By Paul Wood
CHAMPAIGN — As an Army doctor, Frank Lesko climbed the tallest mountain in Japan and rescued an injured airman.
On Aug. 13, 1954, the Westville native led a rescue team of eight in bitterly cold weather up more than 12,000 feet to find Airman Thomas Albano, 20, of New York, who was unconscious after falling 600 feet into a crater.
Clouds and downdrafts kept the Marines from using a helicopter to rescue three recreational climbers not long after the Korean War ended.
Lesko had been drafted after medical school at the University of Illinois’s Chicago campus, and at 34 was the oldest climber in the rescue team. He’s now 96.
The doctor volunteered for the mission. Despite some memory loss, Lesko recalls the exhausting climb. Dressed in an orange-and-blue sweater, he also remembers the cold.
He had been sent to Camp Fuji as camp surgeon to take care of military personnel who’d fought in the Korean War or lived in Japan, where the U.S. had several bases.
Just getting to the mountain required a long, difficult trip.
“I started out at 9 a.m. and didn’t get there until it was very dark,” he said, about 11 p.m.”There were hills and forests to get though before we could begin the climb.”
The mountainside was slippery and Lesko was very aware of the danger to his men. Gradually, some of them dropped back.
They found the injured man and began to take him down the mountain in a litter. Albano had a concussion and some cuts and bruises.
Lesko had never climbed a mountain before, and was very sore. But he said the sunrise on the way down was the most beautiful he’d ever seen.
He was given a letter of commendation from Army General J.E. Hull, who “particularly noted the arduous conditions under which this successful rescue … was affected.”
After the war, Lesko returned to the Danville area, then became a radiologist working out of the old Cole Hospital in Champaign, often helping patients in small towns in the area.
He is credited with being the first physician to bring nuclear medicine radiology to central Illinois.
The house has a prize game fish above the mantel that he caught two miles off the coast near Palm Beach.
Lesko holds the world record for catching a wahoo fish in 1972.
It is 66 inches long and weighed 60 pounds.
The wahoo is named Sam, said Frank’s wife, Dorothy.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at email@example.com.