By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
On May 16, 2012, President Obama will take a gold star surrounded by a wreath of laurel and inscribed with a single word: “Valor.” He will present it to honor an American hero and to rectify an oversight almost 42 years to the day overdue. On that morning, the nation’s Commander-in-Chief will, on behalf of the Congress of the American People, present a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor to Rose Sabo, widow of Sgt. Leslie Sabo, Jr., Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
Sabo was the son of Hungarian immigrants who settled in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania in 1950. He graduated from Lincoln High School in 1966, tried college, but ended up like so many young men from Western Pennsylvania and went to work in the steel mills of Pittsburgh. Drafted in 1969, he shipped out to Ft. Benning, Georgia were he excelled in the advanced weapons school.
Returning home briefly in 1969 to marry the babysitter of his younger siblings, Rose Mary Buccelli, he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. Known as the “Screaming Eagles,” the 101st is one of the most decorated units in the history of the U.S. Army, with a list of honors stretching back to D-Day. It was the 101st commander, General Anthony McAuliffe, who replied to Nazi Generalleutnant Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s demand for surrender, with the terse word, “NUTS!” It was also the 101st’s Echo Company portrayed in the book and mini-series, Band of Brothers.
In November, 1969, Sabo arrived in Vietnam and was soon deployed in Operation Binh Tay I, part of the so-called Cambodian Incursion of 1970. Sabo and his unit were ordered to “find, fix, destroy and capture enemy personnel ….” On May 5, 1970, Sabo and his 2nd Platoon comrades would leave Pleiku, South Viet Nam and venture into Cambodia’s Se San Valley.
Initially encountering only scattered small arms fire, the unit would gradually find greater resistance. On the morning of May 10th, Bravo Company discovered an abandoned hospital and stores of Chinese weapons. A small skirmish at 11:00 a.m. ended with no casualties. But by 3:15 p.m., the unit was in a full scale firefight. The official report of the day’s events conceals more truth that it reveals:
At 1515H (3:15 pm) . . . [Bravo Company] was engaged by an unknown size VC/NVA [Viet Cong/North Vietnamese Army] resulting in 8 US KIA, 28 US WIA [wounded in action] with enemy losses unknown.
The full truth was an inconceivable account of wartime bravery and compassion as anyone could have imagined. Sabo’s friend, George Koziol, told the story to Sabo’s hometown paper, the Ellwood City Ledger.
Following the morning firefight, two of Bravo Company’s platoons advanced through the jungle into a clearing. Koziol says the North Vietnamese were dug-in and waiting for them.
“They pretty much waited for us to walk in and hit us with a U-shaped ambush,” Koziol said. “Once we got in, that middle area, they opened up on us. You hit the ground, find cover and keep your head down and try not to get hit. Then you settle down and fight back.” Koziol’s 1st Squad took a considerable drubbing.
Surrounded on three sides, Koziol’s squad fell back to the tree line looking for cover. Sabo, in charge of 2nd Squad, then drew most of the fire as the enemy concentrated on completing the circle and cutting off the unit’s rear guard, thus setting up a massacre or humbling defeat.
Sabo hurriedly set up a defensive position and returned fire in an attempt to provide cover for the retreating 1st Squad. Armed with only small arms and a few grenades, Sabo’s unit managed to stave off the encirclement and killed several NVA in the process. Then they advanced to aid the fallen. Taking refuge behind a small tree, he spotted a wounded soldier barely 10 meters away.
Sabo sprang from the cover and ran through the flying automatic weapons fire to aid the unknown serviceman. He arrived in time to provide first aid, but the NVA were in no mood for compassion, tossing two fragmentation grenades at the two Americans. Sabo threw his body across the fallen comrade as the first one exploded, and absorbed much of the blast and ensuing shrapnel in his back and neck. Only his “steel pot” helmet saved his skull though he would lose much of his hearing. Gravely injured, he still managed to recover the second explosive and tossed it back into the enemy entrenchment, killing two combatants. He then continued to assist the wounded soldier.
Had the saga ended here, Sabo would have richly deserved the Nation’s highest honor. But Sabo’s heroism apparently knew no bounds. Realizing from the shouts of his squad that ammunition was running out for the defenders to his rear, Sabo made another mad dash through “no man’s land” to the corpses of his fallen comrades to recover bandoliers of bullets to resupply the exhausted platoons.
“He picked up two or three of those and threw one to me and threw one to another guy and ducked behind a tree and that’s when he got hit in the leg,” Koziol said. Now wounded in the neck, back, head, and leg, Sabo finally retreated, but continued fighting as the attempts to surround his troops were eventually repulsed. According to Koziol, his efforts directly allowed for reinforcements to be brought up to relieve the beleaguered warriors.
Sabo would not leave the battlefield, however. Koziol describes the sad fate of Les Sabo this way: With night falling, Koziol and another soldier were set to be evacuated from the clearing, about seven hours after they entered it. But as their helicopter arrived, the North Vietnamese turned their fire on it.
Koziol said he saw Sabo step out from the small tree that was providing him cover and shot at the enemy, who then turned their fire on him. The respite gave the U.S. helicopter enough time to evacuate the two soldiers, but cost Sabo his life. “I saw him when he dropped his rifle, dropped to his knees and fell face first into the dirt.”
Posthumously promoted, 22-year-old Sergeant Les Sabo was returned home in a bag marked “Remains Unfit for Viewing.” The Army withheld the exact circumstances of his life’s final moments. His family thought he was killed by a sniper. It took a concerted effort led by George Koziol and his 101st Airborne brothers to get the truth out.
In 2002, another 101st veteran, Alton Mabb came across Sabo’s records at the National Archives. MAbb took up the cause to get Sabo the Medal of Honor. He eventually found another eyewitness to the acts that Koziol described. Mabb took this information to Congresswoman, Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida, who shepherded the application through the Department of Defense and then Congress.
Despite all the honors bestowed and to be bestowed, there is yet one more fitting remembrance of Leslie Sabo that needs repeating. On the morning of May 26, 1970 –the day of Leslie Sabo’s funeral– a dozen red roses arrived at the home of war widow Rose Sabo. The card said the flowers were sent with love on her 22nd birthday which sadly was the same day. It was signed by her husband, Les Sabo.
Some say it was simply a departing soldier’s last-minute order at a flower shop in San Francisco the previous November, as he shipped out to South East Asia not knowing if he would be home to deliver them himself. Not me, I say it was a karmatic gift of love from a hero who had that quality in such abundance that it transcended many lifetimes.
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger