Excerpt from General Orders No.11, Washington, D.C., May 5, 1868:
The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
I got that excerpt from a better Memorial Day article than I have ever written or ever hope to write. I stongly recommend that you take a couple of minutes to read a moving article entitled: I’m a veteran, and I hate “Happy Memorial Day.” Here’s why.
We have posted a number of different Memorial Day entries here at SFN and after reading that article, I almost didn’t do anything but quote from that article. But there are so many stories of heroism and sacrifice, that there is no such thing as “too many stories”. So I’m going to share some excerpts from a book that covers the sacrifices made by Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division:
COMPANY OF HEROES, A Forgotten Medal of Honor and Bravo Company’s War in Vietnam, by Eric Poole
In Band of Brothers, author Stephen Ambrose dubbed Easy Company, ‘as good a rifle company as there was in the world.’ Like the World War II forebears, Bravo Company was composed largely of citizen soldiers drafted into the military. They were steelworkers, dropouts, new college and high school grads, dock workers, and laborers. They came from across the United States, although Pennsylvania was unusually well-represented, just as it was with Easy Company during World War II. Bravo Company boasted a Medal of Honor recipient, several Silver Stars, and more than a dozen Bronze Stars, the US military’s fourth-highest award for combat valor. On its worst day, the company sustained nearly 50 percent casualties. And it more than honored the tradition begun a generation earlier.
That worst day was May 10, 1970 – Mother’s Day – shortly after the entire battalion was taken into Cambodia by helicopter. The mission on that day was to “overrun an enemy facility and destroy any supplies found within.” That morning, Bravo Company’s 2nd and 3rd Platoons were directed to check out a collection of hooches.
With Ruben Rueda walking point, 3rd Platoon took the lead, followed by 2nd Platoon including Leslie Sabo and George Koziol, and it didn’t take long for them to find trouble. Just after 3pm, the Americans moved into a jungle clearing with sparse tree cover, and a trail that ran down through the clearing’s center. Sabo’s second squad of 2nd Platoon had just broken out of the tree line when in Koziol’s words, “the shit hit the fan.”
In the lead element, Reudea immediately saw signs that the clearing was in fact inhabited, with punji sticks and hooches along the perimeter. As he neared the huts, Rueda saw enemy soldiers pouring out of them…
The attack started just as Sabo’s squad, which was the column’s tail end, entered the clearing. Koziol’s squad was about 10 meters ahead of Sabo’s when [they] were hit from three sides by a much larger North Vietnamese force. The enemy had not only the advantage of numbers, but it also was dug into defensive positions from the cover of a surrounding tree line and able to fire down on the Americans, who were caught out in an open area…
“We went for whatever cover we could find,” Richard Rios said. “With all of the shooting going on and the dust and the guns, everything was a haze.”…
[Lt Ted] Stocks was concerned that the North Vietnamese would pour into a gap between the two US elements. He and Sgt John Roethlisberger moved to shore up the…defense under heavy enemy fire – an effort that by Stokes’ own admission, succeeded primarily because of Sabo.
“If it hadn’t been for him holding his side of the perimeter almost single-handedly so I could reinforce his position, we would have been overrun,” Stock said….
In the rearguard, there was no shortage of valor. With 2nd Platoon under a withering attack one soldier – likely Leslie Wilbanks or Thomas Merriman – exposed himself to provide covering fire until the enemy cut him down, and Donald Smith attacked an enemy machine-gun bunker with grenades. Smith silenced the gun, but the assault cost him his life. James DeBrew and Ernie Moore manned one of 2nd Platoon’s 60mm machine guns. The following morning, their bodies would be found, still at the weapon. Larry DeBoer ran into the open field under heavy enemy fire to rescue a wounded comrade. Sabo, Smith, the machine-gun team of DeBrew and Moore, Deboer, and Wilbanks kept the North Vietnamese out of the clearing…
But Leslie Sabo’s actions were outstanding, even on a day when outstanding acts of courage were almost routine. “Leslie did more than any of us,” said George Koziol, in what might be the most succinct yet accurate assessment about Sabo’s relative contributions…
[An injured man] was lying exposed when an enemy soldier, from a two-man trench, threw a grenade that landed near the fallen [man]…Sabo moved forward and threw himself over the body of his comrade, absorbing multiple shrapnel injuries to his back in the process.
As the unidentified wounded soldier made his way to the relative safety of the wooded area, Sabo, who was then wounded himself, went on the attack. He rushed the North Vietnamese trench with a grenade assault of his own and killed both enemy soldiers. By this time, late in the afternoon…the beleaguered Bravo Company soldiers were running low on lead to throw at the North Vietnamese. Sabo…again exposed himself so he could strip ammunition magazines from Americans who had been killed earlier…
…Around 5 pm, several hours after the ambush had begun, a artillery strike forced the North Vietnamese snipers out of the trees…[But] retreating from the clearing would have been fatal for most of the two dozen or so soldiers already wounded and unable to move. They couldn’t go out. Reinforcements had to go in.
The only unit that could reach the clearing before night was Bravo Company’s 1st Platoon that had stayed behind to guard the company’s packs, collect the full supply drop and remain as a reserve force.
1st Platoon [came in] at the opposite end of the clearing from Sabo and the rest of 2nd Platoon, an eventuality that would work to [their] advantage because it would allow [the] force of around 25 men to catch the enemy from behind…1st Platoon entered the clearing as it was getting dark and broke the siege only to take fire from helicopters whose pilots were unaware that the clearing was now being taken by Americans. A radio call stopped the fire from the helicopters, but not from the North Vietnamese…
It was up to the very same soldiers who had just spent hours fighting for their lives to secure a safe landing zone for the helicopters to land in near-darkness at the outer end of their fuel range, a task that took on vital importance because there were almost 30 injured soldiers who couldn’t wait for daylight for medical treatment…
Then Sabo did something extraordinary. Again.
He stepped out from behind a small tree that for hours had been his only cover, and squeezed the trigger on his M-16, which he had set to full automatic….Sabo’s attack stopped the enemy machine guns and allowed 1st Platoon to eliminate the single enemy soldier in the landing zone. It also gave the helicopter time to carry his injured friend from the battlefield…
“He got hit two or three times and still kept on going.”
Sabo was able to clear the landing zone, but the 22-year old soldier paid for that real estate in his own blood. Sabo was vulnerable while he reloaded. And when the enemy soldiers were able to poke their heads – and their weapons – back into the open, they took advantage of that opportunity…
“I saw him when he dropped his rifle, dropped to his knees and fell face first into the dust.”…
After bursting into the clearing and relieving their brothers, 1st Platoon’s work still wasn’t over. [They] helped establish a more secure landing zone that wouldn’t require a near-vertical descent. Once that was completed, Bravo Company got a kick-out supply drop of food, ammunition, and water to slake the thirst of men who had spent hours fighting for their lives without enough of all those commodities.
Survivors of the Mother’s Day Ambush unanimously reported that 2nd Platoon’s counterattack, and particularly Sabo’s repeated heroic acts, saved their lives, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. All Rick Brown knew as the sun beat down and the enemy rained hot lead on them from all directions was that he expected the North Vietnamese to emerge from the trees at any moment to kill him. But they never showed themselves.
“I couldn’t work out why they couldn’t’ get around that corner”, he said.
Only later did he find out that the North Vietnamese couldn’t get to him because Leslie Sabo owned the corner.
“More than 20 soldiers from Bravo Company received medals for the heroism during the Mother’s Day ambush.” But Leslie Sabo did not. Sabo’s friend (Koziol) who saw him fall while he was being air-lifted out of that clearing wrote up Sabo’s actions and expected that it would be included in the official award citation. But somewhere along the line, that citation was “misplaced.” And “misplaced” was where Sabo’s story lay for several decades.
But in the spring of 1999, Alton Mabb Jr was doing research at the National Archives for the Screaming Eagle, the publication of the 101st Airborne Division Association.
“The first thing [he] noticed about Sergeant Leslie Lalasz Sabo Jr’s Army service record was its thickness.
“There must have been 100 pages in that file,” Mabb said of the day he stumbled upon the folder that contained the official story of Sabo’s final year in this world.
When it comes to Army files, size matters….
…Inside Sabo’s folder, Mabb discovered a story of heroism unknown to all but a handful of people, a list which, at the time, did not include Sabo’s mother, brother, adult nephews, widow, or his childhood friends in Ellwood City.
“The guy got lost in the shuffle and I didn’t care for that”, said Mabb, who served with the 101st in 1970-71…
The battle for official recognition of Sabo’s sacrifice took over a decade and Sabo’s family was finally told by a phone call with Pres. Obama in 2012 that Sabo was to be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on that Mother’s Day so many years before.
…More than two dozen of Leslie Sabo’s long-ago comrades were invited to the White House, where the President, in an unusual recognition for a ceremony to honor an individual soldier, asked [that]..the men who accompanied Sabo into Vietnam and Cambodia to stand and be recognized for their valor.
The applause started off solemn and polite. Then, General James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, stood. After that, the whole rose, as if it were at a concert or a baseball game, and gave Leslie Sabo’s comrades the long-overdue admiration they earned 42 years earlier.
It seems fitting that I end this entry with the dedication found at the beginning of Mr. Poole’s book:
This book is dedicated to all veterans of the Vietnam War, but especially to the men of Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (1969-70) and the following:
KIA January 28, 1970
Steven “Hungry” Dile, of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania
Peter Guzeman, of Los Angeles
Frank Madrid, of Pierto de Luna, New Mexico
and John Shaffer of Syracuse, New York
KIA February 17, 1970
Joe Honan, of Scranton, Pennsylvania
KIA February 25, 1970
Alan Johnson, of Medford, Massachusetts (died of wounds sustained on February 17,1970)
KIA April 4, 1970
Gary Weekley, of Middlebourne, West Virginia
KIA April 8, 1970
Richard Calderon, of Silverbell, Arizona
Thomas Scarboro, of Asheville North Carolina
KIA April 27, 1970
Bobby Koehler, of Philadelphia
KIA May 10, 1970
Larry DeBoer, of Grand Rapids, Michigan
James DeBreu, of Whitakers, North Carolina
Fred Harms, of Bartonville, Illinois
Thomas Merriman, of Paulding, Ohio
Ernie Moore, of Spring Lake, Michigan
Leslie Sabo Jr., of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania
Donald Smith, of Rantoul, Illinois
and Leslie Joe Wilbanks, of Gila Bend, Arizona