Leslie Sabo Died For His Army Comrades In Vietnam War (Investor's Business Daily)

May 22, 2015


Sabo died in the 1970 Cambodian Incursion, and his widow received his Medal of Honor 42 years later. U.S. Army/courtesy of Rose Mary Sabo-Brown View Enlarged Image

Leslie Sabo was killed during the Vietnam War’s 1970 Cambodian Campaign. He was nominated for the Medal of Honor, but the records were lost until a veteran rediscovered them in 1999. In 2012, Sabo’s widow received the nation’s highest military award on his behalf, the 249th for Vietnam.

Sabo’s platoon and another had been ambushed from all sides by a large and well-entrenched force of communist soldiers.

He repeatedly attacked and killed enemy soldiers, was wounded by a grenade as he shielded a comrade, and then was fatally shot as he provided covering fire for a medevac helicopter.


“His indomitable courage and complete disregard for his own safety saved the lives of many of his platoon members,” said the Medal of Honor citation. “Spc. 4 Sabo’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness, above and beyond the call of duty, at the cost of his life, are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Company B, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, and the United States Army.”

Leslie Jr. was born in 1948 in Kufstein, Austria, where his well-to-do family had moved after the Soviet occupation of Hungary at the end of World War II, leaving almost everything behind.

They moved to America when he was 2. They lived in Youngstown, Ohio, and then Ellwood City, Pa.

Leslie Sr., a lawyer in Hungary, retrained as an engineer, and both parents taught their two remaining sons (another was killed by a bomb during the war) patriotism for their adopted country.

Sabo’s Keys

  • Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient.
  • Overcame: Human instinct to avoid making the ultimate sacrifice.
  • Lesson: Some things can be bigger than life itself.
  • “Leslie Sabo’s actions were outstanding, even on a day when outstanding acts of courage were almost routine,” said Eric Poole, author of “Company of Heroes.”

“Les was an average student, but had a lot of friends and always showed he really cared about people,” his older brother, George, told IBD. “He attended Youngstown State for a couple of semesters, but his grades weren’t great, so he took a break. Four months later, in April 1969, he was drafted into the Army, and while we were concerned about his safety, we were very proud that he felt he was doing his duty. Because our family had barely escaped when the Russians came into Hungary, we thought it was important that communism be kept from spreading. A lot of his buddies didn’t see it that way, and there were some intense arguments about the war.”

After basic training at Fort McClellan, Ala., Sabo qualified for advanced training and took leave to get married in September to Rose Mary Buccelli, whom he had met the year before.

Leslie Sabo with an M-60 machine gun in Vietnam in 1969, the year before he died during the Cambodian Campaign.

Leslie Sabo with an M-60 machine gun in Vietnam in 1969, the year before he died during the Cambodian Campaign. View Enlarged Image

“It was love at first sight,” she said in “Forgotten Honor: The True Story of an American Hero” by Eric Poole, published in 2009 before the approval of the Sabo’s Medal of Honor.

In October, after training, the Sabos had a honeymoon. The next month, he was in South Vietnam as the war raged.

Drenched And Hit

From December to April, his Bravo Company was in action all but two days, much of it in the tropical rain. Sabo displayed unusual courage in protecting his fellow GIs and was wounded, earning himself a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, the military’s fourth highest honor for combat bravery.

“He was different from what many might think of as a war hero — low-key, polite, not loud and crazy like many guys,” recalled Richard Rios, a machine-gunner who served with Sabo. “He never complained and was a good soldier. But the hero came out in battle when he protected his brothers.”

George talked with others in his platoon: “They said he wasn’t one of those rah-rah guys, but he’d volunteer for the most hazardous missions and led on point for two months, so it’s a miracle he survived as long as he did. When he was getting ready for battle, he went through a ritual of tying a bandana on his head and focusing, and everyone could see the transformation into a true warrior and knew he had their backs.”

For years, the North Vietnamese army had staged attacks on South Vietnam from Cambodia, knowing that it was U.S. policy to respect that country’s official neutrality.

Finally, President Nixon ordered a counteroffensive. U.S. and South Vietnam forces hit the North Vietnam Army (NVA) in Cambodia during the spring of 1970.

The northern thrust was in the Se San Valley to disrupt the use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to bring down supplies from North Vietnam.

In The Thick Of It

Operation Binh Tay — meaning “tame the west” — borrowed Sabo’s 506th Regiment (from the 101st Airborne Division), based near the border between North and South Vietnam, and put it under control of the 4th Infantry Division to spearhead its wing of the mission.

The 506th was nicknamed the Currahees, Cherokee for “we stand alone,” and was one of the Army’s most storied units, having been among the first parachuting infantry, landing behind the lines during the D-Day invasion in June 1944.

“The ‘Currahees’ of Bravo Company, 3-506th, had been involved in skirmishes with NVA soldiers practically from the time they set foot on Cambodian soil,” wrote Jerald Berry in “Twelve Days in May.” “The first line of defense for the line company was the firepower of the individual weapons of the infantrymen — M-16 rifles, M-60 machine guns and M-79 grenadiers (grenade launchers). If more firepower was required to subdue the enemy, the commanding officer could call for artillery support from the battalion fire support base.”

After destroying North Vietnamese army field hospitals and hamlets where the enemy was based, Sabo’s 2nd Platoon, along with the 3rd, headed for another hamlet on May 10. At 3:15 p.m., they came to a clearing amid thick brush and trees. The Americans advanced into it warily until a big NVA force opened up, some members shooting down from the treetops.

The Mother’s Day Ambush was on. With some protection from bushes and small trees, the GIs fired back. Sabo neared enemy trenches to kill several NVA soldiers and prevent a flanking move.

While he gave first aid to a wounded comrade, grenades landed at their position. Sabo covered the GI and took fragment wounds in his back. Even so, he killed two of the communist attackers and moved the wounded man to safety.

With his platoon low on ammo, Sabo retrieved belts from the dead and redistributed them, but he was hit by small arms fire. Now bleeding profusely, he fired back, giving others time to crawl to safety.

By nightfall, 1st Platoon, which had been held in reserve, came to their relief, while helicopters tried to medevac the wounded. Sabo shook off his wounds and stepped into the open to shoot any NVA soldier who fired at the chopper. Giving up himself for his comrades, he moved toward the enemy. He took more bullets and then, as he was reloading, was shot dead. He was 22.

“We had to call in artillery on top of us to keep from being overrun,” said Rios. “The 105 mm howitzer rounds were detonating at treetop level, and shrapnel flew all over us as well as the enemy. I had been in firefights before, but not this big, as long or intense.”

Seven other members of 2nd Platoon were killed and 28 wounded — the most casualties of the three platoons; virtually everyone had been hit — before the communists slumped away with heavy losses. The ambush was the worst battle during the 12 days that the 506th was in Cambodia.

The Cambodian Campaign ended by July. The Paris peace treaty was signed in 1973. The North Vietnamese shredded that agreement by overrunning the South in 1975 — and the recommendation for Sabo’s Medal of Honor got lost.

Then in 1999, Alton Mabb, a columnist for the 101st Airborne Division Association’s Screaming Eagle magazine, came across the paperwork at the National Archives.

None of Sabo’s family or friends knew how he had been killed. The Medal of Honor recognizes those whose valor saved lives. The standards to qualify are extraordinarily high, with two-thirds of recipients since 1941 having been awarded it posthumously.

Unlike any other award, it has to be approved by the entire command, including the secretary of the military branch, the secretary of defense and the president.

During the long lobbying to recognize Sabo’s heroism, he was promoted posthumously to sergeant.

Then came a call that Rose will never forget. “On Feb. 1, 2012, the telephone on Rose Sabo-Brown’s computer desk jangled to life,” wrote Poole in the newly published “Company of Heroes: A Forgotten Medal of Honor and Bravo Company’s War in Vietnam.” “A few minutes later, President Barack Obama came on the line and told her that the husband whose death had left her a widow more than four decades earlier would receive the U.S. military’s highest honor for combat valor. With the president’s call, the United States completed one of its last remaining items of business from the Vietnam War.”

Related Post