During the first five months of 1970, wherever the men of Bravo Company (3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division) operated, NVA troops seemed to be waiting for them. That was a time of what became know as Vietnamization when the South Vietnamese Army was supposed to be able to defend itself. Yet Bravo’s men found themselves in combat almost every day.
Bravo Company participated in three big operations during early 1970. Its first assignment was to drive the 7th Battalion, 22nd NVA Regiment, 3rd Division off Hill 474, a Central Highlands stronghold. The hill lacked tactical significance beyond the one thousand enemy soldiers quartered there.
In an initial sweep of the hill, four of Bravo’s men were killed instantly in an ambush. Bravo followed a routine of search and destroy tactics, battling the enemy, withdrawing, and starting over. Its encounters were grim and swift. By mid-March, hunting the enemy yielded diminishing returns as the NVA exfiltrated what had become a siege site.
Reassigned to the Crow’s Foot, southeast of Pleiku, Bravo continued search and destroy operations. Enemy booby traps frequently supplemented ambushes. In one encounter, “Of the first ten men in line, [Richard] Clanton was the only one not wounded,” Eric Poole writes in Company of Heroes: A Forgotten Medal of Honor and Bravo Company’s War in Vietnam (Osprey, 296 pp., $24.95). Again, firefights were short and costly to both sides.
Bravo’s next assignment was to support the incursion into Cambodia to cut trails that fed NVA supplies into South Vietnam. In Cambodia, Bravo found itself undermanned, outnumbered, and without air or artillery support. Nevertheless, in four days, Bravo found and destroyed an NVA field hospital, more than forty other buildings, tons of rice, and livestock. On the fifth afternoon, NVA soldiers trapped Bravo’s Second and Third Platoons in an open clearing, killing eight men and wounding twenty-eight others.
During this encounter, Spec 4 Leslie H. Sabo, Jr. died in action nearly single-handedly fighting off a large enemy attack. That feat of valor earned him the Medal of Honor, but it was not awarded until 2012. The long delay resulted from the fact that the only account of Sabo’s heroism had been misplaced among his military records.
The medal set the stage for this book. Author Eric Poole is a newspaper reporter from Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, Sabo’s hometown. Having never served in the military, Poole heavily relied on stories told to him by dozens of Bravo Company members who fought alongside Sabo. He conducted interviews from 2007-14.
The book centers on Austrian-born Sabo and his family, detailing both civilian and military life. The story of Sabo’s family contains twists and surprises thanks to Poole’s excellent investigative skills. And Poole does the same with the men he interviewed.
He weaves episodes from their pre-war civilian lives with what they experienced in Vietnam. Like Sabo, Bravo’s infantrymen were primarily draftees. Poole also recounts the stories of the eighteen Bravo Company members killed in action. He unobtrusively explains the history behind the war in general and gives details of battles, summoning comparisons from earlier conflicts.
To close the circle, the book explains the effort related to rescuing Sabo’s paperwork. It also details the PTSD, divorces, and other emotional turmoil that combat gave to many of Bravo’s soldiers, their wives, and their widows after the war. More than two dozen of Sabo’s comrades attended the presentation of his Medal of Honor by President Obama.
I believe that too many Vietnam War grunts never received the honors they earned. That is why books such as Company of Heroes are important. They chronicle people and events on the verge of disappearing.
A researcher on Sabo’s case said, “The guy got lost in the shuffle and I didn’t care for that.” He added: “That company got the shit kicked out of it for a while. That seemed not to be right.”
Along with Sabo’s medal, Poole’s book gives full voice to the exploits of Bravo Company, which have been overlooked for far too long.