WASHINGTON — Wesley Fox, a retired Marine Corps colonel who received the Medal of Honor for rallying his men during a Vietnam War operation that decimated enemy sanctuaries along the mountain jungle border with Laos, died Nov. 24 at his home in Blacksburg, Va. He was 86.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society announced his death but did not provide a cause.
Mr. Fox, a self-described farm boy from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, grew up entranced by tales of forebears who shed blood for the Confederacy to fight what they called ‘‘Yankee aggression.’’ He quipped that his middle name — Lee — made explicit his family’s devotion to their Southern heritage.
When the Korean War began in 1950, he later told Vietnam Magazine, ‘‘I saw it as a chance to catch up to my cousin Norman, who’d jumped into Italy and Normandy in World War II. Because of him, I was interested in the Airborne.’’
He was wounded in action while serving as a rifleman and, after the war, became a drill instructor, recruiter, master parachutist, and award-winning shooter at service rifle and pistol matches.
Above all, he told the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, he yearned to return to combat and saw President Lyndon B. Johnson’s announcement about committing ground troops to Vietnam as his chance.
Because of a huge demand for seasoned Marine leaders in Vietnam, he received a temporary commission as a second lieutenant in 1966. He arrived the next year, advising a South Vietnamese Marine battalion whose tactics, he said, were best summed up as ‘‘search-and-avoid.’’
He was promoted to first lieutenant and rifle company commander in time to participate in Operation Dewey Canyon, which became one of the Marines’ last major offenses of the war. The mission, in two phases starting in January 1969, was to disrupt a North Vietnamese military division on the border with Laos — and to attack when the enemy least expected it.
There were heavy casualties.
After several skirmishes over many weeks, Mr. Fox had fewer than 90 Marines left in his 240-man rifle company by the time he ‘‘locked into’’ a much larger and well-concealed group of North Vietnamese Army regulars on Feb. 22, 1969 — ‘‘a rainy, miserable, cloudy day,’’ he recalled to the Veterans History Project. He described the terse pep talk he gave his men: ‘‘I had the opportunity to look ‘em in the eyeballs and say, ‘This is what we do.’ ”
President Nixon awarded then-Captain Fox the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor, in 1971.