Sergeant First Class Eugene Ashley, Jr.
Eugene Ashley, a native of Wilmington, North Carolina, died at age 37 in the battle of Lang Vei in a war-torn and far-off place called Vietnam. A first sergeant with an Army special services unit, he fought so courageously against the North Vietnamese—and was responsible for saving many lives—that he was awarded America’s highest decoration for valor, the Medal of Honor. Years later—on August 13, 2001—a new high school in Wilmington was named after this veteran soldier.
What was he like, this man who was serving his 17th year in the Army when he fell in combat? He was, says one source, “a professional noncommissioned officer who took care of his troops and exuded a fatherly image.” Sgt. Ashley was born in Wilmington on October 12, 1931, the only child of Eugene and Cornelia Ashley. Not long after his birth, his family moved to New York City where Eugene, Jr. attended Alexander Hamilton High School. Weary of dead-end jobs, he joined the Army on December 7, 1950. This launched a career as a versatile and capable soldier. He served in North Carolina, in South Carolina, in Germany, in Korea, in California, in New Jersey, in Massachusetts, in Kentucky, in Okinawa (Japan), in the Dominican Republic, and in Vietnam.
Among the many Army positions he held were infantryman, ambulance driver, anti-aircraft ammunition handler, and specialist in heavy weapons and parachute repair. He served as a cavalry and an armored battle group squad leaders and company sergeant with an airborne battalion. Ashley studied operations and intelligence with Special Forces, becoming an operations sergeant with a Special Forces airborne group.
Ashley, now a sergeant first class, went to Vietnam in January of 1968 with Company C, a Special Forces group. His tenure was short. On February 6th, the North Vietnamese attacked Lang Vei where Ashley was stationed as senior advisor. It was the first time in the war that the enemy used tanks—seven total. Without anti-tank weapons, the American forces were trapped. Ashley went into inspired action. To rescue his fellow soldiers, the Wilmington native led five assaults against the tanks and ground forces that escorted them. He hoped to cut a path that would allow trapped American soldiers to escape their encirclement and hold off the advancing North Vietnamese. His efforts were successful. An escape path was created. Five of the seven tanks were destroyed, and only two Americans were killed at Lang Vei. One of them was First Sergeant Eugene Ashley, wounded by machine-gun fire during the fifth assault. In an attempt to rescue Ashley, a mortar shell explosion mortally wounding him. A year later his wife, Barbara, attended a ceremony at the White House where the Vice President presented her with her husband’s Medal of Honor, a decoration for which Sgt. Eugene Ashley paid the ultimate price.