Army Sgt. 1st Class Eugene Ashley Jr.’s bravery was integral in rescuing Special Forces troops during the Battle of Lang Vei, which marked the first enemy use of tanks in the Vietnam War. Ashley, a Green Beret, never made it home from the war, but his determination earned him unending respect and the Medal of Honor.
Ashley was born on Oct. 12, 1931, in Wilmington, N.C., to Eugene and Cornelia Ashley. He had two sisters, Gertrude and Louis.
Not long after Ashely was born, the family moved to New York City, where he grew up and attended Alexander Hamilton High School. After graduation, Ashley was weary of going into a dead-end job, so on Dec. 7, 1950, he joined the Army.
Since the Korean War was in progress, Ashley was initially sent to serve there with the 187th Regimental Combat Team. In the years after he returned, he served in many capacities, including as an infantryman, ambulance driver, anti-aircraft ammunition handler and as a specialist in heavy weapons and parachute repair. He also served as a cavalry and armored battle group squad leader, as well as a company sergeant.
Ashley was in the 82nd Airborne Division when he volunteered to join the Special Forces. After training, he was assigned to Company C of the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces.
At some point, Ashley met and married his wife, Barbara. They had five children before he was sent to Vietnam in January 1968, just as North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive was beginning.
By February, Ashley was serving as a senior advisor in the 5th SFG’s Detachment A-101 at Special Forces Camp Lang Vei in the northwest corner of South Vietnam. Located about a mile from the Laos border and 8 kilometers west of the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh, the camp was established in December 1966 as an outpost where Ashley’s detachment could train and equip locally recruited Vietnamese soldiers.
According to an Army Center of Military History publication by late Army Col. John A. Cash, the enemy infiltrated Lang Vei in May 1967, so the camp was moved further west that September. From that time on, the area became battered by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong artillery fire, including on Feb. 6, 1968.
Tanks and trapped soldiers
That night, shortly after midnight, North Vietnamese troops drove Soviet-built tanks into the camp’s outskirts, marking the first time the enemy had used tanks in combat. According to an Army Special Warfare Center publication, “although the [Lang Vei] team radioed for help, they could not convince anyone in Khe Sanh … that tanks were indeed ‘in the wire.'” Cash said that Khe Sanh’s leaders denied several requests for help because they were concerned about ground relief forces being ambushed, as well as assaults via helicopter not being helpful “because it was dark and the enemy had armor.”
To the Green Berets and few local soldiers who were willing to fight, that meant they were on their own. And because the camp didn’t have adequate anti-tank weapons, the tanks were able to breach the camp’s inner perimeter, trapping several U.S. soldiers, most of whom were inside the camp’s command bunker.
Ashley happened to be at the old camp further east as the attack unfolded. Since the enemy had chosen to leave that area largely unscathed, he immediately began coordinating a defense that included high-explosive and illumination mortar rounds. When communications were lost with the main camp, the 36-year-old assumed the additional responsibility of directing air strikes and artillery support.
Ashley was also put in charge of a small assault force that included two other American soldiers, Sgt. Richard H. Allen and Spec. 4 Joel Johnson, and local friendly personnel. Their mission: to rescue the men trapped inside the main camp. Unfortunately, the local soldiers refused to go into the camp to fight until daybreak.
When dawn finally came, Ashley led that team on five intense assaults against the enemy. Each time, he put himself in the direct line of fire of grenades, machine guns and automatic weapons, and he had to dodge several booby-trapped satchel charges. He also continued to call for more air strikes. Each attempt diverted the enemy’s attention away from the trapped men in the command bunker.
Eventually, Ashley was hit by machine-gun fire that tore through the right side of his chest and went through the radio on his back. It was a serious wound, but he was only 30 yards from the command bunker, so he refused to give up.
Shortly after 11 a.m., Ashley adjusted air strikes one more time so they would come down nearly on top of his unit. The move forced the enemy to withdraw and carved an escape path for the men trapped in the bunker.
As that was happening, Ashley lost consciousness. According to Cash, Johnson and Allen managed to drag him out of the line of fire and, with help from some local soldiers, carried him back to an area of relative safety. When a Jeep arrived, they loaded Ashley into it and drove off. Unfortunately, when the Jeep stopped and Allen jumped out in search of bandages, Cash reported that “an enemy artillery round burst nearby, killing Ashley and knocking Johnson unconscious.”
By the end of the battle, Lang Vei was lost to the enemy. Of the 24 Americans stationed at the camp, 10 were killed or missing, including Ashley, and 11 more were wounded.
Ashley’s valor and his disregard for his own safety inspired the men around him. According to an Army Special Warfare Center publication, many of his fellow soldiers considered him a fatherly type of man, and they said that without his steadfast commitment that day, there likely would have been no survivors.
For paying the ultimate sacrifice, the Medal of Honor was posthumously bestowed upon Ashley. His family received it from Vice President Spiro Agnew during a Dec. 2, 1969, ceremony in Washington. Two other men who gave their lives in Vietnam — Army Staff Sgt. Clifford Sims and Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Terrence Graves — were also honored with the medal that day.
Ashley’s body was eventually returned to the U.S. He was buried in Rockfish Memorial Park Cemetery in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
The Green Beret’s legacy has lived on in the Army and in his hometown. In 2001, the Eugene Ashley Jr. High School, located south of Wilmington, was dedicated in his honor. In 2013, a Fort Campbell operations complex for the 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) was named Ashley Hall. In 2019, Ashley was inducted into the U.S. Special Operations Command’s Commando Hall of Honor.
Ashley’s son, Darrin, who was two in 1968, said his hero father’s legacy led him to become a soldier, according to a 1991 South Bend (Indiana) Tribune article. Darrin Ashley served during the Gulf War and retired in the early 2000s.
Editor’s note: Medal of Honor Monday highlights Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.