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News   Observances

Austin Honors Soldiers Who Were Awarded Medals of Honor

July 6, 2022 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Army leaders today honored six Medal of Honor recipients at an induction ceremony for the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes. 

56:52
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Induction Ceremony, Part 1
1:06:20
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Induction Ceremony, Part 2

Recognized for their heroism were: retired Army Maj. John J. Duffy, former Army Spc. 5 Dennis M. Fujii, deceased Army Staff Sgt. Edward N. Kaneshiro, former Army Spc. 5 Dwight Birdwell, retired Army Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., and Army Sgt. Maj. Thomas P. Payne. 

"Today we etch these soldiers' names into the Hall of Heroes, to honor their deeds and to remember why American warriors fight. We honor these heroes because they represent the very best of us. And we honor these heroes to inspire future generations," Austin said at the ceremony held at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia.  

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks at a ceremony.
Austin Remarks
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks at a ceremony inducting six Medal of Honor recipients into the Pentagon Hall of Heroes at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., July 6, 2022.
Photo By: Lisa Ferdinando, DOD
VIRIN: 220706-D-BN624-0212
A civilian lifts a cloth cover off a plaque while standing on state with other civilians and troops.
Plaque Unveiling
Ashley Aczon-Skjelstad, center left, the daughter of posthumous Medal of Honor recipient Army Staff Sgt. Edward N. Kaneshiro, unveils a plaque during a Pentagon Hall of Heroes induction ceremony for Kaneshiro and five other recipients, July 6, 2022, at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va.
Photo By: Lisa Ferdinando, DOD
VIRIN: 220706-D-BN624-0530Y

"May we all find the courage to live up to the examples that they have set. May we all find the commitment to serve and defend our republic, and may we all find the dedication and duty to our democracy that these heroes have shown," he added 

Austin described the soldiers' acts of valor to those assembled: 

Staff Sgt. Edward N. Kaneshiro 

A soldier poses in a garden-like setting outside a building.
Army Staff Sgt. Edward Kaneshiro
Army Staff Sgt. Edward Kaneshiro poses for a photo at Yokohama Port, Japan, 1959.
Photo By: Courtesy of Naomi Kaneshiro
VIRIN: 590101-A-D0439-101R

In December 1966, Kaneshiro was serving in South Vietnam as an infantry squad leader. While he and his squad were out scouting, they were unaware North Vietnamese forces were planning to ambush their teammates through a concealed trench system. When machine-gun fire erupted, Kaneshiro threw a grenade through the aperture of an enemy bunker, foiling the ambush. Then, he single-handedly destroyed one enemy group after another. Because of his bravery, his platoon was able to withdraw from the village. "Tragically, just a few months later, Sgt. Kaneshiro was killed in action by enemy fire. I wish that I could personally thank him for his heroism and his selflessness, but it's a profound honor to have his children with us today," Austin said, noting that Kaneshiro's son John was deployed to Iraq twice during his military service. 

Spc. 5 Dwight Birdwell 

Birdwell was near Saigon, South Vietnam, when the 1968 Tet Offensive began. His unit was heavily outnumbered when it was attacked, and, almost immediately, his tank commander was critically wounded. That tank was the only thing between Birdwell's fellow soldiers and the enemy. He fired the tank's 90 mm gun and machine gun at enemy positions, even hopping out of the commander's hatch with his M-16 rifle to get a better shot. Despite being wounded by shrapnel, Birdwell ran through enemy fire to find a defensive position to collect and redistribute ammunition to the remaining defenders. He then led a group past enemy lines and threw hand grenades to prevent the enemy from advancing. 

Three soldiers pose for a photo
Birdwell and Buddies
Then-Spc. Dwight Birdwell, top left, poses for a photo with his "battle buddies," Spcs. Larry Melvin and Rollins Cunnigham, while assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea, 1967.
Photo By: Courtesy of Dwight Birdwell
VIRIN: 220706-A-D0439-101

Spc. 5 Dennis M. Fujii 

In February 1971, Fujii and others sought to evacuate South Vietnamese military personnel from a battlefield, Austin said. As they approached, their helicopter took intense fire and crash landed, injuring Fujii. A U.S. helicopter landed nearby and took his crewmates to safety, but Fujii signaled to the pilot to take off because he was taking too much fire to join them. He was the only American left on the battlefield.  

A solider wearing a lei stands in a crowd
Hawaii Return
Army Spc. 5 Dennis Fujii returns home to Hawaii from Vietnam with a hero's welcome, 1971.
Photo By: Courtesy of the Fujii family
VIRIN: 710101-A-D0439-101R

Meanwhile, the enemy brought reinforcements and the encampment came under renewed assault. For the next 17 hours, Fujii called in air strikes against nearby enemy positions. When he was finally evacuated, the helicopter crash landed under enemy fire. Fujii waited another two days before reaching safety. 

Maj. John J. Duffy 

In April 1972, Duffy was a senior advisor to an elite battalion in the South Vietnamese army when he and others were tasked with holding off North Vietnamese forces from overrunning Fire Support Base Charlie. In the early morning hours, Duffy sneaked close to the enemy's antiaircraft positions and called in airstrikes. 

A soldier wearing sunglasses and helmet crouches on ground.
Maj. John J. Duffy
Maj. John J. Duffy, 1972.
Photo By: Courtesy John Duffy
VIRIN: 220706-A-D0439-102

Duffy was wounded by shrapnel, but he refused evacuation, continuing to call in airstrikes from a position exposed to enemy fire. As the enemy closed in, Duffy moved allied soldiers to safer positions. 

By the next morning, North Vietnamese forces resumed their attacks and inflicted even more casualties. Duffy organized the evacuation of those who survived. When they reached the exfiltration site, Duffy wouldn't leave until all of his brothers-in-arms were aboard. 

Col. Ralph Puckett Jr. 

In November 1950 during the battle for Hill 205 in North Korea, then-1st Lt. Puckett was commanding 8th Army Ranger Company. He repeatedly put his life at risk, running across an open field and courting enemy fire so that his team could spot the Chinese position. As the battle ground on, he was injured by grenade fragments, but he wouldn't leave. Instead, he moved from foxhole to foxhole, redistributing ammunition. 

A man wearing a helmet looks to the left.
Army Col. Ralph Puckett Jr.
Army Col. Ralph Puckett Jr. went above and beyond the call of duty as the Eighth Army Ranger Company’s commanding officer during a multiday operation in North Korea that started on Nov. 25, 1950. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 210520-O-DO439-001

When he was wounded again, he ordered his men to leave him behind. But they refused and brought him out. Puckett demonstrated to his men "that true courage means putting your people first," Austin said. 

Sgt. Maj. Thomas P. Payne 

In October 2015, Payne was tasked with leading a raid to free Iraqis taken hostage by jihadists in northern Iraq. His team knew the terrorists had been holding prisoners in two buildings. Payne's team arrived at night, cleared one of those buildings, and freed the hostages inside. 

But the second building was under intense enemy fire. The building was burning, and he knew the prisoners would die if they weren't freed. After using bolt cutters to open the door, he plunged into the smoke and the enemy fire even though the building was near collapse. 

After freeing the prisoners, the soldiers were ordered to evacuate, but Payne ran back inside to ensure no one was left behind. 

In all, 75 men and women prisoners were freed as a result of his actions. 

A soldier stands in a field while holding an automatic rifle.
Thomas Patrick Payne
Then-Staff Sgt. Thomas Patrick Payne pulls security while on a deployment in Afghanistan in 2010. Payne, an Army Ranger, received the Medal of Honor after he risked his life to save dozens of hostages facing imminent execution by ISIS fighters in northern Iraq in 2015.
Photo By: Courtesy of the U.S. Army
VIRIN: 200911-A-ZZ999-1113C

In a White House ceremony, President Joe Biden yesterday awarded Medals of Honor to Duffy, Fujii, Kaneshiro and Birdwell. Kaneshiro was the only one who was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. The other recipients are still living. 

Puckett was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2021, and Payne received the award in 2020. Neither man was inducted into the Hall of Heroes at the time due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.