-propelled grenade and was blocking their ability to move forward.
As enemy fire came from both sides of the road, Birdwell ran to his wounded tank commander's aid and moved him to safety. Birdwell then mounted the tank and took over. From the tank commander’s hatch and with his upper body exposed, Birdwell used the tank's .50-caliber machine gun and its 90 mm main gun to subdue the enemy.
When the 90 mm gun ran out of ammunition and the machine gun overheated, Birdwell switched to his M-16 rifle. In doing so, he exposed his entire body to the enemy several times so he could gain a better vantage point.
Birdwell finally moved when a U.S. helicopter crashed nearby. Still under enemy fire, he ran to the chopper to collect two M-60 machine guns and ammunition that were inside. After giving one to a fellow soldier, he remounted the tank and began using the other until the M-60 was damaged by enemy fire.
Birdwell suffered injuries to his face, neck, chest and arms, but he didn't quit. He got off the tank, refused medical attention, and rallied his fellow soldiers to move toward the front of the armored column to set up a defensive position.
There, by a large tree, Birdwell and his men continued to fire M-16s and grenades. As the enemy fire lessened, Birdwell grabbed more ammunition from disabled vehicles and helped wounded soldiers move to safer positions.
Birdwell's strength and courage inspired his fellow soldiers to continue the lopsided fight, which they eventually won. The 3rd Squadron was able to keep enemy reinforcements from getting near the base. By the afternoon, the base was once again secure.
During the course of his service in Vietnam, Birdwell earned two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star for meritorious service and two Silver Stars, the first of which was for the battle at the air base. He earned the second Silver Star on July 4, 1968, by risking his life again to rescue more Americans who were stranded in a battle zone in an enemy-occupied village.
Birdwell came back to the states in December 1968 and got married a few months later. He and his wife, Virginia, had two children, a daughter named Stephanie and a son, Edward.
Army Gen. Glenn Otis, Birdwell's commander in Vietnam, worked for decades after the war to get Birdwell’s Silver Star from the air base battle upgraded to the Medal of Honor. In a 2011 letter to an Oklahoma congressman, Otis asked for support for Birdwell's cause, saying "bureaucratic missteps" were the reason for the initial oversight that he was hoping to correct. Otis died in 2013, but others took over the effort, which eventually got the attention of the Pentagon.
Recently, that decades-long quest was realized. Birdwell, 74, received the Medal of Honor from President Joe Biden on July 5, 2022, during a White House ceremony. Two other soldiers who served in Vietnam were also given the nation's top honor for valor that day. A fourth soldier was awarded the medal posthumously.
Birdwell is the 33rd Native American to earn the Medal of Honor.
After Vietnam, Birdwell left the Army and enrolled at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He continued his education at the University of Oklahoma, graduating with a law degree in 1976.
Birdwell was a member of the Judicial Appeals Tribunal (Supreme Court) of the Cherokee Nation from 1987 to 1999, serving as its chief justice twice. He still practices law in Oklahoma City with a focus on energy, natural resources and Native American law.
Birdwell also co-wrote a book called "A Hundred Miles of Bad Road," which detailed his experiences in Vietnam.
This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.