Simple challenge lured one to serve 43 years

23 Aug 2002 | Sgt. Andrew D. Pomykal

I will venture to say most young people have heroes. Mine included John Wayne, Olympic swimmer and actor Johnny Wiessmuller, pro football/baseball standout and actor Chuck Connors of the TV series "The Rifleman," singer and actor Johnny Cash, the original "Man in Black," and of course, my grandfather.  These are all men of diversified talents, uncanny athletic prowess or hard-edged personalities steeled by experience. Their larger-than-life characterizations and images epitomized my young ideals about manhood.

If I had learned about retired Marine Col. Wesley L. Fox before I read his autobiography, "Marine Rifleman, 43 years in the Corps," I definitely would have included him on my list of heroes. As a former "grunt" myself, he seemed like a Marine leader I'd follow into hell if the mission dictated.

He was born in depression-era Virginia in 1931 and grew up with humble beginnings and little education.

Fox, the first of 10 farm-family children and hailing from a long family lineage of military service, decided to answer his nation's call when communist forces crossed the 38th parallel in Korea in 1950.

The 18-year-old Virginian, having seen John Wayne's depiction of Marine Sgt. Stryker in Hollywood's "Sands of Iwo Jima" and a recruiting poster, headed for Washington to seek a Marine recruiter.  The destiny he found spanned 43 years of active duty and earned him the Medal of Honor, two awards of the Legion of Merit, a Bronze Star with Combat V, and three awards of the Purple Heart.

I had the honor of speaking with the career infantryman during his visit here Aug. 15-16 and pestered the "old salt" for valuable insight.

What prompted you to write an autobiography?

"In 1964, a public information sergeant suggested that I should tell my force reconnaissance story. After that, many Marines stated an interest in hearing more about my experiences, asking when I would write a book. I also won the Marine Corps Association's Wilcox Award for my recount of Operation Dewey Canyon in Vietnam that was printed in The Gazette."

Forty-three years of service and a fast rise from private to colonel - what was your biggest accomplishment?

"Receiving my commission in Vietnam. While I never wore the stripes of a first sergeant, my record shows that I was one from May 16 to 27, 1966. I had already been temporarily field commissioned by the time the enlisted warrant caught up to me. At that time, the Corps needed lieutenants faster than it could produce them. Getting my education was another highlight ... the requisite college degree required of an officer."

Characterize your impression of today's "Marine breed."

"Puller said it best, 'New breed, old breed -- it doesn't matter as long as it's the Marine breed.' Today's Marines are better educated and trained, especially the infantry. They're motivated and more capable of doing a variety of things. It was a pleasure to work with young, hardworking Marines who took pride in seeing the results of their labor."

Compare or contrast enlisted and officer leadership.

"There is no real difference. It all boils down to their personal involvement. The Marine Corps is the epitome of good leadership, which we've always had."

What lessons learned in Vietnam, if any, could Marines use during the "War on Terrorism?"

"This war won't be won by attrition. It is similar to our Japanese opposition during World War II. They fought to the death. Our present enemies have perpetrated their "holy war" on America. It's difficult to defeat an ideology."

How important is a diversified Marine Corps career?

"There are a lot of new specialty trades now. I think we are getting away from 'Every Marine, a rifleman.' The Corps is still moving forward with technology, but maybe we should back off and slim down a bit. All the gadgets are great tools, but when do you consider a Marine overloaded? Too much reliance on the newest widget vice time-tested skills could become a liability on the battlefield."

Some say a "Why me" or "Semper I" attitude pervades today's Corps. Explain how an individual's attitude helps to sculpt a Marine's career.

"Good leaders find a way to motivate Marines and improve their attitudes. We take raw recruits and form them into a workable product, but we can only do so much to counteract the ills of our culture that bleed over into our ranks. Those bad apples are a minority contrary to the Marine spirit. Regardless of the barriers before you, if you want something strongly enough, continue to work hard for it."

You spent considerable time abroad conducting the Corps' business. How important is family support for a deployed Marine.

"Very important. My wife was 100 percent supportive of my career and all that I did. Of course, it was easier to deal with separations and the hardships of marriage because of our maturity. I didn't get married until I was 26. I hate to see young Marines get married too early. Way back when, Marines couldn't get married until they were sergeants or staff sergeants ... when they were more established and responsible."

What advice would you offer young Marines today?

"Set short-term, medium-range and long-term goals. Stay focused and work toward them. Plan financially for yourself as well as the education of your children."

Fox's career spans combat tours in Korea and Vietnam, drill instructor duty at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, recruiting duty, force reconnaissance, competitive pistol and rifle matches, duty in Paris, Marine Security Guard duty, and graduation from the Army War College.  The only thing he said he has missed out on is a Mediterranean cruise.

Pack your sea bags, colonel. The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit sets sail later this year.