Eighteen-year-old Wesley Fox thought he was enlisting in the Marines for four years in 1950, but he wound up staying for forty-three. Rising through the enlisted and officer ranks to become a colonel, he claims that he never would have left the Corps had it not been for mandatory retirement.
Fox spent the Korean War lugging a Browning Automatic Rifle from one battle to another and was wounded in action in 1951. For the next fifteen years, he continued to rise through the ranks. He was a first lieutenant in 1967 when he went to Vietnam as an adviser to the South Vietnamese Marines; he stayed with them through the Tet Offensive of 1968. He liked the indigenous troops but felt that their idea of warfare tended to be "search-and-avoid," so he signed on for another tour of duty in Vietnam with the Ninth Marines in hopes of "getting something done."
In late February 1969, Fox was the commander of a Marine rifle company that was part of Operation Dewey Canyon in the A Shau Valley near the Laotian border. He and his men had been in the area for more than a month, sporadically engaging North Vietnamese troops, when, on February 21, the battalion commander ordered Fox to go down into the valley to determine if an enemy force was attempting to recover a pair of 155 mm guns that American forces had captured earlier and, if so, to do something about it.
Around noon the next day, Fox's company, understrength with only ninety men and lacking a mortar platoon, located a large force of well-concealed North Vietnamese regulars behind strong defensive positions. Fox quickly made a plan "to go right at them." As he was getting ready, a rocket-propelled grenade exploded nearby, its shrapnel hitting him in the shoulder. Though bleeding heavily, he moved forward through heavy machine-gun fire. As he studied the battlefield, a sniper firing from a tree killed one of his Marines, then shot at Fox but missed. Fox picked up the fallen American's rifle and killed the sniper before he could fire again.
Realizing that if he tried to break contact with the enemy, he would expose his men, Fox committed his reserve platoon to support the company's two assault platoons in a do-or-die maneuver. As he gave directions to his reserve platoon commander, a mortar round exploded, wounding Fox and seriously injuring the platoon commander. Fox then directed his executive officer to take the reserve platoon forward. Within five minutes, the executive officer was killed by machine-gun fire. With all company officers now dead or wounded, Fox continued to direct his Marines as they neutralized the enemy force.
The afternoon was dark and overcast, preventing Fox from calling in air support, but when the clouds parted briefly, two planes were able to take out one of the machine guns blocking Fox's advance. Finally, the North Vietnamese troops began to pull back. Refusing medical aid himself, Fox established a defensive position and prepared his casualties for evacuation. Eleven of his men were killed in action, and fifty-eight were wounded. One hundred five enemy dead were counted.
A year later, he was told that he would receive the Medal of Honor. But he waited for more than a year because at that point the administration was trying to deemphasize the war—even if it meant deemphasizing the heroism of U.S. forces as well. Fox finally received the medal on March 2, 1971, at the White House.