This Day in History: Wesley Fox leads his men into the “Valley of Death”
On this day in 1931, a hero is born. Wesley L. Fox would go on to lead a company of men through the so-called “Valley of Death” in Vietnam, even after other platoon leaders had been killed or wounded.
In many ways, Fox was an unlikely hero. He’d always meant to be a farmer. He’d grown up on a farm and enjoyed it! “If it had not been for the Korean War, I probably would not have gotten away from farming,” he later concluded. Nevertheless, that war started, and it prompted Fox to join the Marines. He thought he would stay for a few years, then retire.
Except that’s not what happened. In the end, Fox would spend 43 years in the Marines.
The action for which Fox received a Medal of Honor occurred in February 1969, shortly after he’d extended a tour of duty in Vietnam. Then-First Lieutenant Fox was commanding a Marine rifle company near A Shau Valley. His mission, in his own words, was to “see if an enemy unit was where it was the day before, and if it was to do something about it.”
“Well, I found them,” he concluded simply. Would it have been better if he hadn’t? That enemy force was unfortunately bigger than Fox’s own company, which was down to about 90 men.
The Marines were soon taking heavy fire, including a rocket-propelled grenade that exploded near Fox, slamming shrapnel into his shoulder. Just then, a Vietnamese sniper took out a Marine standing near Fox before trying to hit Fox, too. Fox grabbed a rifle from the fallen Marine and shot the sniper instead.
By then, Fox had a big problem on his hands. It was a rainy, cloudy day, which made it impossible to get air support. We “couldn’t use air, artillery, anything else,” Fox explained. “It was nothing but a rifleman’s fight.”
Fox wanted to retreat. He was wounded, and his Marines were falling left and right. But he quickly realized that retreat wasn’t really a viable option. He couldn’t—and wouldn’t—leave any of his wounded behind.
He was a Marine. And Marines simply don’t do that.
On the other hand, Fox didn’t have enough manpower to get out the wounded and to cover a retreat at the same time. Retreat would leave his men more exposed. “So at that point, the one thing I did was made the decision that we’ll win this fight,” he later said. “We’ll either walk out or we’ll all stay in the valley.”
Things got worse before they got better. Just as Fox was communicating to his platoon leaders what he intended to do, a mortar round came in. Soon every member of his command team had been killed or wounded.
Of course, Fox had been wounded, too. Nevertheless he continued on, reorganizing his Marines, taking out enemy emplacements, and pushing the attack forward.
Fortunately, relief finally came in the form of a break in the clouds. American planes broke through, taking out a machine gun in a critical location. The Vietnamese troops began pulling back. Fox was able to establish a defensive position, ensuring that his Marines could be evacuated. He’d been wounded multiple times, but he refused to leave until his men were all safe.
He later received a Medal of Honor for his actions that day. The presentation of that Medal was delayed by political discontent over Vietnam, but Fox seemed to take it in stride.
“I’m pleased and proud to wear it for the Marine Corps,” he would say of the Medal, “and what my Marines did on that particular fight. . . . I feel a little bit of an emptiness in knowing that there were others deserved in that fight that were not awarded, again, because nobody was there to tell the story.”
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Medal of Honor citation (Wesley L. Fox; Vietnam)
Medal of Honor oral histories (Wesley Fox; Vietnam)
Peter Collier, Choosing Courage: Inspiring Stories of What It Means to Be a Hero (2015)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)
Thomas Yarborough, A Shau Valor: American Combat Operations in the Valley of Death, 1963–1971 (2016)
Wesley L. Fox, Marine Rifleman: Forty-Three Years in the Corps (2002)