Wesley L. Fox, a retired Marine Corps colonel who received the Medal of Honor for rallying his men during a Vietnam War operation that decimated enemy sanctuaries along the mountain jungle border with Laos, died Nov. 24 at his home in Blacksburg, Va. He was 86.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society announced his death but did not provide a cause.
Col. Fox, a self-described farm boy from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, grew up entranced by tales of forebears who shed blood for the Confederacy to fight what they called “Yankee aggression.” He quipped that his middle name — Lee — made explicit his family’s devotion to their Southern heritage.
When the Korean War began in 1950, he later told Vietnam Magazine, "I saw it as a chance to catch up to my cousin Norman, who'd jumped into Italy and Normandy in World War II. Because of him, I was interested in the Airborne."
“One rainy day when we couldn’t work on the farm,” he said, “a buddy and I drove to the recruiters in Washington, D.C. I told the Marine recruiter I was trying to decide between the Marines and the Airborne. He said, ‘Hell, boy, what’s wrong with the Paramarines?’ That did it. I didn’t know the Paramarines disbanded in 1944! If I’d seen an Army recruiter first, who knows? But that lying Marine got to me first.”
He was wounded in action while serving as a rifleman and, after the war, became a drill instructor, recruiter, master parachutist and award-winning shooter at service rifle and pistol matches.
Above all, he told the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, he yearned to return to combat and saw President Lyndon B. Johnson's announcement about committing ground troops to Vietnam as his chance. He was probably the only Leatherneck in the world to consider himself "screwed" when he — then a gunnery sergeant — was instead assigned to Marine duty protecting a NATO meeting in Paris.
Because of a huge demand for seasoned Marine leaders in Vietnam, he received a temporary commission as a second lieutenant in 1966. He arrived the next year, advising a South Vietnamese Marine battalion whose tactics, he said, were best summed up as “search-and-avoid.”
He was promoted to first lieutenant and rifle company commander in time to participate in Operation Dewey Canyon, which became one of the Marines' last major offensives of the war. The mission, in two phases starting in January 1969, was to disrupt a North Vietnamese military division on the border with Laos — and to attack when the enemy least expected it.
“They were considered to be the best operations we ever conducted in South Vietnam,” said military historian Bing West, a Marine Corps infantry officer during the war. “Of all the operations in Vietnam it was the most classic in that it caught the North Vietnamese totally by surprise.
“First, the North Vietnamese never thought it would happen because it was the height of monsoon season,” West said. “Second, they expected the Marines would transport themselves by helicopter, giving them warning. This time, they went overland through the mountains. Some of the units like Fox’s went four to seven days without resupplies — boiling roots to eat. Third, the North Vietnamese thought the Marines would stop on the edge of Laos as they had in ’66 and ’67. This time they rolled on.”
There were heavy casualties.
After several skirmishes over many weeks, Lt. Fox had fewer than 90 Marines left in his 240-man rifle company by the time he “locked into” a much larger and well-concealed group of North Vietnamese Army regulars on Feb. 22, 1969 — “a rainy, miserable, cloudy day,” he recalled to the Veterans History Project. He described the terse pep talk he gave his men: “I had the opportunity to look ‘em in the eyeballs and say, ‘This is what we do.’ ”
He kept the enemy pinned down by carefully training gun and grenade fire in their direction, all the while sustaining severe injuries to his shoulder from shrapnel. At one point, after an NVA sniper killed a Marine in front of him, Lt. Fox grabbed the dead man’s gun and silenced the sniper.
When the clouds finally parted toward afternoon, Lt. Fox called in aircraft support that annihilated a machine-gun nest blocking the U.S. advance and led the NVA to begin its retreat. Lt. Fox turned down immediate medical treatment to oversee the safe evacuation of wounded Marines. He later said 11 of his men died that day, and he counted 105 enemy dead.
West said Operation Dewey Canyon was halted at the highest levels of government — a political calculation more than a military one. Although unrestricted war without sanctuaries had proven effective in this instance, there was a palpable fear that it might provoke the Chinese to enter the war.
President Richard M. Nixon awarded then-Capt. Fox the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor, in a White House ceremony in 1971.
Wesley Lee Fox was born on Sept. 30, 1931, on a family farm in what was then rural Herndon, Va. He was the first of 10 siblings, and the rapidly expanding family soon moved to a larger property in Warren County, Va. He left school after eighth grade to work full time on the farm.
Col. Fox’s final active-duty assignment was as commanding officer of Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Va. He retired from the military in 1993, then spent eight years as a deputy commandant of cadets at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
In addition to the Medal of Honor, his decorations included the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. He wrote three books, a memoir called "Marine Rifleman" (2002), "Courage and Fear: A Primer" (2007) and "Six Essential Elements of Leadership" (2011).
According to a paid death notice, survivors include his wife of 56 years, the former Dottie Lu Bossinger; three daughters ; four brothers; four sisters; and nine grandchildren.
Col. Fox described to the Veterans History Project the experience, when he first joined the Marines, of being rapidly disabused of the “Hollywood version” of the service. He had a merciless drill instructor during basic training at Parris Island, S.C.
After three hours of training in the August heat — with no canteens allowed — he raced to the barracks. As soon as his lips touched cold water, the instructor cursed him out, adding, “I didn’t tell you to drink water.”
“I was already moving when his boot caught me in the rear,” he added. “But that was the only time he touched me. But it made a Marine out of me.”
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