During the battle on February 6-7, 1968 at the Special Forces A-Camp at Lang Vei, NVA troops used armor for the first time against American and South Vietnamese positions. Lang Vei had to be taken before the NVA unleashed 40,000 troops against the Marine base at Khe Sanh.
During the battle, as the SF camp was being overrun, SFC Eugene Ashley of Company C, of the 5th Special Forces Group, led five different counterattacks trying to rescue his fellow American SF comrades. On the fifth and final assault, he was killed by artillery fire. His family was presented with his posthumous Medal of Honor by Vice President Spiro Agnew.
Early Life and Military Career:
Ashley was born in Wilmington, North Carolina on October 12, 1931. Shortly after he was born, his family moved to New York City where he attended Alexander Hamilton High School. Ashley joined the U.S. Army in 1950 and served in the Korean War with the 187th Regimental Combat Team.
He held a variety of different jobs in the Army including infantryman, ambulance driver, anti-aircraft ammunition handler, and specialist in heavy weapons and parachute repair. He served as in the cavalry and armored battle group as a squad leader and company sergeant with an airborne battalion.
He joined Special Forces and at the time of the battle in Lang Vei was an Intelligence Sergeant in Company C, the 5th Special Forces Group. He was remembered by his comrades at that time as a “professional NCO who took care of his troops” and as a “fatherly figure” for his many years of service and experience.
Background to the Battle:
The Special Forces camp at Lang Vei was occupied by an A-Team, Detachment A-101 commanded by Captain Frank Willoughby was a 12-man detachment with 14 South Vietnamese SF, and had about 280 Montagnard CIDG strikers. They were augmented by another Special Forces A-Team with 161 Hre tribesman of the Mobile Strike Force, commanded by LT Paul Longgrear.
But the NVA was throwing a regiment from the 304th Division and a battalion from the 325th Division. Reinforcing the NVA was a company of PT-76 light amphibious tanks part of the 198th Tank Battalion, 203rd Armored Regiment.
Prior to the battle, the NVA had made its intentions well-known by taking the nearby Khe Sanh village and Ban Houei Sane on January 23, which housed a Laotian unit that had been monitoring the Ho Chi Minh trail. Thousands of civilian refugees streamed into Lang Vei, where the Special Forces team placed them in their older A-Camp which they’d abandoned for a better built one, 1000 meters to the east.
No Quarter Battle:
On the night of February 6-7, 1968 the SF team could hear engine noises emanating from the jungle approaching the camp. Then about 2330 hours, the NVA began pounding the camp with concentrated artillery fire.
From the camp’s observation point above their tactical operations HQs. SFC Nicholas Fragos gave the report, “Tanks in the wire!” Willoughby called for artillery support and reinforcement from the Marine base. The request was denied as the Marines refused to believe that the NVA had tanks. However, artillery and air strikes from Air Force C-119 gunships took a toll on the NVA massing in the area right outside the camp perimeter.
SFC James Holt, manning a 106mm recoilless rifle, one of only two in the camp, knocked out three of the PT-76 tanks, but several others easily rolled over the wire and penetrated the camp’s perimeter. The SF troops had a very early version of the M-72 LAW rocket but these proved to be mainly worthless. Many of them jammed or didn’t fire.
The NVA by 0230 had pushed the Americans back thru most of the camp. Willoughby, seven other American SF, 3 South Vietnamese SF, and 26 CIDG strikers were trapped underground in the tactical operations HQs.
The NVA threw grenades, explosives and tear gas grenades down into the bunker. A voice in English immediately ordered the Americans to surrender. The three South Vietnamese ran out to surrender and were immediately gunned down. After another verbal exchange where the Americans refused to surrender, the NVA attempted to blast them out with explosives.
Meanwhile, SFC Ashley at dawn rallied a force of Laotian troops who were not in any mood to take on the NVA. But Ashley was intent on rescuing the Americans trapped in the camp. His first assault with the timid Laotians was driven back by heavy, concentrated machine gun fire.
Accompanied by two SF Medics, Ashley reformed his Laotian troops and then was joined by SFC William T. Craig and SSG Tiroch who had escaped from the Lang Vei. They illuminated the camp with mortar rounds and pounded the NVA while calling in artillery and air strikes. During his fourth assault, Ashley called in air strikes on the NVA that was nearly on top of his own position.
He was severely wounded in the chest during the fifth assault but refused to be evacuated and continued to lead his combined US/Laotian assault team but he finally lost consciousness only 30 yards from the command bunker. While being taken to the rear, an NVA artillery shell landed nearby and killed Ashley. His surviving SF comrades said, without his counterattacks, none of the men inside the bunker would have survived.
With the situation desperate, Willoughby and the surviving SF men broke out of the bunker and made it to the old SF camp 1000 meters away. There they were rescued by a combined SF/Marine force that had been ordered by General Westmoreland, commander of US troops in Vietnam after he’d been briefed on the attack at Lang Vei.
The combined Montagnard and South Vietnamese CIDG took heavy casualties: 309 killed, 64 wounded, and 122 captured. Of the original 24 Americans at Lang Vei, seven were killed in action, 11 were wounded, and three were captured.
Ashley’s family was presented with his posthumous Medal of Honor by VP Spiro Agnew in November of 1969. He is buried in Rockfish Memorial Park, Fayetteville, NC. In 2001, the Eugene Ashley Jr. High School, located south of Wilmington near Carolina Beach was dedicated in his honor.
Medal of Honor Citation:
SFC Ashley, distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity while serving with Detachment A-101, Company C. SFC Ashley was the senior special forces Advisor of a hastily organized assault force whose mission was to rescue entrapped U.S. special forces advisors at Camp Lang Vei.
During the initial attack on the special forces camp by North Vietnamese army forces, SFC Ashley supported the camp with high explosive and illumination mortar rounds. When communications were lost with the main camp, he assumed the additional responsibility of directing air strikes and artillery support.
SFC Ashley organized and equipped a small assault force composed of local friendly personnel. During the ensuing battle, SFC Ashley led a total of 5 vigorous assaults against the enemy, continuously exposing himself to a voluminous hail of enemy grenades, machine gun, and automatic weapons fire. Throughout these assaults, he was plagued by numerous booby-trapped satchel charges in all bunkers on his avenue of approach.
During his fifth and final assault, he adjusted air strikes nearly on top of his assault element, forcing the enemy to withdraw and resulting in friendly control of the summit of the hill. While exposing himself to intense enemy fire, he was seriously wounded by machine gun fire but continued his mission without regard for his personal safety. After the fifth assault, he lost consciousness and was carried from the summit by his comrades only to suffer a fatal wound when an enemy artillery round landed in the area.
SFC Ashley displayed extraordinary heroism in risking his life in an attempt to save the lives of his entrapped comrades and commanding officer. His total disregard for his personal safety while exposed to enemy observation and automatic weapons fire was an inspiration to all men committed to the assault. The resolute valor with which he led 5 gallant charges placed critical diversionary pressure on the attacking enemy and his valiant efforts carved a channel in the overpowering enemy forces and weapons positions through which the survivors of Camp Lang Vei eventually escaped to freedom.
SFC Ashley’s bravery at the cost of his life was in the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.
Photos: Hall of Heroes, JFK SWC, Guardians of the Green Beret