Medal of Honor recipient wishes he could serve in Iraq
Thursday, March 09, 2006


BIG STONE GAP - Retired Marine Col. Wesley Fox told an enthralled crowd of about 350 students, admirers and the simply curious at Mountain Empire Community College on Wednesday that he favors an all-volunteer military force "where everybody is gung ho and going for the jugular."

Fox, one of the longest-serving and most highly decorated Marines in the history of the Corps, certainly had his audience by the throat in the college's packed Goodloe Center.

Sprinkling barracks humor in with his straightforward reprise of combat experiences during a 43-year USMC career that spanned two wars (Korea and Vietnam), the Medal of Honor recipient - one of just 116 still living - kept the throng chuckling and spellbound.

Awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during a battle in the A Shau Valley of South Vietnam on Feb. 22, 1969, Fox said Wednesday the medal truly belongs to the 90 or so men in his under-strength Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Regiment, 3rd Marine Division - and, that he is proud to wear the nation's highest honor for them.

"There were many, many Medals of Honor earned in that jungle that day," Fox said.

Alpha 1/9's mission was to determine whether an enemy force thought to have been operating in an area of triple-canopy jungle, still was.

"We didn't expect them to be there, because they never were. But that day, they were there all right."

A full-strength Marine company, with attachments, is about 240 individuals, Fox said. The 90 Marines led by then-1st Lt. Fox - a captain typically is in command of a company - did the work of 240. Fox lost all of his platoon leaders right off the bat. Twice wounded himself, Fox credits the well-trained, motivated individual Marines of his company for winning the field of battle against a well-entrenched enemy. By the time it was over, 105 enemy soldiers died at their fighting positions. Eleven of Fox's Marines were killed, and 58 had to be medevac'd.

"My Marines that day fought like a tiger," he said. "They (exemplified) that Marine spirit. (Because of the jungle) there was not a lot I could do to influence that fight. There were more Marines more deserving of (the Medal of Honor) than me. But all the (many other heroic) true stories that day got lost in the jungle."

Fox did not intend to build a storied 43-year career in the Corps. After one hitch, he figured to be back on the family farm in Warren County, Va. Instead, he got his first lessons in leadership and esprit de corps from a senior drill instructor at Parris Island, S.C., including a well-aimed boot to the seat of his pants to make the lesson clear, and from his squad leader during the Korean War, Cpl. Myron Davis of Pocatello, Idaho, who died in 1992.

The two Marines taught Fox two types of leadership, he said. Boot Marines performed duties to the best of their ability in fear that if they didn't, the drill instructor would find out. But Marines in Davis' squad in Korea performed their best at all things whether or not Davis would ever know. That Fox, a Medal of Honor recipient, still regards with highest respect and honor a squad leader by the name of Cpl. Davis comes through loud and clear today.

Fox is a rare breed of Marine who started out as a private and wound up a full-bird colonel. By the time the war in Vietnam was heating up, Fox held the rank of first sergeant. A dire shortage of second lieutenants to fulfill the military buildup in Southeast Asia and an executive order compelled the Marine Corps to select 5,000 high-ranking NCOs (non-commissioned officers) to become "temporary" second lieutenants. The temporary status held true only because Fox soon enough found himself a first lieutenant in charge of Alpha Company by Feb. 22, 1969, and by 1993 and after 43 years had to be practically marched smartly at gunpoint into retirement as a colonel.

Fox said he still wishes he could serve and lead Marines in Iraq today, and there is every reason to believe him. Natasha Rutherford, a junior at East Tennessee State University, and her best friend, Heather Huff, in her second year of studies at MECC, were prepared to be wowed. Rutherford and Huff graduated together from Lee High School in 2004.

Rutherford said she wanted to see and hear Fox partially in respect for her grandfather, the late Roy Rutherford of Big Stone Gap, and partially because she is "a history buff. I love history, and I guess more than anything there are patriotic reasons."

Huff said she attended partially because she would get extra credit for a history class, "but really it's because it will be an honor to meet someone with that great experience."

MECC history professor Mike Strouth said the appearance by Fox is part of the college's "Living Legends" type series that has already enjoyed a talk by Shifty Powers of Clinchco and of "Band of Brothers" fame, and the program plans to host Francis Gary Powers Jr. this fall.

"We just need to grab these guys before they're gone, especially the World War II veterans," Strouth said. "These gentlemen need to have their stories told, and told especially to this generation (of college students)."