Vietnam war hero receives posthumous Medal of Honor 42 years later

Four decades after his brave actions in Vietnam, the family of Spc. Leslie H. Sabo Jr. accepted the Medal of Honor on his behalf Wednesday at the White House.

His widow, Rose Mary, and her brother-in-law, George Sabo, were at the White House to accept the military's highest award for bravery on behalf of Spc. Sabo for his actions in May 1970.

"His indomitable courage and complete disregard for his own safety saved the lives of many of his platoon members," the White House said in a written statement.

This is the story of Sabo's heroism:

It was May 10, 1970, in Se San, Cambodia. Sabo and his platoon were ambushed by a large enemy force. The 22-year-old rifleman from Ellwood City, Pa., charged the enemy position, killing several soldiers, and then attacked an enemy flanking force, drawing fire away from his comrades.

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As the enemy retreated, a grenade landed near Sabo and a wounded American soldier. Sabo picked it up and threw it, while shielding his comrade with his own body. The grenade blast badly injured Sabo, but he continued to charge the bunker.

Crawling toward the enemy stronghold, Sabo was shot multiple times by automatic weapons fire. When he managed to reach the opening of the bunker, he tossed in a grenade, silencing all enemy fire. That same grenade also ended Sabo's life.

Sabo had proposed to his high school sweetheart, Rose Mary Sabo-Brown, just 2 years earlier in June 1968. He was drafted less than a month after the proposal, but the Army let him return to Ellwood City to get married. He only had a month with his wife before returning to the war. That would be the last time they saw each other.

"A piece of metal won't bring back my husband," Sabo-Brown told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in a recent interview. "But my heart beams with pride for Leslie, because he's finally getting what's due to him. I will show it proudly for him for the rest of my life."

At the time Sabo was drafted, Sabo-Brown begged him to ignore the draft notice, but Sabo refused. He told her that his family was torn apart by communism in his native Hungary, and that he felt an obligation to fight against it. He said he understood the reason for the war.

In an interview with Soldier's magazine, Sabo's widow said she knew something was wrong when she stopped receiving letters.

"I felt it," she told the military magazine. "I didn't get a letter that whole week. From May 10 on I didn't get a letter. I said, 'Something happened. Something happened. He's not writing.' He was already dead."

On the day the Army told her about her husband's death, they said he'd been shot by a sniper while guarding an ammunitions dump somewhere in Vietnam.

The Army knows now that wasn't true. He was killed during an act of heroism.

Sabo-Brown says she plans to keep a replica of the Medal of Honor on display in her home, and the actual medal in a safe deposit box.

There's one more person who has yet to be mentioned in many press accounts of this story, but who deserves some credit for Wednesday's ceremony at the White House. If it wasn't for Alton Mabb, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War who discovered Sabo's story 30 years after it happened, there probably wouldn't be any ceremony.

While doing research for a military publication in 1999, Mabb found a box from the National Archives that contained stacks of papers detailing Sabo's actions and recommending him for the Medal of Honor. Mabb took those papers to Congress and put Sabo's story back into consideration for the nation's top military honor.

The Army admits the reason the award is being given four decades later is because Sabo's story "more or less fell through the cracks."