WASHINGTON (Army News Service, May 17, 2012) -- On the day after President Barack Obama presented Rose Mary Sabo-Brown, Spc. 4 Leslie Sabo's widow, with the Medal of Honor, Jim Waybright and other Soldiers who had fought alongside Sabo the day he was killed, sat down to remember the battle, their friend, and how the boys of Bravo Company have come together to be a family once again.
Soldiers from the U.S. Army Bravo Company during the Vietnam War. Courtesy of the family of Medal of Honor Recipient, Leslie Sabo
There are 18 bricks in the veteran's wall in Marietta, Ohio, hometown of Capt. Jim Waybright, the Bravo Company commander. Those bricks honor the 18 Soldiers of Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, who lost their lives between January and May of 1970. Some of those old Soldiers who once fought together during the Vietnam War gathered in Washington, D.C., to remember one of their own in particular.
Spc. 4 Leslie H. Sabo Jr. was killed in action in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. For his action there, a proposed citation for the Medal of Honor had been written for him. But that citation had fallen through the cracks. More than 42 years later, that proposed citation became a Medal of Honor, the nation's highest medal for valor in combat. It was presented to Sabo's widow, Rose Marie, by President Obama, during a May 16 ceremony at the White House.
Sabo is credited with saving the lives of several of his comrades when his platoon was ambushed, May 10, 1970, near the Se San River in eastern Cambodia. Shielding a comrade from an enemy grenade, Sabo went on to silence a machine-gun bunker before he was killed.
"The Se San Valley battle occurred on the fifth day after entering Cambodia," said Richard Rios, a former Army specialist and buddy of Leslie Sabo.
"We were inserted May 5, 1970, by a Huey with Battalion Combat Assault," Rios said. "As soon as we landed, we made contact with two enemies on bicycles with radios. We captured those two individuals and we went on and created a perimeter and went about our business to search and destroy the enemy's resources: food, ammunition and other supplies. That was our mission; to weaken or destroy the enemy that had been using the Ho Chi Minh Trail for years, to resupply their forces in South Vietnam."
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a logistical system that ran from the north of Vietnam to the south, through Laos and Cambodia.
Even though the boys of Bravo Company had air support, B-52s had been pounding the area at least 30 days before they arrived, the resistance was determined to stop them.
"We saw mountains of green trees with white smoke just bellowing up to the skies," Rios said. "It was a strange, eerie looking situation. But that's the top of support we had, even before we landed."
Capt. Jim Waybright, commanding officer, also remembered their air support.
"Each morning, the B-52s would fly in from the Philippines and Okinawa, and we could feel the earth shake," Waybright said. "Being infantry people on the ground, we wanted to make sure they knew where we were. We couldn't see the planes, we couldn't see the bombs, but we could feel things shake. When you're in the infantry, that makes you nervous."
Waybright said there was also support from numerous other aircraft.
"We had gunship support from the helicopters; we had F-4 support, so air superiority was definitely ours," he said. "In the night we were encircled by the battalion of North Vietnamese. There was a C-47 which they called 'Spooky', with many guns and, I believe, even a 105 artillery piece on board, in a small scale. But the air support was very strong."
A company commander, Waybright said leadership can sometimes weigh heavily on the heart.
"As a company commander, or a platoon leader, you never forget when you lose people," Waybright said. "You always second guess: could I have done it better? But it is something that you live every day of your life. And I think these men live it every day themselves."
A fire fight usually lasts just a few minutes and then the enemy backs off, Waybright said. But the battle on May 10, 1970, had gone on for hours, and the enemy did not back off.
"Most of our fire fights were short," added Clanton. "We pretty much gained superiority in most cases by calling in our gunships and air support. Most of our combat was against Viet Cong. (The) Viet Cong is a guerrilla force and much like our countrymen did in the Revolutionary War, they would hit and then run, trying to inflict casualties as quickly as possible and be gone."
In Cambodia, Clanton said, things were different.
"It was a huge enemy force and it was probably the only time we were outmanned and outgunned," Clanton said.
Richard Rios said he suspected the 502th was outmanned at least two to one.
"Keep in mind that when we made the combat assault, we made contact immediately with the enemy and we made contact every day thereafter, up to May 10," Rios said. "We burned hooches, we killed pigs. Cambodia was a haven for the North Vietnamese Army, they were a formidable force, no question."
REMEMBERING THEIR FALLEN BUDDY
"Les was a funny guy and he enjoyed people," Rios said. "He was very fond of his squad mates and platoon mates, but Les was a Soldier. The easiest description I can give of him: he was fun and crazy until the time hit when he needed to be a Soldier, and he became a Soldier."
As a Soldier, Rios said, Sabo was somebody that other Soldiers could depend on.
"Not just on May 10, but every other time we were in trouble, we really looked up to his support in those gun fights and various other activities," Rios said. "He has been missed and thought of all these 42 years. We have never forgotten him and we have never stopped trying to get (the presentation of the Medal of Honor) accomplished. I am so thankful that we did get it accomplished, because he deserved it."
AFTER 33 YEARS, THEIR FAMILY IS REBORN
"Rick Clanton started looking for some buddies that could help him and they could share the healing experience," Waybright said.
Clanton said that the Internet was instrumental in bringing the Soldiers from Bravo Company back together.
"I started the website in 2001, and it was pretty evident after some of us started reconnecting over the Internet that we needed to see each other, and we set the first reunion in Washington (D.C.) during the week of May 10, so that we could all go to the (Vietnam) Wall together," Clanton said.
Just two years after the website went up, there was a sizable reunion in Washington, D.C., for the former comrades, Clanton said.
"In 2003, we had 26 people in attendance," Clanton said. "It was a very moving and very wonderful weekend. Even though we hadn't seen each other in 33 years, it was like we had been apart (only) three months. We all just fell right back into character with who we were then."
Family members of Soldiers who had been killed in action were also part of the reunion, Clanton said. Those family members have found some closure in the fact that their loved ones have not been forgotten by the Soldiers they fought alongside.
"That's been the most gratifying, as far as I am concerned," Clanton said.
SOLDIERS MUST STAY CONNECTED
Bruce Dancesia, another member of the company, had more to say on how today is different than during Vietnam.
"Just last night, we had a couple of sergeants that were sitting with us and we were talking about our old times and they were talking about their time in Afghanistan and Iraq and everything like that, and they were hoping that they could have even half of what we had," Dancesia said.
In particular, Dancesia said, those Soldiers had been admiring the continued friendship that the Soldiers from Vietnam have maintained.
"So I really pushed the idea: stay in touch with your buddies, because you'll never have a family like this again," Dancesia said. "They both agreed, and what it was, one guy was active service now and the other guy had since gotten out of the service, and he said, 'you know, that's the greatest idea that somebody has told us.'"
Dancesia said that Soldiers of today have at their fingertips the tool to stay in touch for a long time: the Internet. That's something that Vietnam-era Soldiers didn't have until long after the war ended.
"We didn't have the web page until Rick got us on the web," Dancesia said. "I mean, most of us are computer dinosaurs. I mean we're not into that era, except for now, I think every one of us looks at the computer every day just to see what somebody has said."
Now, Dancesia said, there's no excuse for today's Soldiers to not build the important contacts with their fellow Soldiers that will last their entire lives.
"In today's atmosphere, these guys are used to that, and there is no reason to not stay in touch," Dancesia said. "So I think they are learning that it's a good thing to stay in touch. It helps an awful lot for the combat stress and everything like that, eventually, down the road."
WHITE HOUSE CEREMONY
"I have never seen anything like that where people stood up and applauded us," Dancesia said. "It was something that overcame me instantly when the President of the United States said, 'I want to thank you, gentlemen, for what you did.'"
Today, Americans make a habit of remembering the Soldiers that fight for freedom on their behalf. That wasn't so for the Soldiers who fought in Vietnam.
"That was one of the few times I've ever heard that in 43 years," Dancesia said. "Now people are saying welcome home and everything, but it's normally ... another Vietnam veteran saying it. But when this room stood up and did this, it was ... I don't know how to explain it ... but I'll never have a better day in my life, I don't think."
The experience was bittersweet for some of the Soldiers.
Emotionally, it was a roller coaster, to say the least," Clanton said. "It had highs and lows because it brings back the memories of others we've lost. But it was the high that we've seen something we've worked for, for so long, come to fruition."
The highlight, Clanton said, was seeing Sabo's widow presented with the Medal of Honor her husband had earned.
"To see Rose and the Sabo family receive this honor on behalf of Leslie, it was just beyond gratifying to us," Clanton said. "It was extremely memorable, I'll never forget it."
The men say they call their former unit "Bravo Family" now, and that back in Vietnam, 18 Soldiers from the family were lost. Those Soldiers too will always be remembered, Rios said.
"We lost 18 people in 100 days, from January 28th to May 10th," Rios said. "And we feel like this Medal of Honor is not for Leslie Sabo, exclusively. But we recognize the other 17 young men who didn't get to come home and grow old. So when the President said, 'I'd like the men of Bravo Company to stand,' that was very emotional."
By Rob McIlvaine
Army News Service
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