In 1971, Army Spec. 5 Dennis M. Fujii spent five grueling days fending off enemy fighters after his medevac helicopter crashed during a rescue attempt in Laos.
During that time, he took care of wounded South Vietnamese soldiers and found a way for U.S. air support to successfully extract him. Fujii recently received the Medal of Honor for those actions, more than 50 years after the ordeal made him a hero.
Fujii was born March 1, 1949, in Hanapepe on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. He was one of six children of Gladys and Charles Fujii, the latter of whom had served in the National Guard.
Growing up, his mother said he liked to hunt in the mountains, which might have helped him survive his ordeal in Vietnam. Fujii played football and basketball, too. According to a 1971 Miami Herald article, his high school coach said he was an athlete with a “burning desire to excel.”
Fujii enlisted in the Army in the middle of his senior year of high school in 1968, and he was able to earn his diploma while he was in the service. He deployed to Vietnam that same year as an assistant machine gunner with the 4th Infantry Division.
The young soldier returned home but was deployed again in 1970, this time with the 237th Medical Detachment, 61st Medical Battalion of the 67th Medical Group.
On Feb. 18, 1971, Fujii was serving as the crew chief aboard a medevac helicopter, which was sent to evacuate seriously wounded South Vietnamese soldiers from a raging battle in Laos. Laos borders Vietnam to the northwest, and battles were being waged there because part of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail went through the country. North Vietnamese troops used the trail to infiltrate South Vietnam.
As Fujii’s helicopter tried to land, it was met with heavy enemy fire. Fujii later told reporters that he and a medic began pulling screaming Vietnamese soldiers into the aircraft. But, as it tried to take off, a mortar round exploded through the chopper, causing it to crash during the fight.
Fujii said he and two medics sought cover in a nearby bunker. As he ran there, he was hit in the shoulder by shrapnel from a mortar explosion.
About 45 minutes later, another U.S. helicopter successfully landed near the wreckage of the first. Fujii and the survivors of the medevac ran toward it, but Fujii was again hit by shrapnel, this time in the eye. By the time he’d reoriented himself, the intense enemy fire had been redirected at him.
“I knew that there was no way I could make it from where I was into the chopper,” he said in a later interview. “And the longer I stayed there and waited, I was putting everybody at risk, so I just waved the bird off.”
Fujii was now the only American left on the ground, surrounded by the enemy. Quickly, he found a radio transmitter and told other U.S. aircraft in the area not to try any more rescue attempts because of intense enemy anti-aircraft fire at the landing zone. Fujii spent the night and the next day in the hot zone, offering first aid to wounded South Vietnamese troops while ignoring his own injuries.
The evening of his second day there, a reinforced enemy regiment began assaulting the small unit’s perimeter with heavy artillery. Using the call sign “Papa Whiskey,” Fujii grabbed the radio and began directing air strikes at the enemy to repel them. He later told reporters that he’d never done that before, but he was the only man on the ground who could speak English, so he learned quickly. Fujii also said that U.S. observation aircraft dropped smoke canisters to him that he used to create reference points to guide the airstrikes.
For more than 17 hours, Fujii continued to direct airstrikes in this way, repeatedly leaving the safety of his entrenchment to get a better view of enemy troop positions to relay to U.S. air support. He said that North Vietnamese troops tried to overrun their position at least three times. His citation said that the fighting was so intense at some points that Fujii had to stop his radio transmissions to fire at encroaching enemy fighters.
By Feb. 20, Fujii was exhausted and in pain, but he continued to bear the responsibility for the surrounded South Vietnamese troops until another helicopter successfully rescued him. That medevac, however, was also shot up and forced to crash-land at another South Vietnamese encampment about two miles away.
Fujii remained at that camp for two more days. Finally, on Feb. 22, yet another helicopter picked him up and took him to safety.
At a hospital after the ordeal, Fujii told reporters that he thought he was going to be court-martialed for fighting in Laos. At the time, President Richard M. Nixon had promised the American people that the war wouldn’t spread into Vietnam’s neighboring countries. While Fujii’s mission wasn’t to fight in Laos, he ended up doing that to survive. Instead of a court martial, however, the 22-year-old received a hero’s welcome when he returned to Hawaii on leave a few weeks after the incident.
Fujii’s bravery during those days on the battlefield initially earned him a Silver Star, which was later upgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross. He also received two Purple Hearts and, by the end of 1971, was named Army Aviation Soldier of the Year. For that, he was flown to Washington, D.C., where he met the Army secretary, according to a 2004 Honolulu Advertiser article.
That same year, Fujii left active-duty service and transferred to the Hawaii National Guard and the Pacific Army Reserve. He attended college and eventually married. He and his wife, Raynette, had a daughter.
According to the Hawaii Herald, Fujii went on to work for the Hawaiian Telephone Co., a Maui cable television company, and as a utilities and logistics technician at the Johnston Atoll Wildlife Refuge Island. Eventually, he retired in Honolulu. In 2004, Fujii was inducted into the Army Aviation Museum’s Hall of Fame and into the U.S. Army Museum of Hawaii’s Gallery of Heroes.
A belated high honor
Over the past few years, the U.S. military began reviewing past service member awards to see if any should be upgraded, particularly for minorities who may have been overlooked due to bias and bigotry of the times in which they served. In December 2021, the National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress waived the time limit that required Medals of Honor be awarded within five years of the combat action. The legislation named Fujii in it, and it paved the way for his Distinguished Service Cross to be upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Fujii, now 74, received the nation’s highest honor for valor from President Joseph R. Biden on July 5, 2022, during a White House ceremony. The event also honored three other Vietnam service members whose awards were upgraded to Medals of Honor.
“More than 50 years have passed — 50 years — since the jungles of Vietnam where, as young men, these soldiers first proved their mettle,” Biden said during the ceremony. “But 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.”
Ahead of the ceremony, Fujii told reporters that the award upgrade was a great honor for him, considering he was content with the honor he’d earned decades before.
“I was happy the way things were, and I came home in one piece,” he said.
Editor’s note: Medal of Honor Monday highlights Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.