Pfafftown Purple Heart recipient adds his Vietnam experience to Veterans History Project

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Mike Mabe, wearing his original dog tags from his military service in Vietnam, sits in front of his computer showing black and white photographs he made during his tour of service. Mabe has donated his collection of wartime photographs, along with a memoir he wrote to accompany the photographs, to the Library of Congress. (David Rolfe/Journal)

FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — Everything was quiet. Too quiet, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

In hindsight, Mike Mabe said, he should have suspected something. But he realized too late the danger he was in.

An enemy soldier exploded out of a hidden foxhole in Vietnam like a jack-in-the-box, unleashing a barrage of bullets from his machine gun, striking Mabe’s comrade in the ankle.

Mabe bolted into the thicket, draping his wounded comrade over his shoulder, all the while dodging flashes from grenades.

Gunfire rained down on the hillside as a band of Viet Cong soldiers raced after them. A U.S. rescue helicopter was peppered with bullets and began to smoke and wobble, jeopardizing any hope of escape.

As a piece of shrapnel slammed into Mabe’s hip, he had one thought: Today is the day I’m going to die.

He was wrong. A rescue helicopter arrived with reinforcements, who managed to help subdue the Viet Cong. He and his wounded comrades were then evacuated by Medivac.

That was March 12, 1966.

He vowed that it was a moment he would never forget. A month later, he was presented the Purple Heart for his heroics while still stationed in Vietnam.

“For the rest of the year, I knew any day could be my last. I saw people dying all around me,” said Mabe, 67, who lives in Pfafftown. “So when I made it home, I set out to live my life to the fullest.”

That includes sharing his story.

As the keynote speaker during the Northwest Piedmont Purple Heart Foundation’s annual banquet Aug. 16, Mabe spoke about the importance of veterans sharing their experiences with relatives and friends.

He said many Vietnam veterans felt shunned when they returned home by those who hadn’t served. Embittered by what they considered disrespect, many decided to keep their personal stories to themselves.

“As for me, I reacted to the shunning with little bitterness and felt that one day we would be respected for wearing the uniform and serving the country honorably,” he said. “Some men need confirmation from others to be fulfilled and content, I need it only from God, and I received it.”

Remembering the sacrifices

Almost 50 years later, Mabe has documented his year in Vietnam in a 40-page memoir that includes a full description of the day he was wounded and photos that he recently donated to the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.

The project’s goal is to preserve memories of war veterans by collecting original voice recordings, photos, letters or written memories of their experiences.

The submissions — by veterans from World War I through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — are kept in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and are available for public viewing. Mabe’s donations were recently used in a Vietnam veteran exhibit, as well.

His memoir and photos capture the reality of war through the eyes of a 19-year-old in a strange land under adverse conditions.

Mabe, a private first class in the U.S. Army who served with the 101st Airborne Division, spent a year in Vietnam patrolling the countryside, roads and trails with the 1st Squad of the 1st Platoon with between 10 to 40 others. His job was often point man or radio operator for the sergeant. The squad moved about the area to draw enemy fire or to ambush known enemy strongholds when possible.

“It was a lot of lost sleep and hardship living among the elements, particularly the monsoon rain and the hot sun, mosquitoes and leeches,” Mabe said. “We slept like wild animals with no shelter, eating foods that had been prepared years before. There was fear, but we were trained soldiers and we had a need to survive.”

Every night, Mabe and his squad would sleep on the ground for two hours, then keep watch for two hours, until daybreak. Despite the exhausting regimen, they had to remain on high alert.

One of the things that kept them going was the letters they received from family and friends back home reminding them who they were fighting for, another memory that Mabe outlined in his memoir. Although he didn’t have a wife or a girlfriend, his father, Howard, a private first class in World War II, wrote to him five times a week.

“The stress of fear and the exhausting pace were sometimes taxing,” Mike Mabe said. “I loved seeing (my father’s) cursive handwriting and the way he formed his letters and crossed his t’s. His reports from home were uplifting and much appreciated.”

Mabe’s memoir includes stories from the missions that he and his comrades were on, culminating with him being reunited with his father in downtown Winston-Salem when he returned.

“After a generation or two, sitting in an attic somewhere, these memories would have been forgotten,” he said. “It feels good knowing that 100 or 200 years from now and as long as this institution exists, they’ll still be there.”

Of the more than 93,000 collections in the national project, Mabe’s is relatively unique, said Bob Patrick, director of the project.

About 16,500 of the collected materials are from the Vietnam War, but most of the other Vietnam veterans gave voice recordings.

“We haven’t run across many with the day-to-day pictures that Mike took,” Patrick said. “Mike’s stood out based on the subject matter, quality and number of photographs.”

Patrick said the 59 original photos that Mabe donated were particularly compelling and invaluable to the project.

“Certainly Mike has contributed to this (project) through his own words and his photographs,” Patrick said. “He did so in an outstanding manner, and the Veterans History Project is very pleased to be able to share his story.”

Mabe hand-delivered his contributions to the Library of Congress earlier this summer, which he said was an unbelievable experience.

“I left a piece of myself at that library,” he said. “I think it’s so important that future generations see these treasures that were so important to me and remember the sacrifices veterans have made.”

Sharing lessons learned

After returning from Vietnam, Mabe completed his three years of active service at Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Bragg, where he was promoted to sergeant.

He said he had no intention of making a career out of the military, so he earned a bachelor’s degree in math at UNC Greensboro, where he met his wife, Doreen. He then spent 32 years in corporate management at Sara Lee Branded Apparel before becoming a substitute teacher at Reagan High School, where he has worked for the past 10 years.

“The interesting thing about Mr. Mabe is how he could change the mood of a classroom entirely in one session,” said Brice Ridings, a graduate of Reagan High School. “His view for the classroom is simply not the same as a regular substitute.”

Many students see substitute teachers as a free pass for the day, but Ridings said that students were really engaged in class when Mabe was there.

Although Ridings graduated from Reagan three years ago, he still remembers Mabe fondly as someone who inspired many through his photos and stories of war and his thoughts on life.

Mabe has made it his mission to share the lessons he has learned through his life experiences, something he has integrated into his teaching. Students don’t just learn algebra or biology, they learn about life.

“Mr. Mabe is such an inspiration to others by the fact that he is so eager to educate others in every way possible,” Ridings said. “It would seem he could take and apply a story to every aspect of life and turn it into a lesson.”

Mabe opens each class with a quote of the day, followed by an explanation of what it means to him.

His favorite quote is from the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

“To me that means that we were born with a talent, and it’s critical that we bring forth what God has instilled in us and put it to use,” Mabe said.

“I used part of my God-given talents to serve our country, and I can stand up straight and proud knowing that I made a difference.”

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