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Vietnam War hero may finally get his due
Soldier who died to save his comrades recommended for Medal of Honor
Sunday, May 09, 2010

Forty years ago Monday, Leslie Sabo of Ellwood City died in Cambodia while trying to save his buddies from a North Vietnamese ambush that killed seven of his 101st Airborne Division comrades.

The 22-year-old was recommended posthumously for the nation's highest award, the Medal of Honor.

He never got it.

Somehow the citation ended up lost in military bureaucracy and then forgotten until 1999, when a writer for the 101st Division association magazine came across Mr. Sabo's records at the National Archives.

Now, through his efforts and those of two members of Congress, the Army has again recommended that Mr. Sabo receive the medal.

"This brave soldier clearly distinguished himself through his courageous actions," wrote Secretary of the Army John McHugh in a March letter to Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, who pushed for the medal. "The Army and our nation are forever grateful for his heroic service."

The nomination now awaits President Barack Obama's signature. The White House and the Army won't comment on any aspect of the medal or when the president might act.

But Mr. Sabo's widow, Rose Mary Sabo Brown, is convinced that her husband finally will get the recognition he deserves.

"Two soldiers came to my house 40 years ago to tell me my husband was killed," she said. "And now two soldiers are going to come to my house again and tell me that he has received the Medal of Honor."

The medal is relatively rare. Of the 2.1 million men who served in Vietnam, 246 won it -- 154 of them posthumously.

Mrs. Sabo Brown long ago remarried, had children and divorced after 16 years. But her house in Hickory, Lawrence County, outside New Castle, is something of a shrine to Leslie Sabo, the skinny, kind-hearted hometown boy she married in 1969 while he was home on leave.

"My living room has become a museum," she said, laughing.

His decorations and image adorn the walls along with a metal shield made by the brother of one of his Bravo Company comrades who died with him on May 10, 1970, in the "Mother's Day ambush." The shield lists all those killed along with the inscription "Currahee" -- Cherokee for "We Stand Alone Together."

Mr. Sabo's unit, the 3rd Battalion 506th Infantry Regiment, was known as the "Stand Alone Battalion" and its members still call themselves Currahees.

To Mrs. Sabo Brown, the Medal of Honor is a tribute not only to her husband but to all the men who fought with him in an obscure skirmish in a war America tried to forget.

"I couldn't be more proud," she said. "I'm even more happy that he's getting it for all the guys."

For decades, only those men knew how Leslie Sabo died -- how he prevented his comrades from being surrounded; how he threw himself on top of a wounded soldier to protect him from a grenade; how he died while providing covering fire for a medical helicopter to airlift wounded soldiers.

"I remember we talked about what Les did the next morning," said Rick Brown, 58, of suburban Cleveland, who fought in Bravo Company's 3rd platoon adjacent to Mr. Sabo's 2nd platoon and recovered his body the next day. "A couple of guys, they were already talking about what a hero he had been."

But no one back home in Ellwood City knew. When soldiers in dress uniforms first came to the Ellwood City home of his widow's parents, where she was living at the time, they told her only that he was missing in action.

"I knew he was gone," she said. "Because he wrote to me every day. And I hadn't heard from him in a week."

A week later, the soldiers visited again and said he had been killed by enemy fire. But no details were given. Others in town heard he had died in various ways -- that he had stepped on a mine, died in a bombing or been killed by a sniper.

His father, Leslie Sabo Sr., died never knowing of his gallantry.

"The story of Sabo's heroism was kicked around, unacknowledged, in government files for 29 years," wrote Ellwood City Ledger reporter Eric Poole in "Forgotten Honor," his 2009 book about Mr. Sabo.

'America shouldn't forget'

Then in 1999, Alton "Tony" Mabb, a Vietnam veteran of the 101st Airborne and a columnist for "Screaming Eagle," the division association magazine, was visiting the then-new National Archives military repository in College Park, Md., to do research on Vietnam Medal of Honor winners.

He found a thick file on Mr. Sabo, which included a proposed citation for the Medal of Honor. The draft citation on which it was based had been prepared by George Koziol, one of Mr. Sabo's comrades. Mr. Koziol, who died of cancer a few years ago, was wounded in the May 10 ambush and started writing his 416-word citation for Mr. Sabo in his hospital bed in 1970.

"Through his indomitable courage, complete disregard for his own safety, and profound concern for his fellow soldiers, he averted loss of life and injury to the members of his platoon," he wrote of Mr. Sabo.

Mr. Mabb realized that a hero had been ignored. It's not clear why, although it might have been because of the unusual command structure under which Mr. Sabo's unit served. While the rest of the 101st Division was in South Vietnam, the 506th Regiment participated in the campaign in Cambodia under the control of the Fourth Infantry Division. Neither division took ownership of Mr. Sabo's story, apparently.

"I think the guy didn't get his due," said Mr. Mabb, 60, who lives in Jacksonville, Fla. "I just think America shouldn't forget."

He wrote about Mr. Sabo in "Screaming Eagle," seeking his comrades in Bravo Company. One of them, Richard Clanton, put Mr. Mabb in touch with Mr. Koziol and another old soldier, Richard Rios.

Like many Vietnam veterans, they had tried to put the war behind them, but they wanted to help Mr. Mabb because they felt they owed Mr. Sabo a debt.

"I don't know what else a guy can do to help other soldiers," Mr. Koziol said in "Forgotten Honor."

"Giving him the medal would say that no one is forgetting what Leslie did for others and it's time the military stepped up and did something."

The men reached out to Mrs. Sabo Brown by e-mail in 2002 and set up a meeting at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. At the Wall, the men's wives told her: "We feel so bad, we're standing here with our husbands and they're here because of your husband."

Mr. Mabb also contacted his congresswoman, Rep. Corrine Brown, who wrote to the Defense Department asking that Mr. Sabo be recognized. In 2006, then-Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey recommended Mr. Sabo for the medal.

But there was a hitch: The Medal of Honor must be awarded within three years of the soldier's action. An extension requires an act of Congress. So Rep. Brown worked to include language into the 2008 defense authorization bill that extended the statute of limitations for Mr. Sabo.

After President George W. Bush signed the bill, Mr. Sabo's family contacted Mr. Altmire for help in shepherding the process through the Defense Department again. The congressman repeatedly asked for updates and was told that the Army was still investigating.

Finally, in March, Mr. McHugh sent a letter saying he was recommending the medal for Mr. Sabo.

"From my understanding, everyone has signed off on this at the Pentagon," said Tess Mullen, Mr. Altmire's communications director.

Now the application is on a new president's to-do list. The convoluted process has been frustrating for Mr. Sabo's comrades.

"We've been so close before, we don't want to say anything until Rose Mary receives it," said former Capt. James Waybright of Marietta, Ohio, commander of Bravo Company.

A final gift

Leslie Sabo was born in Austria in 1948 and came to America with his family when he was 2. They settled in Youngstown, Ohio, and then moved to Ellwood City so his father could be closer to his job at Blaw-Knox Corp. He graduated from Lincoln High School in 1966 and briefly attended Youngstown State University before dropping out to work in a steel mill. In 1967, he met Rose Mary at a high school football game and they became an item.

In April 1969, Mr. Sabo's draft number came up and he shipped off to Georgia for training. He and Rose Mary married while he was home on leave. A few weeks later, he came home again on a 30-day leave. That month was the only time he and his bride would spend together before he left for Vietnam.

In San Francisco that fall, he ordered flowers to be delivered to his wife on May 26 of the following year, her 22nd birthday. He also ordered flowers to be delivered to his mother and mother-in-law for Mother's Day on May 10, 1970.

Assigned to the 2nd platoon of Bravo Company in the 506th, he soon made friends. He wore a red bandanna and black-rimmed glasses -- "To tell you the truth, I thought he was kind of dorky," recalled Mr. Brown, who served in the 3rd platoon -- but he was easy-going and laughed a lot.

He and George Koziol traded jokes and talked of home. He wrote to Rose Mary every day and often sang a rendition of "Love Grows (Where My Rose Mary Goes)" by Edison Lighthouse, a popular tune at the time. His singing was pretty lousy, his comrades recalled.

"We shared food, we shared laughs," said Mr. Rios, 63, who lives near Houston, Texas. "He had a great sense of humor, a really good attitude. He was a good soldier."

By May of 1970, Mr. Sabo had been in more than a dozen battles. Then, on May 1, the Currahees were ordered into Cambodia to attack North Vietnamese units who were using that country as a staging area for the Tet Offensive.

Just before noon on May 10, Bravo Company approached a clearing in the jungle in the Se San Valley. While the first platoon stayed behind, the 3rd platoon moved ahead, single file, followed by the 2nd platoon. They walked into an ambush. The North Vietnamese let the 3rd platoon walk by, then opened up with machine guns and rockets from three sides.

"If you've never been in something like that, you can't believe how loud it is," said Mr. Brown, who said he ducked behind an anthill. "I felt like it was D-Day."

Everyone hit the ground and scrambled for cover, regained their bearings and then returned fire.

In the rear, Mr. Sabo and seven of his comrades, all of whom eventually died, fought desperately to keep Bravo Company from being surrounded.

"Green tracers are flying above our heads. We're firing back with red tracers," said Mr. Rios, who was in the 2nd platoon with Mr. Sabo. "After 30 minutes, we were taking casualties. I could hear the screaming, I could hear guys calling 'medic!'"

After several hours, Mr. Sabo saw a wounded comrade about 10 yards away and ran to help him.

"I saw him get up," recalled Mr. Brown. "My first reaction was, 'What the [expletive] are you doing?' "

As Mr. Sabo started first aid, the North Vietnamese hurled a grenade from a nearby ditch. Mr. Sabo threw himself onto his injured comrade, shielding him from the blast. Grenade fragments penetrated his back, but he jumped up and attacked, throwing his own grenades into the enemy ditch and killing two North Vietnamese soldiers.

As the day wore on, Bravo Company was running out of ammo. Mr. Sabo sprinted through fire again to strip three ammunition belts from fallen soldiers, throwing one to Mr. Koziol and one to another man. As he ducked behind a tree, he took a bullet in the leg.

With the 2nd and 3rd platoons pinned down and darkness falling, it fell to the 1st platoon to break the siege and secure a landing zone to evacuate about 30 wounded men.

As helicopters arrived, Mr. Sabo again stepped from behind cover and opened fire with his M-16, forcing the enemy soldiers to duck. That allowed the 1st platoon to kill a North Vietnamese soldier who had been standing in the landing zone and gave the choppers time to retrieve the wounded.

But then Mr. Sabo's ammo ran out. As he was loading another clip, the enemy opened fire, hitting him multiple times.

Mr. Koziol, who was among the wounded, watched from a helicopter.

"I saw him when he dropped his rifle, dropped to his knees and fell face-first in the dirt," he told the Ledger.

The next day, U.S. troops returned to pick up the dead. They had to drag the bodies a mile to a chopper landing zone because the pilots didn't want to land closer. Mr. Brown and another soldier loaded seven corpses onto a helicopter.

Leslie Sabo and his comrades were among the 58,000 killed in the Vietnam War. In all, Bravo Company lost 18 men between January and the end of May 1970.

On May 26, Rose Mary's birthday, Leslie Sabo was buried at Holy Redeemer Cemetery in North Sewickley.

As she was leaving for the military funeral that morning, a delivery man arrived at her door and presented her with a dozen red roses -- a final gift from her husband.

Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.
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First published on May 9, 2010 at 12:00 am
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