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A Sense of Duty: Dwight W. Birdwell

Dwight W. Birdwell is a decorated hero of the battle over Tan Son Nhut Air Base during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. Like all true heroes, he did not go out seeking glory, but simply did what he had to do under extraordinary circumstances. Birdwell was raised in Bell, Oklahoma. He is now an attorney in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and served as a member of the Judicial Appeals Tribunal, the Supreme Court, of Cherokee Nation from 1987-1999.

He joined the Army a week after he graduated high school, in May 1966. “I volunteered out of a sense of duty to the U.S.A. and I had been inspired by a number of Cherokee gentlemen who had served in the Army in World War I, World War II, and Korea,” Birdwell said. “I just felt like it was my duty to carry on this tradition.”

Birdwell was trained as an armored crewman and spent some time in Korea before he finally got to Vietnam, and he got there just in time for the 1968 Tet Offensive, which started on January 31st. The Tet Offensive was a historic countrywide attack by more than 80,000 North Vietnamese troops on more than 100 cities in South Vietnam. Though it was ultimately unsuccessful for the North Vietnamese, the cost in American lives was staggering and it was a major turning point in public opinion; up to that point the American political and military leaders claimed we were winning the war and that the North Vietnamese could not mount a major offensive.

When Birdwell got to Vietnam he was in the 25th Infantry Division, “C” Troop, 3rd Squadron, 4th Calvary. “I had only been in small scale battles before the Tet Offensive, like ambushes and ambush patrol,” Birdwell said. “On January 31st we were in base camp at Cu Chi and about 2 a.m. we were notified that Vietcong (VC) were trying to break into the parameter at Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base, near Saigon. We were asked to come down and block them. There was a big difference between the Vietcong, which was composed of local guerrilla forces, and the North Vietnamese, which were a very professional army out of North Vietnam. Instead of a squad of VCs there was approximately 2,500 North Vietnamese moving into the perimeter. There were only two platoons of us, approximately 60 men, and we did not realize what was going on. We drove right into a North Vietnamese contingent. The 2nd platoon was leading and they were practically wiped out in just a few minutes. I was on the lead vehicle in the 3rd platoon, which was immediately behind the 2nd platoon and I could see that we were in for quite a fight. Our tank commander was shot in the face almost immediately. At that point, I realized that, as Dorothy said, we weren’t ‘in Kansas anymore.’

“The North Vietnamese captured the 2nd platoon’s vehicles; they got on top of one and killed everyone inside the tank. It was up to me to hold on and stop that, so I started placing effective fire from my tank on the North Vietnamese, with my 90-millimeter main gun, but I couldn’t fire on the vehicles they had overrun because there were survivors close by. Instead, I fired my 50-caliber machine gun. On several occasions I stood up on top of my tank with my M16 to get a good field of fire and I blasted the North Vietnamese who were advancing on us.”

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Birdwell could not communicate with anyone because the communication cord on his helmet had been shot off. “North Vietnamese small arms fire was hitting the tank and flying all around me. Later, after the battle was over, I saw that my helmet had several places where some rounds had gotten close to my skull.

“We carried fifty packs of sixty-four 90 millimeter rounds and I fired almost all of them with the exception of a couple of duds, and I fired and fired the 50 until I ran out of ammunition. At that point the North Vietnamese were almost on top of us, but we were commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Glenn Otis, who later retired as a Four-Star General; he was Superman. He was in a helicopter that was shot down, so he made an emergency crash landing behind my tank and his helicopter had two M60s. I gave one of them to a buddy and took one myself, and got back on top of the tank and started firing on the North Vietnamese. They shot that M60 out of my hands, I don’t know what they hit me with, but it blew the machine gun in two and peppered me with shrapnel. At that point, I had nothing left, so I picked up three other guys. We crawled down to a tree to take up the best defensive position that we could. We had a bunch of hand grenades that we were throwing at the North Vietnamese to keep them from advancing. They finally figured out where we were and they put a 51-caliber machine gun on that tree, it was chewing it down like a chainsaw. When I looked out to my left, there was the air base with all those shining civilian aircraft just ready to take off. I thought ‘I’m about to die,” while I looked at those aircraft that could have taken us home so easily. Just as the North Vietnamese were about to put the finishing touches on us Lieutenant Colonel Otis managed to get another unit of 190 men, “B” Troop down and they saved the day. He was also able to call in helicopters and gun ships. For a moment I think we were mistaken for North Vietnamese; an American gunship was firing at us. Finally it stopped; if it hadn’t we would have all been killed I was evacuated by helicopter.”

A few days later Birdwell rejoined his unit and ended up in the battle of Hoc Mon where most of his platoon was wiped out including the new replacement Lieutenant. On February 18th, his tank was hit by two antitank rockets that killed his platoon Sergeant and the tank loader and blew Birdwell and another man off the vehicle. He was grounded until May, when he lost a tank driver to a roadside landmine and a few days later he hit another mine. In July, commanding officer recommended that he get out of the field because he was worried that Birdwell’s luck would not hold out for much longer. Birdwell was eligible for an early leave.

“I took his words to heart, so I got out of the field,” Birdwell said. “When I came home I was, amazingly, still twenty years old. I couldn’t vote or drink legally, but I had two Silver Stars and even though I was wounded three times I only got one Purple Heart.” Birdwell got back to Oklahoma in December of 1968, where he went on to college and then Law School, then got married and had two children.

“I would do it again,” he said. “It was just a part of my calling. I was told as a little boy and a young man that that was what I had to do.”