Sergeant Les Sabo’s Gift

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.

Source: GeneablogEllwood City Ledger;

~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

26 thoughts on “Sergeant Les Sabo’s Gift”

  1. It shows how much our Generals really care about our troops that it took so long for Sgt. Sabo’s heroism to be acknowledged. The story brought tears to my eyes at the tremendous waste of people lives this country engages in in the name of coward’s egos. Viet Nam, like Iraq and Afghanistan were/are unjust wars. Yet we poison the minds of our young people with dreams of career, honor and glory. They are not to blame for the death and destruction caused and we must always keep that in mind honoring their honest efforts. The sad part is that all that idealistic courage and effort is expended by good people, who are led by those motivated by much less than nobility.

  2. Thinking about this again, I find myself resisting the idea that “the best of them do not come back,” because nothing really determines who comes back and who does not aside from 90% or more being “GOOD LUCK OR BAD LUCK.” I think the same can be said for any other kind of death that involves extraordinary experience (such as war or random criminal act). Thinking about who did and who did not survive the end of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, I have to abandon the notion that heroes survived or heroes died because both things happened and not for any reasons involving heroism. Perhaps Sabo could have lived had he not drawn the fatal fire from the enemy ambush, with his last minutes. Perhaps not, again, luck. But he DID what he did and he WAS among the best, not just of those boys sent off to war, but of people, average or otherwise. Something tells me that he knew that. The strength to perform as he did in the end must come from a lifetime, however short, that gives a person a genuine feeling of value and a genuine gift for giving.

  3. pete:

    “it should be noted that Sgt Sabo was a draftee.”

    *******************************

    He was indeed. Sort of blows Rumsfield’s comment that draftees added “no value, no advantage really, to the United States armed services over any sustained period of time” right out of the water.

  4. just finished reading the whole article from the ellwood city ledger. it should be noted that Sgt Sabo was a draftee.

    and that ted nugent is what a hero and a patriot looks like.

  5. Mespo,

    Right you are. An “average” guy. How many lives could he have influenced in a positive way had he not gone to war? Could he have been a fire fighter saving lives in his community? Could he have become a teacher and influenced classes of students? What kind of father or father figure would he have been to children in his own family, immediate or extended?

    So many “average” young people join the army to “be all that you can be” only to become maimed, mentally or physically, or dead.

  6. Wonderfully poignant story. Thanks for making us aware of Sgt. Leslie Sabo, Jr.’s life, sacrifice, and honor.

  7. bettykath:

    What I found so interesting is that his friends in Ellwood City described him — to a person — as an “average guy.” If he’s “average” in Ellwood City, PA, I’m calling a realtor.

  8. The character of a person comes out in difficult circumstances. Can’t help but wonder the contributions of Les Sabo had he been allowed to live rather than fight and die.

    Medals are small payment for a life. Wars, especially illegal ones, are evil and those who order them should be on the front lines taking fire.

  9. Malisha:

    “Nal” is one of our guest bloggers. Not sure why he was referened.

  10. Thanks for this article, Mespo. Please forgive my ignorant question, but what does “nal” mean?

    When I read this story, it brought to mind the angry commentators on the Zimmerman/Martin threads who were saying that the Zimmerman/Martin story should not have gotten press attention because there were so many white folks killed by Black criminals that never received this kind of attention, or, equally indignant, comments saying that the Z/M story shouldn’t have received attention because there were so many Black on Black crimes that did not receive press attention. These infuriated commentators did not seem to register the fact that it was not the nature of the killer and killed that turned into the story in Z/M but the failure to arrest the killer! That fact dropped out of the chest-beating rages completely! And then, one reads about Sabo, who was not honored and decorated when he first died (I know, a peculiar construction grammatically, but he first died personally and to his wife and family and friends way back then, and he re-died now, to our knowledge and our collective and separate consciousnesses and consciences).

    Without the press covering what happened just now to honor this hero, who did everything in his life to try to perform up to the standards he had both learned and created on his own, and who surpassed them all at the time of his death and shortly thereafter when the roses arrived, our country would have lost the opportunity to do something that our very society depends upon for its moral life: GIVE RESPECT.

    Had private parties of good conscience who suffered a personal loss (the soldiers who kept working to get the honor afforded their fallen comrade) not taken every step they could take to get the attention focused on this social need to do a necessary act in the name of the nation, in the name of the people, this act would not have taken place. WHY NOT? That is a separate question. Idealist707 has a suggested answer. There may be others; we will probably never know. And we will probably never know all the facts about why Zimmerman was not arrested on 2/26/2012, either. But we do know this: The fact that people DO get disturbed about a perceived wrong, the fact that they DO try to get attention to the perceived wrong, the fact that they engage the press to focus that attention so that the perceived wrong can be evaluated and then, if appropriate, corrected, that is a process that we cannot relinquish and we must not try to prevent or diminish, not by mockery, not by dismissive attitudes, not by verbal and political attacks, not by paid oppositional “silencing” techniques, not by anything, never, never. Two steps in the direction of keeping people from lawfully doing whatever they believe is necessary to uphold the REAL moral character of their own society is a slide down the slippery slope into a government that would need a kind of “Arab Spring” to uncover the vestigial AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL.

  11. Mark,
    A fantastic story. It is a shame that it took our military and our government so long to honor a true American Hero. Kudos to his fellow soldiers who worked so hard to get this deserving honor for Sgt. Sabo. May he rest in peace and may his family get some respite from this great honor.

  12. Nal:

    great story. He certainly deserves the medal.

    Did he not get at the time because they were in Cambodia?

  13. postumous – the most useless way to get an award. And for such a waste as Viet Nam.

    “You’re paid to stop a bullet
    Its a soldiers job they say
    So you stop the bullet
    and then they stop your pay.
    – Y.E.Harburg

  14. Pentagon meeting, early Vietnam era, only green&gold attendees: the MG and five BGs.

    MG (=Major General): OK gentlemen, you know the mission, you know today’ issue.
    I’m gonna kick ass, and you’re gonna provide your asses.

    You gentlemen are sitting here pushing paper, and collecting points.
    But sadly, you are not sorting the papers right.
    You are picking out the wrong people for awards, particularly the MoH. You get monthly stats, can’t you read? You know our mission. Our mission is the “Greater Mission”. That is to support the WASP hegemony in this nation of ours. Remember!

    So I want to see some different figures. You are the final filtering point-

    Cut down on the awards to non-WASPs. Take this one here on a Polack, correction Hungarian, this goulash boy, says he was a steelmill hand. Our quota for that is OVERFULL.

    Capice? And no Eyetalians either. Damn catholics. (throws paper in the wastebasket with emphasis).

    And, one thing more. I wanna see more officer applications. Preferably survivals Got to incentivize these ROTC boys, they’re worthless as they are. And officers get 5 times the press notice, living ones who can do press tours 10 times more. And press is our scoreboard, right? Then Congress is satisfied and our budget goes up and we all get promoted. Understood?!

    OK, everybody has a birthday. And you know what your present will be from me. Your annual review. I won’t mention any names, but a couple of you guys are close to being passed over again for promo.

    What was the name of the goulash boy?
    Sabo? Sounds like a new sorts garbage can.
    He got what he deserved

    Dismissed!!!

    PS I hope the ceremony is in Congress with all attending, includiing the JCS. Then they can conclude by reading the above dramatization of the “oversight”.
    An idealist707 production. “Show who they are”, our motto.

  15. A well deserved award why did it take so long….. America’s Best…an American at it finest….. I am pleased that he is remembered….

    If I recall I read Jimmie Hendrix was a screaming eagle……..

  16. We send them to war. The best don’t come back.
    Here is why all the Frenhmen are so short.
    Only the monuments stand, carrying no genes.

  17. Well done, Sergeant Sabo. Well done, indeed.

    May you have Godspeed on your journey to forever….

    This is a tune written by a member of my family five hundred years ago as a lament for the ten thousand who fell on Flodden’s bloody field. It has become customary to play at military funerals in the UK, a custom that is spreading to these shores. It was piped for my son when he was interred in the National Cemetery. Flowers of the Forest.

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