More than 1,200 people, many of them Vietnam veterans, attended a military funeral service Thursday in Killeen for Sgt. 1st Class Billy David Hill, a platoon sergeant killed in Vietnam when his helicopter was shot down by enemy gunfire nearly 48 years ago.
The emotions were “overwhelming,” said Gatesville resident Beverly Jacobs, Hill’s cousin.
For decades, the family had wondered what happened to Hill, who disappeared after the helicopter he was on crashed near Khe Sahn in central Vietnam.
About a dozen veterans who served with Hill in Vietnam journeyed from around the nation to attend the funeral.
“Billy was one of the nicest people you ever met in your life,” said Bob Tallent, who served in the same unit as Hill.
Hundreds of Patriot Guard Riders on motorcycles poured into the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery to attend the funeral and dozens of others escorted the hearse carrying Hill’s casket from Gatesville to the cemetery.
The search for Hill’s remains took years, and they were identified earlier this year, according to the Defense Department.
While Hill did not grow up in the Gatesville area, his 91-year-old father and other family members now live there. His father was not able to attend the funeral for health reasons, the family said.
The U.S. flag draped over Hill’s casket was carefully folded by an honor guard of Fort Hood soldiers and given to Jacobs.
Cemetery officials said they estimated 1,200 to 1,500 people attended the ceremony.
After the funeral, Jacobs said the family had been waiting decades for this moment. “We brought our boy back to Texas where he wanted to be,” she said.
Hill was born in Wichita, Kan., and moved around when he was a child, including a few years in Poteet, a small town south of San Antonio. Thursday marked his 69th birthday.
“He was a great soldier,” said Lennis Lee, 72, a former Army helicopter pilot who served with Hill in 282nd Aviation Company, 14th Aviation Battalion, 17th Aviation Group, 1st Aviation Brigade. “Everybody liked him.”
Lee journeyed from his home near Raleigh, N.C., to attend the funeral.
Others remembered Hill for his sense of humor and love for music.
“He was a funny guy,” said former Army Sgt. Charles Scotty McLaughlan, who served with Hill in Vietnam.
Hill liked to play country music loud, which didn’t sit well with McLaughlan, a New Jersey resident.
“I used to yell at him,” said McLaughlan, adding he now sometimes listens to country music, thanks to Hill.
Hill wasn’t the only soldier who went missing after the helicopter was shot down on Jan. 21, 1968.
Staff Sgt. Jerry Elliott jumped out of another helicopter to render aid to the soldiers in the crash, then went missing in action as North Vietnamese soldiers moved in, said his sister, Donna Elliott, who came from Pleasant Grove, Ark., to attend Hill’s funeral.
Like Hill’s family, she’s been wondering what happened to her brother for decades. It’s a search that’s brought the two families close together.
“I’ve been to Vietnam about 10 times now, looking for Jerry and Billy,” Elliott said.
The return of Billy Hill’s remains to Texas has brought his family closure, she said.
It’s also an example that families “should never give up” on finding lost loved ones, she said.
Jerry Elliott is still missing in action.