WE SERVED: Birdwell earned 2 Silver Stars while serving in Vietnam
A photo taken of Army Spc. Dwight Birdwell, of Bell, while serving in Vietnam. COURTESY
Spc. Dwight Birdwell in his Army dress uniform. He served in the Army for three years and earned two Silver Medals while serving in Vietnam. COURTESY
Attorney and a former justice for the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court, Dwight Birdwell speaks after being honored by the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame in October 2017. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
In 1997, with the help of author Keith William Nolan, Army veteran and Cherokee Nation citizen Dwight Birdwell told about his service in Vietnam in a book titled, “A Hundred Miles of Bad Road: An Armored Cavalryman in Vietnam, 1967-68.” COURTESY
OKLAHOMA CITY – Fifty-one years ago, Dwight Birdwell was serving in Vietnam as a gunner on 52-ton, M-48 Patton Tank. The native of Bell, in Adair County, was a soldier with Troop C, 3rd Squadron, 4th Calvary, 25th Infantry Division.
Today, his memories from that time include “choking dust from the dry season and the never-ending rain in the wet season.”
“(Also) being on ambush patrol and suffering in silence as mosquitoes and a small fly unique to that part of the world would bite my body through my boots and clothes all night long, not being able to slap them off for fear the NVA/VC (North Vietnamese Army/Viet Cong) would hear the sound of the slap; leeches sucking blood from my face, neck and arms; fearing the sounds of the night, not knowing if it was human or animal making them; hearing explosions, small or loud; not knowing for the first few seconds what my reaction should be; the extreme brutal savagery of combat that resulted in the wounding or death of our guys; the NVA/VC as well as civilians, farm animals, dogs and the total destruction of civilian property,” he said.
At 20 years old, Spc. Birdwell was efficient with the weapons provided to him and used them to save his fellow soldiers in two battles, in which he earned two Silver Stars. The Silver Star is the United States Armed Forces’ third-highest personal decoration for valor in combat.
The first one was earned on Jan. 31, 1968, when he survived a battle with NVA troops and VC guerillas near the Tan Son Nhut Airbase, southeast of Saigon, the capital of what was then South Vietnam.
Troop C was responsible for securing the main supply route between Saigon and Tay Ninh in South Vietnam. Birdwell and his unit were outside Saigon at Cu Chi, resting after weeks of field operations. At dawn and without warning, an estimated 70,000 VC guerillas and NVA soldiers attacked major cities in South Vietnam. Their main target was Saigon. Another target was the American command center at Tan Son Nhut.
Troop C moved from Cu Chi to take up positions along Highway 1 on the west side of the airbase, heading off any withdrawing enemy soldiers attacking the base. The column of three M48 tanks and 10 armored personnel carriers or APCs made it to the blacktopped highway.
Unknowingly, the column, numbering less than 100 men, pulled onto the highway just as a Vietnamese force numbering approximately 1,000 to 2,400 men prepared to attack the air base. As the column passed huts that paralleled the highway to the west, rocket-propelled grenades were fired from the huts knocking out the lead tank and three APCs.
Birdwell’s tank, assigned the number C-35, was equipped with a .50-caliber machine gun and a 90mm main gun. Birdwell, the gunner in the second tank, and his commander didn’t immediately realize what had taken place. When the tank commander, Sgt. Ron Breeden, finally returned fire and shot into the huts, a return barrage of fire seriously wounded him.
“Breeden who was standing in the tank commander’s hatch…was shot in the face and fell into C-35. Birdwell immediately jumped into C-35 and then emerged from the vehicle, and while completely exposing his body to the enemy fusillade, lifted Breeden’s wounded body upwards and then out of the tank, all the while ignoring the heavy automatic and small arms fire being directed at him,” reads a statement by Staff Sgt. Gary D. Brewer, who took part in the battle.
After carrying his commander safely to the ditch for medical attention, Birdwell climbed on the tank, put on the commander’s helmet and returned fire with the main 90mm gun and.50-caliber machine gun. RPG rounds were shot at the tank but missed, Birdwell later recalled. His firing kept the enemy at bay and the tank sheltered the more vulnerable APCs behind it.
“Birdwell continued firing at the enemy forces, and his sustained, intense firing was instrumental in saving several of his fellow soldiers from serious injury or possible death,” reads Brewer’s statement.
During the mayhem, Birdwell realized that no one was firing from the vehicles ahead of him. He also realized that some were on fire and enemy soldiers had clambered atop one of the disabled APCs.
“They were monkeying with the M60s (machine guns). I couldn’t believe it. I fired on them with the .50-cal., and hit about half of them. The burst really spread them out,” said Birdwell. “Saving the guys in my unit was a primary concern. I knew if I did not do it, no one else would or could, so it was up to me. A secondary concern was my background from Bell and not letting down my Cherokee heritage, plus I did not want to disappoint Lt. Col. Glenn Otis, our unit commander who was watching from above in his helicopter. He was shot down four times that day. I was hoping that I would not be taken out by enemy fire, as it was very intense. If I fell, I knew the enemy would overrun our position and slaughter the survivors. A constant distraction was the NVA/VC fire flying by my head and body – that is not a pleasant sound!”
Birdwell’s tank became the center of Troop C’s survival. Troops who had crawled into the ditch found shelter behind it, and because of his constant machine-gun fire and cannon fire, the enemy couldn’t overrun the column.
“Birdwell was part of that 10 percent that are good soldiers and understands fighting,” said fellow soldier Albert Porter, who fought alongside Birdwell that day.
Birdwell eventually used all 64 90mm rounds and all the .50-caliber ammunition. A medic with the troop, Oliver R. Jones, recalled when Lt. Col. Otis had to make a crash landing behind Birdwell’s tank, Birdwell jumped off of his tank, and under heavy enemy fire, ran to the helicopter and grabbed two M-60 machine guns and several boxes of ammunition. He gave one of the guns to a fellow soldier and took the other one to the top of his tank and began firing at the enemy.
“Birdwell continued firing the M-60 until it was hit by enemy fire, blowing it into pieces and away from his hands, wounding him in the face, neck, arms and chest. Of all the enemy fire directed at Birdwell, it is amazing that he was not killed or more seriously wounded,” reads Jones’s statement.
Troop C eventually received artillery, ground and air support and evacuated the wounded.
Otis, later Gen. Otis, recommended Birdwell for the Medal of Honor for his actions on Jan. 31, 1968, but it was not awarded. “Someone had to save those trapped friends”
Birdwell earned a second Silver Star as the result of enemy engagement on July 4, 1968. He had moved up in rank and was now a tank commander. His tank was at the end of a column of APCs and two other tanks moving through the An Duc village, which was occupied by NVA sympathizers.
Upon entering the village, the column was attacked and had to retreat. After the unit regrouped, it was discovered an APC had been disabled by enemy fire and left in the village along with its crew. Birdwell and his tank crew returned to the village to rescue stranded soldiers.
“In the darkness of July 4, 1968, I knew it was a long shot for me and my crew to survive, but someone had to save those trapped friends. So we had no choice. We had to save them or turn our backs on our fellow GIs. So we volunteered and charged into the village blasting away,” he said. “We had been told there was one disabled vehicle, so when we reached it, we loaded the crew on board, blasted our way out, and reached our unit, to the joy and excitement of everyone. Then, a few moments later, it was discovered another vehicle, disabled by NVA/VC fire, and its crew was in the village. So the request to me was, ‘Are you up to going in again C-36?’ So we went back in a second time, blasting away, under heavy enemy fire, and we rescued the crew of the second vehicle.
“My thoughts both times was that it was going to take a miracle from God for us to survive the enemy fire from the NVA/VC forces occupying and surrounding the village. But, when it was over, it was obvious we had been blessed by a miracle, as we all survived despite the intense enemy fire.”
Birdwell was honorably discharged in December 1968 after serving nearly three years in the Army. He was also awarded a Bronze Star, for meritorious service. Also, for his bravery and service, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame in October 2017.
With the help of author Keith William Nolan, Birdwell told about his service in Vietnam in a 1997 book, “A Hundred Miles of Bad Road: An Armored Cavalryman in Vietnam, 1967-68.” He said he has mixed emotions about writing the book. Looking at it from the standpoint of the men he served with who were killed in combat, he said their families have gained an understanding about the conditions their loved ones served in, sometimes more details about how they died and the “nature of the relationships they had with other members of the unit.”
“It was my duty to serve, and I satisfied that obligation. Our goal in Vietnam was valid, but the leadership failed to follow through and get the job done. I am proud of my service, and I will carry that pride to my grave,” he said.
He said he’s glad that today Vietnam veterans receive more respect than they did when they returned home from the war.
“When I came home, Vietnam veterans were not respected by many. Now respect for those who served is almost universal. I appreciate the change in attitude,” he said.
At 71, he practices law for Birdwell & Associates in Oklahoma City, but would like to come back home to Bell someday.
“My wife, Virginia, is a Cherokee lady from Peavine, an area north of Stilwell. We have two children, Stephanie and Ed. Stephanie is married to Spike Bighorn, a Sioux gentleman from the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana, and together they have two children, Willow and Raven. My son Ed works with me and lives in Norman.”
He also served on the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court for 12 years from 1987-99.
He said serving in the Army gave him a sense of understanding what it takes to get a job done and the “commitment required to achieve a goal.”