On this day in 1970, a hero engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Specialist Four Leslie H. Sabo Jr. was the son of Hungarian-born Austrian immigrants.
They’d moved from Hungary, then from Austria, because they were fleeing the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe in the wake of World War II.
“Leslie adored his parents,” historian Eric Poole writes, “especially his mother, the kind of woman who would have been decidedly less comfortable married (as she now was) to an industrial engineer at a western Pennsylvania steel mill than she would have been as wife of Hungary’s prime minister—an outcome that would have been entirely possible in a different reality.”
Either way, Sabo was ready to serve when his adopted country called upon him. He went to Vietnam during November 1969 as part of the 506th Infantry in the renowned 101st Airborne Division.
By May 10, 1970, he and his platoon were in Se San, Cambodia. Our men were conducting reconnaissance when they suddenly found themselves under attack. That ambush came to be called the “Mother’s Day ambush” because May 10 happened to be Mother’s Day that year.
“Les was in the rear—and he could have stayed there,” the President later said during Sabo’s Medal of Honor ceremony. “But those fighters were unloading on his brothers. So Les charged forward and took several of those fighters out.”
But Sabo wasn’t done yet.
Another line of enemy fighters was coming from a different direction. Sabo launched himself towards them, purposefully drawing the enemy fire in his own direction and protecting his fellow soldiers.
Sabo soon turned and saw a wounded soldier lying about 10 yards away. He ran for the soldier just as a grenade landed nearby. He swiftly tossed the grenade away, but only after he’d placed himself between the grenade and the wounded soldier.
As Sabo had intended, the shrapnel hit him—not his fellow soldier. He was “[s]eriously wounded” by this blast, as his Medal citation later noted, but Sabo would still make one last, heroic run. He’d collected more ammo and now charged one final enemy bunker that had been inflicting heavy damage on our boys.
Sabo was already wounded, but now he was taking more hits as he half ran, half crawled towards the enemy bunker. He threw one last grenade into that bunker before succumbing to his injuries.
“Les kept crawling, kept pulling himself along, closer to that bunker, even as the bullets hit the ground all around him,” the President described. “And then, he grabbed a grenade and he pulled the pin. It’s said he held that grenade and didn’t throw it until the last possible moment, knowing it would take his own life, but knowing he could silence that bunker. And he did. He saved his comrades, who meant more to him than life.”
Sabo was immediately recommended for the Medal of Honor, but the paperwork seems to have gotten lost. Even his family didn’t know exactly what he’d done for years. Indeed, it would take more than four decades before the record was finally set straight and a Medal was authorized.
Sabo’s widow received that Medal for him in May 2012.
“I know a piece of cloth and a medal won't bring him back, but my heart beats with pride for Leslie,” she concluded.
Katie Lange, Medal of Honor Monday: Army Spc. Leslie Sabo Jr. (U.S. Dept. of Defense; July 29, 2019)
Luis Martinez and Mary Bruce, 40 Years Late, Vietnam Hero Leslie Sabo Gets Medal of Honor (ABC News; May 16, 2012)
Medal of Honor citation (Leslie H. Sabo, Jr.; Vietnam)
Spc. Leslie Sabo Jr. (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website)