On this day in 1941, a hero is born. Robert F. Foley originally thought he’d be a basketball star. After all, he had 15 offers to play college basketball by the time he was a high school senior. But a visit to West Point changed everything; it settled the future in his mind.
“I wanted to be an airborne ranger infantryman,” he concluded. “I mean there was no question in my mind that’s exactly what I wanted to do.”
Foley graduated from West Point in 1963. By early November 1966, he was in Vietnam, having completed both Airborne and Ranger Schools. He and his men had just completed a 10-day search-and-destroy mission, and they were hoping for some rest.
It wasn’t to be. Instead, the company was dispatched on an urgent mission. They were to save their sister company, which was surrounded and taking heavy casualties near Quan Dau Tieng.
Foley’s group departed early on November 5. The jungle was dense—so thick that artillery or air support would be impossible. “You could hardly see anything,” Foley later described. “The visibility was limited, 10 or 15 meters.”
It wasn’t long before Foley and his men came under attack from Viet Cong hidden in enemy bunkers. “[They] opened up with machine guns, with rifle fire, throwing hand grenades,” Foley said. “They had snipers in trees. It was noisy, it was chaotic, and I had soldiers getting hit left and right.”
Two of his radio operators were hit. Foley evacuated them to the rear. They needed medical attention. He did the same with a machine gunner.
“By that time,” he related, “I was angry because my soldiers were getting hit. I didn’t want to get pinned down, so I came back up there and with another soldier we linked as much ammunition [to machine guns] as we could.” Foley would later describe these moments, saying he was too afraid for his soldiers to be afraid for himself.
“You stay back; I’m going in,” he told the soldier who’d been helping him. He picked up the machine gun and charged straight into the dense jungle, firing as he moved. He destroyed three enemy emplacements singlehandedly.
“And, all of a sudden, it got quiet, and I stopped, and I realized a couple of things,” he chuckled. “One is that I’m a company commander, I’m not supposed to be doing this all by myself. I’m supposed to be commanding my troops. And I also looked down, and I was running low on ammunition.”
His actions had been enough. Just as he realized he was almost out of ammunition, he looked over and saw his men rushing to catch up with him. He’d inspired them, and they were crashing forward to fight with him.
The battle wasn’t over in that moment, but the tide had turned. He and his men continued to push forward, finally freeing the embattled GIs who had needed rescue. Foley and one other soldier would receive the Medal of Honor for their actions that day.
He wears the Medal, Foley would observe, “in remembrance of . . . those great soldiers who served with me . . . especially the 17 killed and 27 wounded on that one day.”
His words echo a statement from the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation about the holiday we observe today:
“Memorial Day is a solemn day for the 64 Medal of Honor recipients who are still with us today. These courageous Americans view the award as a symbol of sacrifice. . . . they will all tell you the same thing, ‘This Medal is not about me. It is for those who fought alongside me but didn’t make it back home. . . . take a moment [today] to learn about and remember those who gave their lives to this country, and in so doing have allowed us to enjoy this long weekend with family and friends.”
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America’s Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan (James H. Willbanks ed.; 2011)
Medal of Honor citation (Robert Franklin Foley; Vietnam)
Medal of Honor oral histories (Robert Foley; Vietnam)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (2d ed. 2006)
Statement of Remembrance on Memorial Day (National Medal of Honor Museum)