WE SERVED: Birdwell’s service in Vietnam honored
Dwight Birdwell, a two-time Silver Star recipient and Cherokee veteran, speaks at the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame’s Oct. 21 banquet and induction ceremony after being inducted in the OMHOF. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Cherokee veteran and two-time Silver Star recipient Dwight Birdwell, center, receives a medal signifying his induction into the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame. Birdwell also earned two Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam in 1968. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
In 2007, Cherokee veteran Dwight Birdwell, with the help of author Keith William Nolan, told about his military service in Vietnam in the book “A Hundred Miles of Bad Road: An Armored Cavalryman in Vietnam, 1967-68.” COURTESY
NORMAN, Okla. – Dwight Birdwell, a native of Bell in Adair County, earned two Silver Stars and two Purple Hearts while serving in Vietnam in 1968.
He was assigned to Troop C, 3rd Squadron, 4th Calvary, 25th Infantry Division. The then-20-year-old Spc. 5 Birdwell was the gunner on a 52-ton M48 Patton tank. He was efficient with the weapons provided to him and used them to save his fellow soldiers in two battles.
For his bravery and service, the former Cherokee Nation Judicial Appeals Tribunal chief justice was inducted into the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame on Oct. 21. About 50 of his friends and family members attended the ceremony to honor him and 10 other honorees.
“I want to thank the Cherokee Nation and other folks who came from back home, many of whom I’ve known since I was 3 years old, all the way from bean fields, strawberry fields, hay-hauling fields and what have you,” he said after receiving his OMHOF medal. “I must say without hesitation that I want to also remember and honor the 70-something people I served with while I was in Vietnam from (19)67 to (19)68 who were killed in action and did not make it back. Their faces and their memories will forever be in my heart. Thank all of you, again, for this humbling honor. It’s something I will treasure the rest of my days.”
Troop C was responsible for securing the main supply route between Saigon and Tay Ninh in South Vietnam. On Jan. 31, 1968, 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 Viet Cong guerillas and North Vietnamese soldiers attacked major cities in South Vietnam. Their main target was Saigon. Another target was the American command center at Tan Son Nhut, southeast of Saigon.
An airbase was also at Tan Son Nhut, which is where Birdwell’s unit, numbering less than 100 men, fought a Vietnamese force numbering approximately 1,000 men.
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 quickly made it to the blacktopped Highway 1.
Unknowingly, the column pulled onto the highway just as the 1,000-man force 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.
The M48 Patton tank 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 finally returned fire and shot into the huts, a return barrage of fire seriously wounded him.
Upon realizing his commander was wounded, Birdwell dragged him to safety in the highway’s ditch. Birdwell then climbed on the tank and returned fire with the main gun and the .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.
During the battle’s 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),” he recalled. “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.”
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,” Albert Porter, who fought alongside Birdwell that day, said.
Birdwell fired the main gun but eventually used all 64 rounds and all the .50-caliber ammunition.
Troop C eventually received artillery and air support and evacuated the wounded.
For his bravery under fire, Birdwell was awarded the Silver Star.
He received a second one later in 1968 for rescuing fellow soldiers. That incident occurred on July 4 after he had moved up in rank. Now a tank commander, he was at the end of a column of APCs and two other tanks moving through the An Duc village, which was occupied by North Vietnamese Army 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 three times to rescue stranded soldiers.
“When no one else wanted the job, I volunteered my tank and crew to go back into the village to rescue the abandoned APC crew members,” Birdwell said.
Birdwell, with the help of author Keith William Nolan, told about his service in Vietnam in the 1997 book, “A Hundred Miles of Bad Road: An Armored Cavalryman in Vietnam, 1967-68.” The book is no longer printed but is available on Amazon.com, Birdwell said.
And he still gets requests to sign his book. “Just about every week, someone contacts me and asks, ‘can I send you the book to sign?’ It’s humbling to do that. I tell them, ‘if I write in your book it’s going to deface it, and it won’t be worth anything.’ That’s, of course, a joke.”
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 served as a unifying force. For example, there’s a lady in California whose brother was killed in our unit, and now she’s good friends with a lady in New York whose husband also served. It’s been like a spider web for making good connections,” Birdwell said. “On the other hand, I sometimes feel bad about some of the stories about how people died. You kind of hate for a brother or sister to learn what really happened or maybe how horrible the event was, so I have some doubts on that, but otherwise, overall, I’m glad I wrote the book.”
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. He said, since his service, he has joined a Veterans of Foreign Wars group in Wauseon, Ohio, because a friend of his from there “insisted” he join. He’s also a member of the 25th Infantry Division Association and the 3-4 Cavalry Association.
He served on the tribe’s JAT, now the Supreme Court, from 1987-99 and served as chief justice in 1995-96 and 1998-99. At 69, he still practices law in Oklahoma City and plans to continue.
“You know a lot of lawyers work until they die. I suspect that’s what I’m going to do. If I didn’t do that, I’d like to be at Bell. I’d like to be living at Bell,” he said. “There’s nothing like waking up in the morning at Bell and walking out barefooted and getting dew between your toes, smelling that hickory smoke and maybe some fresh coffee. We used to hear the canning factory whistle. I’m sure that’s long gone. During the night we could hear the KCS (Kansas City Southern train) all the way to Bell. What a sweet sound, and hearing owls during the night and maybe a coyote or wolf. There’s nothing like living at Bell, in my opinion.”