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Medal of Honor heroes re-inducted into US Army Museum of Hawaii

U.S. Army Museum of Hawaii (Hawai'i Army Museum Society/Facebook)

The Medal of Honor is the highest honor bestowed on military personnel and is personally awarded by the sitting president.

The U.S. Army Museum of Hawaii on Friday re-inducted two local war heroes into its Gallery of Heroes as Medal of Honor recipients.

In 2022 Spc. 5th Class Dennis M. Fujii received the award for his actions during a rescue mission gone wrong, and Staff Sgt. Edward N. Kaneshiro received the award posthumously for his actions during a bloody ambush in Vietnam’s Kim Son Valley.

The Medal of Honor is the highest honor bestowed on military personnel and is personally awarded by the sitting president.

Both Fujii and Kaneshiro previously received the Distinguished Service Cross. But the U.S. military has been reviewing past awards, particularly those awarded to members of minority groups who may have received lesser awards than what their comrades had recommended due to the potential biases or bigotry of senior officers who signed off on military awards and honors.

Maj. Gen. Reginald Neal, U.S. Army Pacific’s deputy commanding general for mobilization and reserve affairs, told attendees at the ceremony in Waikiki that the two soldiers’ actions were “were extraordinary enough to have previously earned a place in this museum as a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross. Now after the military and the country finally recognize the true accomplishments and magnitude of their gallantry, we honor them as Medal of Honor recipients.”

Kaneshiro arrived in Vietnam on July 18, 1966, and on Dec. 1 he was serving as an infantry squad leader near the village of Phu Huu 2 for a search mission looking for enemy forces. According to military rec ­ords, two squads from his platoon moved into the center of the village, and Kaneshiro and his squad were scouting eastward toward more open terrain.

Unknown to them, the village was heavily fortified and garrisoned by a vastly superior force of North Vietnamese troops. A concealed trench system ran the length of the village on the west side. As the soldiers went on with their mission, a hail of bullets suddenly rained down onto the two squads at the center of the village, killing the platoon leader and his point man while wounding four others.

All the survivors in the village were pinned down by a continuous stream of machine gun and rifle fire. Ka ­ne ­shiro moved his squad to cover, then crawled forward alone to attack the trench. He began hurling grenades into the trench and managed to shoot and kill the machine gunner. He then moved into the trench itself, fighting enemy forces while the American squads in the village evacuated the wounded, allowing the platoon to retreat.

Kaneshiro survived that day in Phu Huu 2 but would later die in battle in Binh Dinh province on March 6, 1967.

Fujii received the award for his actions over several days during a rescue mission gone wrong. On Feb. 18, 1971, he and fellow soldiers were trying to rescue badly wounded South Vietnamese troops. He was the crew chief of a medical evacuation helicopter, and South Vietnamese troops were locked in a savage battle on the ground below as heavy fire from enemy troops prevented the helicopter from landing.

When the pilot made a second attempt to land, heavy fire forced the chopper to crash-land, injuring much of the crew. A second helicopter managed to reach the wreckage and evacuate all the Americans except Fujii.

Fujii was under heavy fire but waved off the helicopter, fearing that the enemy troops would wipe out everyone on the helicopter if they waited for him. He volunteered to stay behind as the only American on the battlefield alongside South Vietnamese Army Rangers. That night the base took heavy artillery fire.

Fujii managed to get hold of a radio and called in American gunships to fight back. He volunteered to leave the South Vietnamese camp to spot enemy positions and call in strikes. At times his transmissions would be interrupted as he himself returned fire with his rifle.

On Feb. 20 a helicopter was finally able to pick up the exhausted and wounded Fujii from the South Vietnamese camp. But his trials weren’t over. As his evacuation chopper made its way from the battlefield it too began taking heavy fire and was forced to crash-land at another South Vietnamese base just 4 kilometers away. He remained at that camp until another helicopter evacuated him to Phu Bai for medical assistance Feb. 22.

Allen Hoe, a prominent local attorney and Vietnam veteran who read Fujii’s award citation during the ceremony, briefly went off script to tell the crowd at the ceremony, “I distinctly remember those three days in February of 1971 when this whole community waited with bated breath on the daily reports from our news people as to the predicament of Dennis Fujii in Vietnam, and how we all breathed a huge sigh of relief to learn that he had been successfully rescued.”

Fujii and family members of the two soldiers who attended the ceremony declined to be interviewed. But in 2022 Fujii told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that when he first got news of the upgraded award, “I never expected anything like this, and now here, 53 years later, I get this great honor. It’s still hard for me to believe that it’s happening.”

Fujii and his brother Edwin flew to Washington, D.C., to receive the award at the White House, while Kaneshiro’s family received the posthumous award in his place.

“They’ve been recognized by officials at the highest levels, including the secretary of defense, and yes, even the president of the United States, ” Neal said. “Even with all that recognition on many occasions in multiple venues, there’s something special about being at home. There’s something even more special about being in the presence of friends and family and people with common origin, common roots.”


(c) 2024 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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