CHARLESTON, W. Va. — Those who survived a November 1970 top secret mission behind the lines in Laos credit Master Sgt. Edward Ziobron with saving the lives of his platoon during an off-and-on, four-day running battle with the North Vietnamese Army.
Ziobron, a 64-year-old member of the West Virginia National Guard living near Martinsburg, received no official recognition of his actions until 2005, when he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. But National Guard officials are now pushing to have the award upgraded to the Medal Of Honor — the nation's highest award for valor — for Ziobron's actions from Nov. 25-29, 1970.
"This guy is high speed," said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, the state's adjutant general. "At 64 years old, this guy is still jumping out of airplanes and teaching younger guys how to get ready for Special Forces school."
Until recently forced to retire from military duty because of his age, Ziobron was serving as a trainer with the National Guard's Special Forces Group. Hoyer said he remains a special forces consultant with the National Guard as a civilian employee.
Ziobron, a former Green Beret, was serving with the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam — Studies and Observations Group at the time of the November 1970 top secret mission into the Laotian jungle.
MACV-SOG was set up in 1964 to conduct covert operations behind the lines in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Missions were dangerous and casualties were high.
Most MACV-SOG veterans were wounded at least once, and Ziobron was no exception. About 50 MACV-SOG soldiers remain officially listed as missing in action.
Ziobron, a squad leader during the operation, was one of five Americans and 36 indigenous Montagnard tribesmen dropped deep into the Laotian jungle to gather intelligence and destroy supplies for the North Vietnamese Army, which was seeking refuge in Laos. By the end of the action, one American and four Montagnard soldiers had been killed, and almost everyone in the platoon had been wounded.
Those who have spoken with Ziobron about the November mission say he doesn't talk about it much, but official documents and statements made by soldiers who took part in the battle tell the story.
Ziobron was originally recommended for a Medal of Honor for the operation, but the award was never made. Hoyer believes Ziobron received no official recognition at the time because the mission was supposed to be secret.
"That whole MACV-SOG operational component of the Vietnam War was highly classified," he said.
The United States was also not supposed to be operating in Laos or Cambodia at the time. A month before Ziobron's mission into Laos, the New York Times had broken the story about clandestine operations inside the country, and the military couldn't afford more publicity.
But according to the official narrative contained in Ziobron's recommendation for the Medal of Honor, the platoon would be in for a rough four days. Outnumbered and outgunned, Ziobron would lead the platoon to safety through ambushes by enemy troops and pitched battles with the North Vietnamese.
The mission began calmly enough on Nov. 25, according to the official narrative, with the platoon discovering and destroying a large cache of rice. Things soon heated up, as Ziobron spotted seven or eight NVA soldiers moving toward the platoon on a hill.
Ziobron opened fire, which the North Vietnamese returned with automatic rifles and B-40 rockets, a Chinese version of the Soviet rocket-propelled grenade launcher that was used by the North Vietnamese Army.
According to the official accounts, Ziobron then led a charge up the hill, forcing the enemy soldiers to retreat. But they were reinforced by 15 or 20 other NVA soldiers who "began to direct the brunt of their attack on Sgt. Ziobron's squad," the report says.
"He was wounded in the face and arm with rocket fragments but drove on until the enemy troops were forced to retreat under his devastating automatic weapons fire," the report says.
Ziobron and the other members of the platoon forced the NVA off of the hill, called in airstrikes and moved to high ground, where they dug in for the night. The next day, they decided to move to an evacuation point to medevac the wounded and the lieutenant in command of the operation, who was suffering from heat exhaustion and had cut his hand badly in a fall.
They got there too late to call in helicopters, so they spent another night. The platoon was ambushed again on Nov. 27, but the North Vietnamese troops were driven off. Witnesses said Ziobron helped the wounded onto the helicopters when they arrived after the attack, but refused to get on himself.
With the lieutenant on one of the helicopters, Ziobron now took over de facto command of the mission. He led the troops about 600 meters away and dug in for another night.
Nov. 28 would prove the most harrowing for the surviving members of the platoon. Ziobron was leading the soldiers when they were attacked by about 20 soldiers. He was wounded again, but led a counterattack so fierce the North Vietnamese were forced to retreat.
Then, the platoon was jumped by about 100 enemy soldiers in an all-out assault. Ziobron was hit in the leg and foot by a machine gun bullet that cut his Achilles tendon.
"It was a very bad wound," Sgt. Chester Zaborowski, the platoon's medic, would say in a 2012 statement about the operation. "Tissue from his foot was sticking out of his boot and he was bleeding very badly."
Ziobron couldn't walk, but pulled himself along on his hands and knees, throwing grenades and shooting at the enemy. Zaborowski later said the attack was so fierce he used most of a 22-round vest of grenades for his grenade launcher and about 10 magazines for his AR-15 carbine.
With the enemy set to overrun the platoon, Ziobron called in airstrikes on his own perimeter, ending the attack. Crawling and dragging himself, he then led the surviving soldiers about 400 meters away, crossing a frigid river where they spent about four hours hiding until he could get the platoon up the bank to safety. Ziobron called in more airstrikes to protect the platoon and mislead the North Vietnamese about his exact location.
The platoon was finally picked up by helicopters on the morning of Nov. 29. Witnesses said Ziobron didn't get on the helicopter until he made sure everyone else was safely aboard.
In the end, three American soldiers were wounded in the running fight. Another platoon leader was killed. Twenty-five Montagnards were also wounded.
"Even if the medal doesn't get upgraded, telling Ed's story is important," Hoyer said.
"We have done an absolutely terrible job as a nation recognizing the men and women who served in the Korean War and Vietnam, in particular," he said. "It's important to tell that story."