Young man became casualty
Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series published each Monday between Memorial Day and Veterans Day honoring local veterans.
HUBBARD – The last thing Bobby Mayle said he could recall, his U.S. Army platoon was on a hill in a northern section of South Vietnam called the A-shau Valley, when suddenly shots rang out and mortars tore through the humid air.
It was Aug. 12, 1968, the bloodiest single year of the Vietnam War, and the 20-year-old E-4 specialist was in the middle of the action.
As Mayle, leader of a five-man fire team, tried desperately to protect his company’s flank on the hill later coined Hamburger Hill the firefight intensified.
A piercing bang was followed by a flash of light, and Mayle’s consciousness fad-ed to black …
“I woke up days later in a hospital outside Danang,” Mayle, now 66, remembered during an interview last week from his Hubbard home.
Slowly, he began to take stock of his surroundings and assess what exactly had happened in the fog of war.
A feeling of immobility overtook his senses. As Mayle peered down at his heavily bandaged body, a cold reality washed over him.
The trauma was horrific.
“We don’t have time to go over every single injury,” Mayle said, only half jokingly.
Burns and tears extended from the bottom of his right foot, up his leg, across his torso and ran down both arms. The injuries made even the slightest movements a serious test for Mayle’s pain threshold, he said.
“Basically, the only thing that wasn’t touched was the left leg,” Mayle said. “Every other part of my body was hit.”
Army officials believe a mortar landing nearby was responsible for the raining shrapnel that hit his torso.
“We’re thinking it was a mortar, but it’s possible it could have been a grenade,” Mayle said. “It was probably a mortar, just based on the amount of damage.”
After 90 days spent in fierce combat, Mayle was forced to come to grips with his status as a casualty of war.
“It was impossible to even comprehend at the time,” Mayle said. “You’re 20 years old and in the prime of your life when you wake up in the morning. The next thing you know, they’re telling you, ‘Bob, you’re never going to be able to run again or play football again or do the other fun things in life.'”
For a full year, Mayle remained in the hospital, giving him plenty of time to take stock.
“How did I get here?” Mayle asked.
Born in Phillipe, W.Va., Mayle’s parents moved to the Mahoning Valley in 1957 and he was drafted into the Army shortly after his graduation from Canfield High School in 1966.
Always the adventurous type, landing in Saigon, Vietnam, was not as frightening for him as some may envision.
“You’re in a tropical country,” Mayle recalled. “Really, it was a beautiful place.”
However, days after acclimating to the lush environment, he was quickly thrust into combat.
“We just basically walked into the jungle and that’s where I spent the next three months,” Mayle said. “Having mortars dropped on you in the middle of a dense forest … it was kind of an extreme experience. You jump in a hole like they train you to do and you hope you don’t get killed the first day.”
Many of Mayle’s memories during his three-month trek through the jungles of the A-shau Valley remain oddly pleasant in his mind.
“It was sort of like a Boy Scout adventure, where you’d go camping with a bunch of guys in the woods,” Mayle said. “The only difference was, every once in a while, people would shoot at you and try to kill you.”
Several weeks into combat, Mayle found that he was well acclimated to the situation. The specialist became the leader of a small platoon that would either protect point leading the company into the teeth of battle or protect the company from rear attacks.
“The morning I got hurt, I looked out over the mountains and I could see the South China Sea from our vantage point,” he recalled. “You could see the sea out 60 miles or so and it was just beautiful.”
All of the men in Mayle’s platoon were injured that day, and they weren’t alone.
In 1968, the United States lost 16,592 soldiers in Vietnam with another 87,388 men wounded, making it easily the bloodiest year of the war.
“I would see guys in the morning and think, you may not be around later tonight,” Mayle said. “But, then we’d have replacements every day. It’s just something that became normal after a while. You’d wake up in the morning and see a guy and he’d be gone later that night.
“Half the time, you didn’t know if he had transferred out or got killed,” he noted.
Mayle’s long and hard rehabilitation, during which time he lost nearly 100 pounds, began in Danang, before he was sent to a World War II hospital in Tokyo, Japan, and finally back stateside to the Valley Forge General Hospital in Phoenixville, Pa.
“My mom came to visit me in Valley Forge and didn’t even recognize me I had lost so much weight,” Mayle said.
Today, Mayle’s many battle scars are still visible, as are his lingering disabilities.
“You have to re-learn everything,” Mayle said. “First, it’s how to walk and then how to use things differently. I can’t rotate my left arm a certain way, so when someone offers you change, you make sure to take it with your right hand.
“Little things like that you have to figure out over time. Over 45 years later and I still deal with it every day,” he concluded.