SSG Fred Zabitosky was a member of the MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command, Studies and Observations Group) in Vietnam and was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in combat for his actions on February 19,1968.
Zabitosky’s mission on that day would take him into Laos where the nine-man joint American Special Forces and Nung indigenous soldier patrol would encounter a vastly numerically superior North Vietnamese Army (NVA) force while trying to gather intelligence on troop movements along the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Zabitosky was born in Ewing Township, New Jersey where his father was a barber. He had an unsettled childhood and by his own admission was an undisciplined, rebellious teen who lacked direction. When he joined the army in 1959, everything fell into place for him. There he found what he’d been lacking and looking for and in the fledgling US Army Special Forces, he found a home.
He was on his third combat tour in late 1967 when he was assigned to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), their mission was to conduct over-the-border reconnaissance operations into Laos and Cambodia. This particular operation, it was Zabitosky’s mission was to infiltrate across the Laotian and Cambodian borders to monitor the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Zabitosky was the leader of Spike Team Maine, which consisted of three Americans and nine indigenous troops, usually Chinese Nungs. Their rifles were mostly either Russian AK-47s or Swedish K-submachine guns. They carried North Vietnamese combat gear and ate only Vietnamese food. On this operation, Zabitosky offered to be the assistant team leader for SSG Doug Glover, a good friend of his.
The team inserted east of Atopeu, Laos using two helicopters. As the Green Berets moved through 10-foot-tall elephant grass and bamboo thickets near the landing zone (LZ), Zabitosky and the team members started into the jungle and suddenly realized they were in the middle of a large NVA (2000+ man) complex. There were bunkers and K-wire everywhere.
Zabitosky, although the senior man was the assistant on this patrol asked Glover what he wanted to do. Glover urged him to take over. Zabitosky directed the men back to the LZ while he covered their retreat with Claymore mines wired to white phosphorous grenades.
Glover called airstrikes, conducted by A-1E Skyraiders onto the white smoke from the white phosphorous grenades as soon as they exploded.
With 750-pound bombs and napalm falling all around him and the NVA trying to close the distance, he knew the small patrol had to hold out before the choppers arrived to get them out. Zabitosky organized the men into a small perimeter just outside the LZ.
The embattled team beat back wave after wave of NVA assaults on their perimeter with the Skyraiders dropping a furious load of bombs, napalm and cluster bombs. The NVA knew the only way to get the team was to close the distance and get too close for air support. Soon the team was running short of ammo.
When the UH-1 Hueys arrived, the two choppers signaled the LZ was too hot and directed Zabitosky to move 500 meters to a secondary pickup zone. A third chopper circling overhead head SF medic Luke Nance.
Finally, some Bell UH-1’slicks’ arrived. These unarmed, stripped bare utility helicopters were designed to carry as many troops as possible. Two of the choppers came over the team, while a third circled above them. Medic Luke Nance was in the third helicopter.
The team arrived at the secondary PZ just as the Hueys did. Two Nungs and one American boarded the first chopper. The six remaining members of the team boarded the second chopper. Zabitosky on the left side was firing at the NVA rushing the PZ trying to pin them down with the chopper’s door gunner. Then an NVA soldier launched a rocket-propelled grenade which impacted solidly on the tail boom.
The impact caused the helicopter to go into a death spin, Zabitosky was thrown out 20 feet from the impact and his clothes were on fire. He didn’t know it yet but his back was broken as well as several ribs. He was out of ammunition and the barrel of his weapon was bent from the fall making his weapon useless anyway.
Zabitosky dragged the pilot out and went back for the co-pilot who was screaming as he was on fire as well. Overhead, Nance convinced the third chopper pilot that there was movement below and there were survivors left on the ground.
The third chopper land about 50 meters from the crashed Huey and Nance could see the survivors and didn’t hesitate, he leaped from the chopper before it hit the ground and killed NVA troops who were closing on the survivors.
Zabitosky, armed with a .45 pistol and a grenade was carrying the co-pilot to the third helicopter and dragged the pilot along as well. About 10 feet from the helicopter, Nance pulled all three to safety. Zabitosky credited Nance with saving his and the pilot’s lives. Sadly the co-pilot died in the hospital. Glover, the three Nungs, and the two-door gunners died in the crash. Zabitosky spent six weeks in the hospital in Pleiku recovering.
The team and the aircrews flying cover killed several hundred NVA soldiers in the action, including over 100 at the first landing zone. President Richard M. Nixon presented the Medal of Honor to then promoted SFC Zabitosky in March 1969 at a White House ceremony attended by his wife and son.
Several years later, I had the pleasure to meet with Zabitosky along with several other SF soldiers. He was tall, lean and spoke with the quiet confidence as someone who has been there but wasn’t arrogant at all. He made it clear, he didn’t consider himself a hero, but wore the MOH for everyone he served with. “I wear the medal, but I wear it for all the guys who served in the project,” said Zabitosky. ‘All the guys who wore that beret in combat have done just as much as I have and deserve it as well.”
“I always say the most important thing is you’ve got to be able to live with yourself. And I can live with myself.”
He remained bitter at the Army for what he deemed sweeping under the rug the issues of PTSD, which went untreated and he blamed for alienating his wife. But he assured everyone, he was ready to do it all over again if need be.
Sadly Zabitosky passed away from cancer at just 53-years old in 1996.
Medal of Honor Citation:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Sfc. Zabitosky, U.S. Army, distinguished himself while serving as an assistant team leader of a 9-man Special Forces long-range reconnaissance patrol.
Sfc. Zabitosky’s patrol was operating deep within enemy-controlled territory when they were attacked by a numerically superior North Vietnamese Army unit. Sfc. Zabitosky rallied his team members, deployed them into defensive positions, and, exposing himself to concentrated enemy automatic weapons fire, directed their return fire. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Sfc. Zabitosky ordered his patrol to move to a landing zone for helicopter extraction while he covered their withdrawal with rifle fire and grenades. Rejoining the patrol under increasing enemy pressure, he positioned each man in a tight perimeter defense and continually moved from man to man, encouraging them and controlling their defensive fire.
Mainly due to his example, the outnumbered patrol maintained its precarious position until the arrival of tactical air support and a helicopter extraction team. As the rescue helicopters arrived, the determined North Vietnamese pressed their attack. Sfc. Zabitosky repeatedly exposed himself to their fire to adjust suppressive helicopter gunship fire around the landing zone. After boarding 1 of the rescue helicopters, he positioned himself in the door delivering fire on the enemy as the ship took off. The helicopter was engulfed in a hail of bullets and Sfc. Zabitosky was thrown from the craft as it spun out of control and crashed.
Recovering consciousness, he ignored his extremely painful injuries and moved to the flaming wreckage. Heedless of the danger of exploding ordnance and fuel, he pulled the severely wounded pilot from the searing blaze and made repeated attempts to rescue his patrol members but was driven back by the intense heat. Despite his serious burns and crushed ribs, he carried and dragged the unconscious pilot through a curtain of enemy fire to within 10 feet of a hovering rescue helicopter before collapsing.
Sfc. Zabitosky’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.
Photos: US Archives