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Wesley Fox: Leadership lessons steeled in combat from Korea to Vietnam

In addition to the Medal of Honor, Wesley Fox has been awarded the Megion of Merit twice, a Bronze Star with "V" Device and four Purple Hearts. (Photo courtesy of Wesley Fox)Medal of Honor recipient Wesley Fox learned vital leadership lessons as an 18-year-old Marine in Korea that served him well for his 43 years in the Corps—especially during a desperate fight against overwhelming odds in the A Shau Valley on February 22, 1969. Retired at 62 after holding virtually every Marine Corps rank from private to colonel, Fox still inspires new generations of leaders. His latest book, Six Essential Elements of Leadership: Marine Corps Wisdom of a Medal of Honor Recipient, is an extraordinarily cogent guide to everyone—military or civilian—who seeks to lead others effectively. In a recent interview, Fox reflects on his long Marine career and the key elements of leadership.

What led a Virginia farm boy to join the Marine Corps in 1950?
I’d quit school before I was 17 and started working on a farm my dad bought in Northern Virginia. When the Korean War started, I saw it as a chance to catch up to my cousin Norman, who’d jumped into Italy and Normandy in WWII. Because of him, I was interested in the Airborne. I knew I wanted to be a paratrooper or a Marine. A friend who’d been in the Army said: “You wouldn’t be happy in the Army. You’re the Marine type.” So, one rainy day when we couldn’t work on the farm, 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.

When did you go to Korea?
I joined in August 1950 and was in Korea by January 1951. We had no infantry training. It was just after the Chosin Reservoir thing and we were back at Pusan. I was a Browning automatic rifleman and was there three weeks before the assault on the North resumed. My first squad leader, Corporal Myron Davis, was the inspiration that made me a Marine for a lifetime, despite my desire to get back to the farm.

By September, after you’d been wounded twice, how did your stay at Bethesda Naval Hospital turn out to be pivotal to your future?
While at Bethesda Naval Hospital, I talked to a lot of old salts and decided on all the things I wanted to do in the Marines. First I wanted to get back to my unit in Korea, so I sent letters to the Marine commandant requesting to be sent back. When I recovered, I got stuck in Armed Forces Police in D.C., but kept sending letters asking to go back to the war. After about two years, I finally was told that I didn’t have enough time in my enlistment to go back—unless I extended a year. I said “great,” and got orders to a replacement unit, but I was sent to Japan. I spent about a year there. As my extension was about to expire, I agreed to reenlist for six years—if I was guaranteed to be sent back to Korea. I was, but when I reported, the shooting war had ended. I figured I’d reenlisted for six years, so that’s 10, and if I stay in for another 10, I could retire and do all that I wanted to do, including a Med cruise to “see the southern part of France, where the women wear no pants.” In 43 years, I never did get a Med cruise.

What did you do over the next 10 years?
I did most of what I’d wanted. I was a drill instructor, did recruiting duties and made the grade in 1st Force Reconnaissance Company and started jumping out of airplanes. I was in the Pathfinders and did a tour in Okinawa.

How about when the Vietnam War started?
When Marines got committed, I realized, “Damn, I’m in Jacksonville when I need to get in the next Marine contact.” I talked to my monitor, and he said I needed to put in a request to him. But he also said he wanted to send me to Paris as the first USMC security and honor guard platoon sergeant. I said: “Thanks, but no thanks. I want to go to Vietnam.” I was shooting pistol matches at the time and it would be six weeks before I returned to Jacksonville to put in my letter. I got back and the NCO said, “You lucky bastard, how did you get orders to Paris?” Since I hadn’t sent my letter, I was sent to Paris for a three-year tour.

So, how did you get to Vietnam?
The Marines badly needed lieutenants, more than they could get through normal means, so they decided to select 5,000 NCOs for temporary commissions. I was commissioned as a second lieutenant while in Paris, then came back to the United States to prepare to go to Vietnam.

When did you go and in what capacity?
In 1966 I was sent Camp Lejuene with 2nd Force Recon for about a year. After going through Army adviser courses at Fort Bragg, it was off to Vietnam in September 1967. I advised the executive officer of a South Vietnamese Marine battalion. I was not impressed, except for higher ups who did impress me with the fact that they didn’t want the war to end until they’d made enough money out of it. Tet happened halfway through my tour, and we were called up to Saigon and did a pretty good job. But when my tour was over, I wasn’t happy with what I’d experienced.

What happened in the A Shau Valley?
I really wanted to go to I Corps, where we could get on with what war is all about. My wife reluctantly agreed with my decision to extend my tour. I would have a much better chance to get a regular commission if I could get command of a rifle company. So I headed north to join the 1/9 Marines. I met with Lt. Col. George Smith and got to command a rifle company in A Shau Valley during Operation Dewey Canyon. It was the rainy season and we couldn’t get helicopter support. On February 22, 1969, my understrength company came under intense fire from a large well-concealed force. I got shrapnel from an RPG, and a sniper that had killed one of my Marines just missed me, before I shot him. I decided we had to go right at them.

Wounded and with a decimated leadership, you decided to take on a much larger force anyway?
Though I wanted to break contact and get out of there, the realization of what that involved made my decision easy. I couldn’t leave without knowing I had every Marine with me. Having to carry my dead and wounded out, I wouldn’t have any Marines left to hold off the enemy, so I couldn’t do that without losing every Marine we had. I figured we would all stay in that valley forever or we would all walk out together.

How do you keep your head in a combat situation like that?
The best way to keep your cool is to keep thinking and doing things and don’t get locked into the idea you can’t do anything. The only time I came close to lose it was when the machine gun had me pinned down in that hole, firing right over me. I couldn’t do a damn thing but lay there and think about it. I really don’t know where it would have gone from there if it hadn’t been for the clouds moving out. I thought, damn, I’ve got to be able to use air support. Fortunately, I had a radio and called Colonel Smith. He said, “I’ve got a couple OV-10s on station just in case you can use ’em.” That was beautiful. That’s the kind of commander he was. So my Marines marked their positions with smoke and we had those OVs come in on that machine gun. If it hadn’t been for those two OV-10s, probably none of us would be walking this earth today.

What was the key to your success there?
I get credit for my company overcoming the larger force, but I could never influence the whole company in that heavy jungle. We were successful because of what we had done at Vandergrift days earlier. For example, I learned my squad was not setting up “L” shaped ambushes, as they’d been trained, but for some reason were forming a wagon wheel. So, one of the first things I did was talk about what they were doing versus what they were trained to do. At first they thought I was an asshole, but we started talking about all that stuff and they started contributing and getting involved. We talked about just how we would do things so each Marine knew what to expect of the others. We communicated, and it really paid off. That’s the reason we won on February 22.

How did you learn you were up for the Medal of Honor for that battle?
A couple days after the fight, I was with Colonel Smith talking about our operations. He then said, “Oh, by the way I’m putting you in for the Medal of Honor.” I about fell over. I didn’t think I deserved it. Or, to put it another way, there were many other Marines in that fight deserving of the same medal. I didn’t see what Leroy Herron and Bill Christman did, but I knew what they did. Since all their witnesses were either killed or medevaced out right away, they were downgraded to a Navy Cross. I know at least six other Marines who deserved the Medal of Honor for what they did that day.

Why did it take until 1971 for your MOH presentation?
In January 1970, then full Colonel Smith, who was working at Pentagon, called to tell me Congress had approved my award, that it was on President Nixon’s desk and I should stand by to get the medal any day. I was then a tactics instructor at Basic School and I would be introduced to new students as “will receive the Medal of Honor shortly.” I heard that for 15 damned months…. The reason was Nixon wanted to keep the war out of the news, so he waited until he got seven Medal of Honor recipients and had us all at the White House at the same time. What hurt worst was I couldn’t have anyone there but immediate family, not Colonel Smith or any other Marine who was in that fight. The same for the other six. It never really hit home until I attended Dakota Meyer’s presentation last year in the White House with about a dozen of us MOH holders there and the room was packed. It was a real put down.

You’ve written about Vietnam, “Body count was the culprit.” What does that mean?
If the body count was good, an operation was considered a success. If there really are bodies on the ground, maybe there’s something to that. When I’d call in artillery on a contact on a ridge or valley, I’d have to give a body count. Maybe we killed some; maybe not. When the major or whoever on the radio would press for a number, I’d just pull it out of my butt. A fellow company commander, Captain Ed Riley, would never do that. He’d say: “If you want a body count, you come out here and get it. I’m not going to lie.” Not enough of us were the Ed Riley type.

Wasn’t that demoralizing and dangerous?
With all the pressure on us, we’d give a number and get on with what we were doing out there in the bush. That really hurt when they totaled all the figures in Washington and it looked like were doing something different than we were actually doing. Hanoi must have wondered, “Where are we getting all these men?” We are a hell of a military if the commander doesn’t put out the right word to his men.

Who influenced you most as a leader?
Corporal Davis in Korea was the first to impress on me the importance of caring for your men. It was obvious to me and all our squad that he really cared about us, not about his position. That got me on the correct leadership path, which I followed for the next 43 years in the Marines. He and Colonel George Smith, a great Marine leader, were at the very top. Care was expressed in everything they did. They got me to where I am today.

Who did you write your new book on leadership for?
Everybody. Military, civilians, young and old. Universities have degrees in all kinds of management, but where do you take a course in leadership or get a degree in something as important as leadership?

Which of your six essential elements of leadership—care, personality, knowledge, motivation, commitment, communication—is the most essential?
Care. If a leader doesn’t care, he is maybe a director, but he is not a leader. If he doesn’t care about his people, they are not with him all the way down the road.

What is the most important message about leadership you want to impart?
We need to realize that leading others is what leadership is all about and it’s what our country and our communities need. Leaders have followers, not subordinates. Leaders care and do the right thing, not just for their personal benefit or for the bottom line, but for their team.

The President of the United States
in the name of The Congress
takes pleasure in presenting the
Medal of Honor
Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Marine Corps, Company A, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, 3d Marine Division. Place and date: Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam, 22 February 1969. Entered service at: Leesburg, Va. Born: 30 September 1931, Herndon, Va.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as commanding officer of Company A, in action against the enemy in the northern A Shau Valley. Capt. (then 1st Lt.) Fox’s company came under intense fire from a large well concealed enemy force. Capt. Fox maneuvered to a position from which he could assess the situation and confer with his platoon leaders.

As they departed to execute the plan he had devised, the enemy attacked and Capt.Fox was wounded along with all of the other members of the command group, except the executive officer. Capt. Fox continued to direct the activity of his company. Advancing through heavy enemy fire, he personally neutralized 1 enemy position and calmly ordered an assault against the hostile emplacements. He then moved through the hazardous area coordinating aircraft support with the activities of his men. When his executive officer was mortally wounded, Capt. Fox reorganized the company and directed the fire of his men as they hurled grenades against the enemy and drove the hostile forces into retreat.

Wounded again in the final assault, Capt. Fox refused medical attention, established a defensive posture, and supervised the preparation of casualties for medical evacuation.

His indomitable courage, inspiring initiative, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of grave personal danger inspired his marines to such aggressive action that they overcame all enemy resistance and destroyed a large bunker complex. Capt. Fox’s heroic actions reflect great credit upon himself and the Marine Corps, and uphold the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.