President Joe Biden awarded the Medal of Honor — the highest decoration the US military can bestow upon service members — to a quartet of Vietnam War veterans on Tuesday, upgrading previous honours they had already received.
Mr Biden awarded the medal to Staff Sergeant Edward N. Kaneshiro, Specialist Five Dwight W. Birdwell, Specialist Five Dennis M. Fujii and retired Major John J. Duffy, each of whom had previously been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their actions during the 1964-1973 US war.
The medals were awarded following a review ordered by Congress into the military service of Asian-Americans, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders who may have been overlooked due to discrimination.
“They stood in the way of danger, risked everything … to defend our nation and our values,” Mr Biden said at the start of the East Room ceremony Tuesday morning. “However, not every service member has received the full recognition they deserve. Today we’re setting the record straight. We’re upgrading the awards of four soldiers who performed acts of incredible heroism during the Vietnam conflict”.
He added that despite the half-century that has passed since their heroic actions, “time has not diminished their astonishing bravery, their selflessness in putting the lives of others ahead of their own and the gratitude that we as a nation owe them”.
Staff Sergeant Kaneshiro, who received the Medal of Honor posthumously, died three months after the incident for which he was honoured, an attack by North Vietnamese troops against his platoon during a 1966 mission.
According to the White House, Kaneshiro “destroyed one enemy group with rifle fire and two others with grenades, which enabled the orderly extrication and reorganization of the platoon and ultimately led to a successful withdrawal from the village”.
Speaking to his family members who accepted the award on his behalf, Mr Biden said Kaneshiro’s relatives “sacrificed so much for our country”.
“I know that no award can ever make up for the loss of your father and not having him there as you grew up. But I hope today you take some pride and comfort in knowing his valour is finally receiving the full recognition it has always deserved,” he said.
Mr Birdwell, who would go on from his military service to serve as a Cherokee Nation Supreme Court justice, was honoured for his actions during a January 1968 attack by Vietnamese troops at the outset of the Tet Offensive.
After Mr Birdwell’s tank commander was incapacitated by enemy fire, he moved his commander to safety and began firing all of his tank’s weapons at the enemy, then dismounted the tank and continued to fight until being wounded in the face and torso.
Mr Biden said it “took decades” for Mr Birdwell to receive the recognition he deserved after his then-commanding officer, General Glenn Otis, realised Mr Birdwell “had not received the full honour he had earned,” but noted that Gen Otis had “made sure to correct the record and fully document Birdwell’s actions to make this day possible”.
Mr Fujii was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during an aeromedical evacuation in 1971, during which his helicopter crashed.
According to the White House, he “repeatedly exposed himself to hostile fire as he left the security of his entrenchment to better observe enemy troop positions and to direct air strikes against them until an American helicopter could attempt to airlift him from the area” during the period between the crash and another rescue attempt.
Mr Biden said the upgraded awards were possible because Congress had ordered a review of cases in which “Asian-Americans, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders” had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross during the Korean and Vietnam wars, “to make sure we properly honor the contributions of Asian Americans Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders and their service they've made over the years”.
He noted that a similar effort had resulted in the Medal of Honor being awarded to 22 Asian-American, Native American and Pacific Islander veterans of the Second World War, including the late Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.