Heroics in Korean War may earn combat medic Medal of Honor
He could feel blood flowing down his leg from shrapnel wounds, and he could hear bullets whizzing by his head, Patrick Sbarra recalls. Mortar and artillery shells were exploding all around, but the U.S. Army medic/ rifleman ignored his own safety to save his fellow soldiers.
Sbarra's actions more than six decades ago could bring him the nation's highest award for valor: the Medal of Honor.
Sbarra, 84, of Cape May Point, has been nominated for his heroic actions in the Korean War, specifically for a little-known battle that happened in the Chorwon Valley in present-day North Korea. He has been nominated by fellow soldiers, who filed affidavits testifying to his bravery. He also has sponsorship from a U.S. congressman from his home town of Staten Island, N.Y., U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y.
Accounts from his fellow soldiers paint a vivid picture of what is known as the Battle of T-Bone Hill. At one point Sbarra stood at the top of the hill, fully exposed to enemy fire, and emptied two clips from his carbine to fend off a propeller-driven Chinese warplane dropping napalm on his comrades.
"Sgt. Sbarra could see the bullets from his carbine penetrating the fuselage just under the pilot's position. Sgt. Sbarra's bullets had caused serious damage as the plane swerved to the right, northerly, towards North Korea, and aborted its attack on the friendly platoon. This combat action saved the lives of approximately 25 friendly soldiers, many of whom were already suffering napalm burns," states the affidavit from fellow soldier Frank J. Milazzo of Metairie, La.
Sbarra, a a strapping 225-pound linebacker for a semi-pro football team in Staten Island before he was drafted in 1950, remembers measuring everything by football fields.
"I saw an enemy plane dropping napalm on a platoon of American soldiers about 200 yards away, that's two football fields; they were screaming, bleeding and yelling. Some were on fire on the ground and some were standing on fire. As it flew over I could see the pilot's face," recalled Sbarra, sitting in the living room at his Brainard Avenue home last week.
Sbarra, only 22 at the time, also brought two other wounded soldiers to safety that day, covering their bodies with his own when the enemy was shooting, and moving them while they were reloading. Medics learned to take advantage of such lulls in the action, which Sbarra said usually occur when gunner crews were delivering more ammunition.
He remembers it like it was yesterday - he often can't sleep at night for remembering it. He has a hard time hearing from damage to his eardrums done by the shelling, and he still bears the war wounds on his arms and legs.
The Battle of T-Bone Hill began on June 12, 1952 and raged for three days. Sbarra was with G Company of the 180th Infantry Regiment in the 45th Infantry Division. He had seen action on combat patrols up to that point, but nothing could prepare him for the Battle of T-Bone Hill, which also included two little finger hills called Hill Eerie and Hill 191.
"You want the kicker? When they signed the armistice they gave all that land back to the North Koreans," Sbarra said.
The battle took the lives of about 500 U.S. servicemen who fought and won a small piece of ground that was given back when the U.S., China, North Korea and South Korea signed the armistice that ended the war on July 27, 1953. Sbarra will go to Washington next month for a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the war's end. He worries that people today have "forgot the past."
He noted they were fighting the Chinese, who were using Russian-made arms.
Sbarra said the Chinese were at the top of the hill and the Americans were at the bottom, and that was the problem.
"On June 11, 1952 we received orders to attack T-Bone Hill. We all got the shivers. The worst thing to do was attack an enemy hill. We went out into the valley floor, and as soon as we got into the open a sniper's bullet came right over my head. If it was a little lower, I wouldn't be here today," Sbarra said.
A letter sent to the Pentagon by Colonel Mac Smith and Colonel Jerry Smith, brothers whose father Colonel James O. Smith commanded the 180th Infantry Regiment that day, said Sbarra risked his own life to make trips "across the killing zone" to recover wounded soldiers and deliver much needed ammunition that helped turn the battle. Sbarra was wounded twice and refused medical attention.
Sbarra bandaged a chest wound and gave one soldier a blood transfusion to save him, but he didn't stop there, according to the Smiths.
"Enemy artillery and mortar shells were exploding in the immediate area, throwing shrapnel and debris on top of Sgt. Sbarra and he would cover the wounded soldier with his own body from the fall-out of the exploding shells."
Looking back, Sbarra said, it was a natural reflex. He said combat medics are trained to do whatever it takes to save the wounded.
"It becomes part of your DNA," he said.
A report filed later by the Army said the enemy fired 36,542 shells during the battle, including 2,200 on G Company during a single two-hour period.
At one point Sbarra and three other soldiers were carrying a wounded infantryman on a stretcher when the concussion of a shell sent him off the stretcher and rolling down a hill. While the other three soldiers jumped into a depression, Sbarra ran down the hill and retrieved the man with enemy shells exploding within a few feet of him. It took two hours in 110-degree heat to get the wounded man to safety.
The accounts also say ammunition delivered by a crew led by Sbarra, while braving intense enemy fire, helped defend Hill Eerie during one night and take Hill 191 the next day. Sbarra said he had asked a superior officer for more stretcher bearers to remove casualties and he was told he would get them if he first led a unit to deliver the ammunition. Sbarra noted by the end of the battle, members of the Army band were serving as stretcher bearers.
Sbarra also volunteered to be on the lone squad defending Hill Eerie on the night of June 14 and they repelled an enemy attack during a 30-minute firefight that night.
The Smiths argue that Sbarra exhibited "bravery, courage, self sacrifice, intrepidity, and heroism" in placing his own life at risk many times and that his actions delivering ammunition changed the course of the battle.
"The evidence for awarding the Medal of Honor to S/Sgt. (staff sergeant) is so overwhelming, we trust that the Pentagon will correct this injustice and award S/Sgt. Sbarra his hard-earned Medal of Honor," states the letter to General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.
There have been 135 Medals of Honor issued to Korean War soldiers, but none recently. There is precedent for issuing such medals decades after a war ends -- in one case a World War II veteran received an award 54 years later. A member of Congress can request an award or war decoration that was not "submitted in a timely fashion."
Sbarra already has a wall full of medals. He has a Purple Heart, two Bronze Stars, a Combat Medical Badge, a Combat Infantry Badge, and several others. In 2000 he went to South Korea, where that nation's president, Kim Dae-jung, pinned another medal on him and other Korean War veterans. He won other commendations with the U.S. Army Reserve, where he was activated and ready to board a C-130 to go to Iran in 1980 to free the hostages before President Jimmy Carter aborted the mission after two helicopters crashed in the desert outside Tehran.
None of those commendations would compare with the Medal of Honor, though Sbarra, a former New York City police officer who retired from the packaging industry before moving here in 1995, is just thrilled to be nominated.
"It's not really necessary that I get it. I know what I did. I did it for my country and the soldiers I served with," said Sbarra.
Sbarra said the first talk he heard about a medal was when a lieutenant addressed his platoon after the first day of fighting at T-Bone Hill and they told the officer about Sbarra's bravery.
"He said to me, 'I'm putting your name in for the Silver Star.' When the head of G Company heard about it the next day he said, 'This is more than a Silver Star. You should get a a Medal of Honor,'" recalled Sbarra.
The subject didn't come up again until the year 2000, when Sbarra and some of the soldiers he served with returned to Korea to mark the 50th anniversary of the start of the war. When they heard he never got any medal for his actions, they filed affidavits putting down their recollections of the events. A post of Korean War veterans in Staten Island took up the cause from there and Rep. Grimm contacted the Army Board for Military Records.
Sbarra argued his entire platoon deserves the medal. It was a platoon of 50 at dawn on June 12, 1952. When the sun set that day, there were only 18 left standing. He also wants it for all the men who died in Korea, a war that few in America wanted to acknowledge in the years immediately following World War II.
Vietnam War veterans say there were treated badly on their return. Korean War veterans say they were mostly just ignored.
"It's for the platoon and the G Company; for all the guys who died in the infantry in Korea," Sbarra said.
It was a war that killed 36,568 Americans and wounded 103,000 others. It was a war that included the little-known Battle of T-Bone Hill, where an Army medic was put to the test -- and passed with flying colors.