- James Houser
February 7, 1968 - SFC Eugene Ashley's Action that Merits the Medal of Honor
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
Black History Month Post: February 7, 1968. The North Vietnamese 24th Regiment, with the support of at least 22 tanks, attacks the Allied outpost of Lang Vei. Sergeant First Class Eugene Ashley stands against them. Those aren't good odds for the Vietnamese.
United States forces in Vietnam were hard pressed on all sides in 1968. The Tet Offensive was sucking thousands of soldiers into terrible urban battles and jungle actions, and the Marines were still holding out under constant pressure at Khe Sanh. The PAVN (People's Army of Vietnam, the North Vietnamese Army) was placing steady pressure all along the border, and in January 1968 employed their armor forces for the first time against pressure points in the Allied line. Looping through Laos, the PAVN tanks and infantry overran a Laotian outpost and forced its soldiers and thousands of civilians to flee into South Vietnam, seeking shelter. The Vietnamese pursued, hoping to breach the outpost of Lang Vei and flank the stronghold of Khe Sanh.
In their way at Lang Vei stood a small battalion of South Vietnamese (ARVN) and Montagnard forces, alongside the shattered Laotian troops, coordinated by Captain Frank C. Willoughby. Desperate to preserve this outpost, the US inserted 24 Green Berets - U.S. Army Special Forces, 5th Group - into Lang Vei to brace the defenders and resist the PAVN intrusion.
One of these SF soldiers was Sergeant First Class Eugene Ashley, Jr. An African-American, born in North Carolina and raised in New York City, Ashley had joined the Army during Korea, so his American experience was dominated by the Civil Rights and desegregation movements. The military's early desegregation meant that it was one of the only routes for a young black man to actually move up in the America of the 1950s, so Ashley would stay in, serving with distinction and eventually becoming one of the elite Green Berets.
On February 6, the outpost at Lang Vei was put under heavy pressure from the PAVN troops and tanks. Despite constant air and artillery strikes, the North Vietnamese forces overwhelmed the Americans and ARVN soldiers; the Laotians fled almost instantly. Eventually the attackers overran the compound, leaving 4 Americans - including Willoughby - and 50 Montagnard troops trapped in the command bunker.
The next day - February 7 - Sergeant Ashley decided to lead a strike force to rescue the trapped Americans and Vietnamese allies. Gathering up about 100 Laotian forces, Ashley browbeat them into coming with him to break through to the encircled friendlies. Calling in mortar and artillery rounds from an exposed position, Ashley led four attempts that day, rousing his scattered troops and reforming after each failed attempt. On his fifth and final attack, Ashley saw his reluctant Laotian troops finally melt away under a hail of tank and machine gun fire.
Exposed and alone, Ashley remained behind as the PAVN forces closed in, calling artillery on his own position to break up the enemy attack. During his resistance, he was critically wounded by a machine gun round. As his Laotian allies tried to drag him to safety, an explosive artillery round landed near them. After leading five attacks, SFC Ashley died instantly.
But he had accomplished his mission. Ashley's attacks distracted the North Vietnamese long enough for Willoughby and his survivors to slip through enemy lines and escape. Almost all the men trapped were able to escape; the Vietnamese had taken Lang Vei, but the Americans had gotten their men out.
For his actions at Lang Vei, Sergeant First Class Eugene Ashley was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on December 2, 1969. He was buried and lies still in Fayetteville, North Carolina, close to home but far from where he died in a foreign land. He had joined an Army where men like General Edmond M. Almond still believed that blacks could not fight and would rather run from combat. He died in an Army where everyone had long since come to realize how truly misguided that mindset was, proving them wrong.
Two months almost to the day after SFC Ashley's death, Martin Luther King Jr. would be assassinated in Memphis. Even if the U.S. Army had learned the truth, so many back home had not - and many still have not. The shadow of racial prejudice still hung over the nation. It hangs still.
For the Black experience in Vietnam, see James E. Westheider's Fighting on Two Fronts: African-Americans and the Vietnam War (New York: New York University Press, 1997).