They never left anyone behind – not even the dead
By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times Reporter
This Story was originally published in The Navajo Times, November 16, 2000
Chinle - He's a survivor. He survived the Vietnam War with dreams of growing old with his college sweetheart, whom he had married during one of his furloughs. Those dreams turned into a nightmare when he learned that the love of his life was slowly and painfully dying from stomach cancer. The memories bring tears to his eyes and he stops talking for a few moments. It's obvious that his wife's illness and death devastated him but somehow he survived.
A smile that lights up his face as he talks about his work as a construction inspector for Swan Husling Partnership and his old crew - the Helicopter Attack Light Squadron Three, or HAL-3. Mervyn L. Hillis is a Seawolf and proud of it.
Hillis has been attending reunions of the HAL-3 Seawolves since 1996 and recently attended their 2000 gathering in San Diego. The Seawolves have been described as the Navy crews in the air helping the Navy crews on the surface, which were the PBR's or Patrol Boat River.
In the Mekong Delta
The Navy created the Seawolves in 1965 after realizing that they needed their own air support for expanded surveillance of the Mekong Delta's more than 2,500 miles of inland waterways. The delta consists of major rivers, smaller watercourses and canals that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese used to transport troops, supplies, agents and tax collectors.
The Navy, which had been in Vietnam since 1950, had been using Army helicopter crews to patrol the more than 1,200 miles of coastline from South Vietnam to North Vietnam. But then the Navy started patrolling the inland waterways and they needed air support that wasn't more than 50 miles away. They needed support that could serve as the eyes for the PBR's, which were often ambushed from the heavy foliage along river banks by the Viet Cong, who had recoilless rifles, rocket propelled grenades and command detonated mines.
The PBR's were designed for speed and maneuverability and they were lightly armored and heavily armed with .50 caliber machine guns, a single 40-mm grenade launcher and small arms.
The Seawolves were search and rescue but they also were there to complete the mission of the PBR's. Hillis said, "The PBR's thought the Seawolves were crazy and we thought the PBR's were." But he said the Seawolves never left anyone behind, not even the dead.
Hillis returned from San Diego with several photographs, many more memories and plans to attend the 2002 reunion in St. Louis, Mo. He pointed to a photo of a very healthy looking gray-haired man, whose mustache and eyebrows were also gray. "He saved my life," Hillis said calmly. The man is Deputy Sheriff Michael Chick of Denver, Colo. He's a head taller than Hillis. Hillis, who was a crew chief, door gunner and served two tours from 1969 to 1971, remembered he trained Chick to be a door gunner.
He said that during the reunion, Chick told him that he had been promoted to chief of police but he stepped down because the position was "too political" and made him feel "like a dog with a collar."
Hillis started attending Seawolf reunions after he saw an announcement in a Veterans of Foreign Wars magazine for an event in Washington, D.C.
He pointed to another photo and said the crew called this guy "Gramps" because he was the oldest. Hillis added that Richard "Gramps" Hargus was a pilot and an officer. "We weren't supposed to call an officer by name but we were facing death together." he said as he stared at the picture.
The 2000 reunion was the first time that Hillis has seen Gramps since the Vietnam War. He explained that Gramps still flies “mercy mission” on the ambulance choppers in San Diego for the City and County.
The next photo is of Hillis crouched inside a helicopter holding an “old” M-16. “ It was like old times: I got into it," he said.
Hillis remembers several firefights, including one that involved Green Berets and landing in mountains near Cambodia. He admits that there so many times that the Seawolves had to go into Cambodia, which was off-limits. Cambodia was considered a neutral country during the Vietnam War. But Hillis said Cambodia was full of -"gooks" or Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.
He pulled out a worn photograph album and took out an eight by eleven photo of his crew. Hillis is standing in the middle and holding a M-79 grenade launcher. He also had a survival knife and a smoke grenade in a belt across his chest.
Hillis, who was 20 years old when he first set foot in Vietnam, has a story for each of the 16 men pictured in front of an attack helicopter and behind two crossed rockets. Some stories are funny, others are courageous and some are heartbreaking. "Some guys didn't make it back." he said.
Hillis remembered that they put together a "make-shift" bar with a generator and there was the time the Green Berets invited them to a grand cookout of shrimp and frogs. Everyone had just finished getting served when a call came in for help, Hillis said. He said the Green Berets yelled at them to take their food and so they dumped it into a newspaper. After the mission, Hillis said he had to pick out pieces of shrimp and frog from newspaper.
He also remembered receiving a photo from his wife of his first child, a son, Michael, in 1971. His wife, whose maiden name was Janice Carol Hathali, would write to him about what would be trivial events to someone on the reservation, which were chapter meetings and household chores. But to Hillis, who was a world away from Navajoland, the letters were about home. And he said his wife would also share her love for him in her letters.
Hillis said one of his crewmembers received a “Dear John" letter from his girlfriend and it took about six weeks for him to come out of a deep depression, which was dangerous for the rest of the guys. He explained that if one of the Seawolves made a mistake because he was preoccupied with thoughts of home and especially a girlfriend that dumped him, it could cost the crew their lives. So, Hillis said, he shared Janice's letters with the guy.
"War is devastating," he abruptly said.
Hillis remembered a couple of missions, including one that almost killed him. He said their helicopter had landed and there was the enemy right in front of him. "It seems like they never run out of men. They keep coming like ants. Twenty-six at once,” Hillis said. Their helicopter started to take off and then all of a sudden they stopped in mid-air, about eight feet above the ground. They quickly loaded the rocket pods with nail rockets. One nail rocket held 3,000 rounds. Each pod held 13 rockets so they had 26 rockets. When a nail rocket exploded, it exploded little steel darts, Hillis said. The nail rockets saved them.
Hillis said it was during a nine-hour battle when a mortar hit their helicopter blade. He was surprised that the mortar didn't explode but it forced their helicopter to flip on its side. "Everything was flying out," Hillis remembered. I could hear the other gunner yelling. And then it was if I had a clear view and I heard myself saying ‘You're not going to die.’”
He said they were falling right into the enemy, who was taking over a field base. It was night and the flames from the burning base reminded him of an Enemy Way ceremony. As the helicopter tried to stabilize and gain momentum, he tried firing his M- 16. And then he realized that the enemy had stopped firing at them. The only reason they stopped firing, Hillis guesses, is that they were mesmerized by the helicopter bouncing up and down in the air just a few feet from the ground. Their pilot miraculously pulled them out of that near fatal crash. When daylight came, they saw the enemy crawling away - over the bodies of their dead. "They never got to the American flag and put theirs up,” Hillis said.
'This is it'
His other memories are of the wounded being stacked like wood, counting 103 bullet holes on his side of the helicopter and being told he's supposed to be dead. Hillis said there were many battles when he'd hear himself saying, "This is it." And it was during those times that he asked the Creator to give him the "honor” of taking out as many enemies as he could before he was killed. “That's the way I looked at battle," he said. "There were so many battles but I can't remember them.”
He does remember coming home and not talking to Janice and his son about the war. I was in heaven. I was with my wife and son and home," he said. "Why talk about hell?”
"My wile was like an angle given by God. Who can compare? No one.” Hillis said. "She was everything. She was like daylight. She was life. Period." He caught his breath, pushed tears away and said, "Life was so beautiful.”
Hillis remembered her teaching him the Navajo language and about nature. "She use to sing to me in Navajo. I really enjoyed that," he said.
We are eternally grateful for the support and enthusiasm of Tom Arviso of The Navajo Times for allowing us to reprint this story on Mervyn Hillis.