Immigrant Leslie Sabo Jr. died while saving the lives of his fellow soldiers during the Vietnam War. Many men in his platoon witnessed the sacrifice but decades passed before the U.S. Army and the government who sent Sabo into harm’s way recognized his courage. “During service in America’s wars and conflicts, 22% of the recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor have been immigrants,” according to a report by the National Foundation for American Policy.
Leslie Sabo Jr. was born in Austria. His family lived in Hungary during World War II but when the Soviet army invaded, Leslie Sabo Sr., who was mayor of the Hungarian city of Szeged, decided it was time to flee. The family lived in Austria for five years and immigrated to America when Leslie Sabo Jr. was less than two years old.
The family settled in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. Leslie Sabo Jr. graduated from Lincoln High School in 1966. Growing up he was close to his parents and older brother George. Sabo was accepted into Youngstown State and worked on a cargo freighter for three months the summer before college started. However, Sabo dropped out of Youngstown State in 1968 and worked in a steel mill – and he became eligible to be drafted.
After leaving college, Sabo began dating Rose Buccelli. Rose sometimes babysat for Leslie’s nephews and went up to him at a football game to introduce herself. “I still can’t believe I walked up to him, because that’s not me,” Rose later told an interviewer. “We stood and talked and we were together ever since. It was just like we clicked. It was like love at first sight, if you believe in that.”
Less than a year later, on September 13, 1969, they were married. However, by that time Sabo had already been drafted and was well into his training. He needed a weekend pass to make the wedding. After 30 days of leave, Leslie Sabo Jr. was going to Vietnam.
In November 1969, Sabo started his service in Vietnam and engaged in an estimated 15 firefights during his first several months. He was assigned to Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. “Even today, the 506th is known as the ‘Currahees,’ a nickname that comes from the name of a small mountain near the now-closed Camp Toccoa . . . But the name has a second meaning. The Native American word ‘Currahee’ is translated as ‘We stand alone,’” according to Eric Poole, author of Company of Heroes: A Forgotten Medal of Honor and Bravo Company’s War in Vietnam.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon approved a strategic decision to expand the Vietnam War into Cambodia to go after North Vietnamese troops. The North Vietnamese regularly attacked American and South Vietnamese troops and retreated into the safety of Laos and Cambodia. Poole notes U.S. B-52s bombed parts of Cambodia for a month but with little effect on “North Vietnamese troops and facilities concealed beneath jungle canopies.”
Bravo Company landed in Cambodia on May 5, 1970, and engaged in firefights the first three days. But those were a preliminary to the events of Mother’s Day.
The mission on May 10, 1970, was to attack North Vietnamese locations and destroy supplies. Sabo and his friend George Koziol were part of the 2nd Platoon. After 3 pm, when the 2nd Platoon and Bravo Company’s 3rd Platoon moved from the jungle into a clearing, “the shit hit the fan,” according to Koziol. As many as 400 to 500 North Vietnamese troops in defensive positions, with tree covering and able to “fire down,” attacked the American soldiers. It became known as the Mother’s Day Ambush.
The soldiers of Bravo Company became surrounded and moved for cover. “As Sabo headed for the jungle’s relative safety, he led a counterattack against an enemy element that was attempting to close the pocket and completely surround the Americans,” writes Poole. “While Sabo would perform more spectacular acts of valor that afternoon, none would be more vital to the Currahees’ [506th Infantry Regiment’s] defense of their position. . . . ‘If it hadn’t been for him holding his side of the perimeter almost single-handedly so I could reinforce his position, we would have been overrun,’ [3rd Platoon leader Lieutenant Teb] Stocks said.” (Stocks described Sabo’s actions in an emotional interview.)
“What I recall was that Les ran out in the direction of the wounded soldier just as a grenade was thrown in that area and he dove on the guy on the ground when the grenade exploded,” according to Koziol. “I think Les got hit with the shrapnel on the back and the wounded soldier crawled to the tree-line.”
Poole notes that after saving the soldier, Sabo attacked. “He rushed the North Vietnamese trench with a grenade assault of his own and killed both enemy soldiers. By this time, late in the afternoon, several of Sabo’s fellow Second Platoon defenders were already injured or dead, and the beleaguered Bravo Company soldiers were running low on lead to throw at the North Vietnamese. Sabo, already injured from the earlier hand grenade attack, again exposed himself so he could strip ammunition magazines for Americans who’d been killed earlier.”
As the fighting continued, helicopters arrived to transport wounded soldiers. Enemy troops attacked the helicopter. Koziol, now injured, recalled being evacuated on a medevac helicopter and seeing bullets fired at the copter from all directions. “Then Sabo did something extraordinary. Again,” writes Poole. “He stepped out from behind a small tree that for hours had been his only cover, and squeezed the trigger on his M-16, which he had set to full automatic. . . . Perhaps he made a calculation – with a 20-round magazine it would be only a few seconds before his weapon ran dry. Perhaps he knew it would be enough. Or perhaps Sabo just acted instinctively to protect his comrades. Whatever the case, Sabo’s attack stopped the enemy machine guns and allowed 1st Platoon to eliminate the single enemy soldier in the landing zone. It also gave the helicopter time to carry his injured friend from the battlefield.”
“He got hit two or three times and still kept on going,” according to Mike “Tex” Bowman.
Leslie Sabo Jr. returned to his spot defending his corner of the battlefield. “Sabo was able to clear the landing zone, but the 22-year-old soldier paid for that real estate in his own blood,” writes Poole. “For hours, after almost single-handedly preventing the North Vietnamese from wiping out dozens of American soldiers, Sabo was vulnerable while he reloaded. And when the enemy soldiers were able to poke their heads – and their weapons – back into the open, they took advantage of that opportunity. After Sabo stopped shooting, the enemy fired on him, in full view of Koziol, then en route to a field hospital. ‘I saw him when he dropped his rifle, dropped to his knees and fell face first into the dust.’”
It is possible Sabo did not die when Koziol saw him fall. Some time after, a loud explosion was heard. “Throughout most of the afternoon and evening, Sabo had performed one heroic act after another to hold off the North Vietnamese advances,” according to Poole. “The explosion might have been Sabo’s final blow against the enemy. If a wounded Sabo, unable to throw a grenade any significant distance, were able to drag himself toward the enemy position, he would have pulled the pin and let the device ‘cook off’ . . . before dropping it into the bunker. The resulting explosion would not only have killed the enemy, but also Sabo.” Poole believes it might explain why Sabo’s body came home in a bag labeled “Remains Unfit For Viewing.”
The next day, after the battlefield was cleared, they found Sabo’s body. Sabo and the others were placed in bags and loaded on a helicopter. “As [Rick] Brown and [Mike ‘Tex’] Bowman lifted the man whose sacrifice saved so many lives, Sabo’s body broke in half – in death, his body was beyond wounded, it was irretrievably damaged.”
News of Sabo’s death devastated his wife and the rest of his family. “I couldn’t have asked for anyone better,” said his widow Rose. “I just wish I could have had children with him.”
Despite his heroic actions and the issuance of several medals to the members of Bravo Company, there was no medal for Sabo. From a hospital bed, George Koziol wrote a short report he hoped would lead to a Medal of Honor for Sabo. “That piece of paper, which landed on [Bravo Company leader Captain Jim] Waybright’s desk, would have been personally momentous to Sabo’s family and comrades,” writes Poole. “It was the likely reason the Army was sparse with details regarding Sabo’s death, and, when U.S. Defense Department officials never completed that investigation, the reason why people who knew him best in peacetime were deprived of the true stories about his heroism.”
More than 40 years would pass before that investigation into Sabo’s actions was completed, prompted by the work of Alton Mabb Jr., a columnist for Screaming Eagle magazine, which publishes articles about the 101st Airborne Division. He found a thick file on Sabo while conducting research in the National Archives at the University of Maryland. Mabb enlisted the help of Rep. Corrine Brown and the surviving members of the Mother’s Day Ambush. Although George Koziol helped in the effort, he and Leslie Sabo’s parents did not live to see Sabo awarded the Medal of Honor.
Finally, on May 16, 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Leslie Sabo Jr. the Medal of Honor posthumously in a ceremony attended by Rose Sabo Brown and the surviving members of Bravo Company who had fought alongside Sabo more than 42 years before. Addressing the audience, Obama said, “Today is a solemn reminder that when an American does not come home from war, it is our military families and veterans who bear those sacrifices for a lifetime.”
Source: Forbes Business