Specialist Leslie H. Sabo Jr., married his fiancée, Rose Mary, in September of 1969 and had 30 days with her before he was sent off to Vietnam, and eventually, Cambodia. There, he would sacrifice himself to save his fellow Soldiers.
President Barack Obama will recognize his service, May 16, presenting Sabo’s family with the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony. Veterans from Sabo’s platoon will also be in attendance to honor his sacrifice.
Captain Jim Waybright was Sabo’s company commander with Company B, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. He separated from the Army as a captain when he returned from Vietnam in 1971, but carries Sabo’s memory with him still.
“Well, Leslie, I always remember him with a maroon headband around his head and dark glasses,” Waybright said with a laugh. “He was very laid back. With his glasses, he probably looked somewhat like a nerd, but you know, we were a pretty relaxed group.”
From rest to combat, the welfare and safety of the company were always Waybright’s top priorities, and difficult to maintain in the unforgiving and unconventional combat environment. “You got to be pretty close to your people,” he explained. “You lived with them and any consideration that you had on tactics was to not only accomplish the mission, but to keep your people alive.”
On May 10, 1970, Company B was in Cambodia on a secret mission to prevent North Vietnamese forces from staging attacks into Vietnam. The company, attached to the 4th Infantry Division, had taken a village in Se San, Cambodia, Waybright said, and they were in the process of destroying the food supplies and encampments the North Vietnamese forces left behind. The company had orders to keep moving down a trail when they were finished.
They traveled down the path, with two platoons forward and one in reserve. That afternoon, a North Vietnamese battalion ambushed the company.
“I think the first reaction was, people were sort of freezing,” Waybright recalled. “And then we quickly shouted out — several of us — to return fire. Actually, in combat, everybody is afraid, but there is a camaraderie among people in your outfit … you don’t want to look bad in front of your fellow Soldiers … you want to save their lives as well as your own.”
The company, which had been traveling in a perimeter rather than a column formation, was already in a defensive position when the attack began, Waybright said.
“They dug in on one side and (to) the rear of us,” he said, and the enemy was quickly closing in. Waybright and his men started calling for air support almost immediately – the Soldiers were severely outnumbered.
“(Sabo) might have come across as a little bit of a hippie, but when the bullets started flying, Leslie really came to task,” Waybright remembered.
This wasn’t the first time Sabo would prove his mettle in battle. Just a month earlier, the Soldiers found themselves in a fierce firefight, Waybright said, and Sabo’s actions rallied his fellow Soldiers and inspired them to fight harder.
This battle was no different, and Sabo didn’t hesitate to spring to action, Waybright said. He charged the enemy’s position, killing several of their soldiers, and then proceeded to assault the flanking force, drawing their fire away from his unit and forcing them to retreat. When a grenade landed near a wounded buddy, Sabo picked it up, threw it, and shielded the other Soldier with his own body, taking the brunt of the explosion.
“At times he actually moved toward the enemy,” Waybright remembered, “and it saved that side of the perimeter.”
His body full of shrapnel from the grenade explosion, Sabo charged an enemy bunker sustaining serious wounds from automatic weapons fire in the process. Despite his injuries, he pressed on toward the emplacement and threw a grenade into the bunker, sacrificing his own life to stop the enemy fire.
“I think the North Vietnamese intention was to even the perimeter and then attempt to overrun us,” Waybright said, adding that he and the surviving members of Company B credited Sabo with preventing that from happening. Eight people were killed during that battle, and another 28 were wounded, but the enemy force sustained the biggest blow. “I think the division counted 49 enemy KIAs,” he continued.
There are 18 bricks in the veteran’s wall of Waybright’s hometown of Marietta, Ohio, honoring each of the 18 Company B Soldiers who were killed between January and May of 1970.
“Ironically, five years ago when we had the bricks installed, on Leslie’s brick we put ‘MOH,’ not knowing (if it would ever happen),” Waybright said. “And probably six months ago, I was trying to figure out how to get the MOH off there because we figured the application was either lost or turned down.”
The original Medal of Honor nomination, submitted by George Koziol — one of the men wounded in the battle of Se San — was lost in 1970. It wasn’t until Memorial Day 1999 that the paperwork was rediscovered.
Alton Mabb, a 101st Abn. Div. Vietnam veteran, found the original paperwork while at the National Archives, researching an article he was writing for Screaming Eagle, the division association’s magazine.
“I just asked them to bring me a box of something, and I asked them to bring me some Medal of Honor stuff and, so I had this big file,” Mabb explained. He knew who some of the MOH recipients from that time period were, but when he stumbled across Sabo’s nomination, he knew he had found someone who had never been recognized. “It intrigued me, because there was quite a bit of paperwork there, maps of the battle and all that stuff.”
Initially, Mabb let the information lie, but a few weeks later he asked archive personnel to send him copies of the paperwork and began the push to get Sabo recognized. Mabb confirmed Sabo’s military records and awards using the Freedom of Information Act. He also began the three-year search for veterans of the Se San battle. During that time, he discovered that there was a three-year statute of limitations on Medal of Honor nominations — it would require a congressional override to be completed.
In March 2002, Mabb took the paperwork to his congresswoman at the time, Corrine Brown, and asked her to intervene.
“Then the government wheels moved quite slowly,” Mabb joked.
Then-Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey re-endorsed Sabo’s nomination in May 2006; it was then attached to the HR 4986, the National Defensive Authorization Act of 2008, which was passed into law that January. After a 13-year trek through government processes, the award will be made official, May 16.
Mabb believes the delay in the process stems from some confusion surrounding the battle at Se San. “It’s a little known fact that the 3rdof the 506th was really a substitute battalion for the battalion of the 4th Infantry, who was going to Cambodia,” he explained.
Mabb said he believes an injustice occurred when Sabo’s nomination was forgotten, and that is why he helped push the award through.
“I’m sort of embarrassed by it all now and kind of surprised. I just, I’m not sure I expected it to get this far,” he said, pausing to collect himself. “I thought there was a lot of confusion … just reading the paperwork and stuff, there seemed like there was an awful lot of confusion, but that is what happens in battle.”
Mabb was prepared for the government to send back a lesser award, and was pleasantly surprised when the Medal of Honor was announced.
“I just want everyone to know the system does work,” he said. “We can make change, and what is forgotten can be found. Justice can be done.”
Mabb is happy for Sabo and the other members of B Company. He believes it is an opportunity for those men to be recognized for their efforts and is a good chance to reunite.
For the first 30 years after the war, the Soldiers of Company B didn’t have much contact with one another, Waybright said, but in 2001 that changed when they started holding annual reunions. The gatherings have been integral to the healing process.
“They’ve come together and talked things out now, and learned things about each other, and that’s what reunions are about. And they have this common bond now, so I am really happy for them,” Mabb said.
This year’s reunion was moved moved from Ohio to Washington, D.C., to coincide with Sabo’s ceremony.
“I’m very happy that it’s finally happening,” Waybright said, adding that he is proud of Company B Soldiers’ service and of their dedication to their fellow Soldiers, especially Sabo.
“Leslie, Bravo Company appreciates your sacrifice. We’re so sorry that you gave your life, and we love you very much.”
For more about Sabo’s heroic actions from his former company commander, Jim Waybright, visit http://youtu.be/Mkr5j6Mh5uk.