KILLEEN — Lennis Lee was flying an Army “Huey” helicopter on his way to Khe Sanh in Vietnam on Jan. 21, 1968, when he saw the rocket propelled grenade hit the helicopter in front him.
“It was on a Sunday,” said Lee. “We were trying to put a company of South Vietnamese soldiers into the advisory headquarters at Khe Sanh.”
However, as soon as the staggered formation of helicopters began their descent to the landing zone, all hell broke loose, said veterans who were part of the mission.
The lead helicopter took the initial, direct hit — an RPG round to the side.
“It hit on the side that Mr. Hill was on,” said Jody Sumner, a specialist 5 crew chief who was on one of the other helicopters that came under fire.
Hill is Sgt. 1st Class Billy Hill, a platoon sergeant from 282nd Aviation Company, 14th Aviation Battalion, 17th Aviation Group, 1st Aviation Brigade.
He volunteered that fateful day to jump into the door-gunners seat of the lead helicopter. It was the early part of his second tour in Vietnam.
“He was only back two weeks when this happened,” said Sumner.
As the lead helicopter was hit, dozens perhaps hundreds of enemy North Vietnamese soldiers came out of their “spider holes” to fire on the helicopters, Lee said.
Several helicopters were hit. One veteran said the helicopter he was on took nine hits, but somehow managed to keep flying.
With bullets flying and the lead helicopter crashed, confusion followed,
Lee tried to approach the crash site and render aid.
Hill is believed to have died in the initial hit or shortly after. Lt. Col. Joseph P. Seymoe, the senior officer on board, died while pinned under the aircraft and his body was subsequently recovered, according to the POW Network. Warrant Officer Gerald L. McKinsey Jr., the co-pilot, was reportedly shot in the back of the head trying to flee the crash site. Two crew members, pilot Capt. Tommy C. Stiner and crew chief Spc. 5 David Howington, were able to get to safety.
Staff Sgt. Jerry Elliott jumped out of Lee’s helicopter to render aid to the soldiers who were in the crash, then went missing in action as North Vietnamese soldiers moved in, said his sister, Donna Elliott,
“That day was considered the beginning of the siege of Khe Sanh,” said Lee, 72.
For decades the remains of Hill and Elliott were never identified.
But for Hill, that changed in the fall. Through DNA testing, his remains were positively identified after being kept in a Hawaiian storage facility for years.
Hill, whose family resides in Gatesville, was laid to rest last Thursday at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen.
Donna Elliott 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. 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.
More than 1,000 people, many of them Vietnam veterans, attended Hill’s military funeral service last week.
The emotions were “overwhelming,” said Gatesville resident Beverly Jacobs, Hill’s cousin.
About a dozen veterans who served with Hill, including Lee and Sumner, 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 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.
Remembering the day Hill was shot down was difficult for Dick Messer, a retired Army chief warrant officer 2 who traveled from Canyon Lake, Calif., for the funeral. Messer had watched as the helicopter carrying Hill was shot down by North Vietnamese soldiers.
“It’s been a long time,” Messer said, choking up slightly. “I was there that day, flying, and saw all the action going on. Just to have him back is pretty special.”
The funeral brought closure after nearly 48 years of uncertainty. And for Hill’s fellow Vietnam veterans, it was an opportunity to ensure he was given the welcome home they all should have had.
“This is pretty important — for us, especially, because we didn’t get a welcome home when we came back,” said Bill Whittaker, chapter president for Vietnam Veterans of America Fort Hood Area Chapter 100. “But we’re never going to let that happen again. No veteran will ever have to go through what we did. That’s our motto. This is one of our comrades, one of our brothers-in-arms. No one is left behind, so we’re glad to see him. There are still around 1,500 left (unaccounted for from Vietnam), and one of these days we’ll get them all back.”
Veterans of all ages from every war stretching back to World War II paid homage to Hill, each of them sharing a single sentiment of thankfulness at his return.
“I didn’t know him, although I was in the same outfit he was in Da Nang — I arrived in country about a month after he got killed,” Gatesville resident Rod Brown said. “I read about this today, and it really touched me. My brother was there at the same time he was, and I think it’s really important we find all our missing in action and bring them home. It’s happy and sorrowful at the same time, but I’m just so glad we found him. We still have a few more we need to find.”
Thursday marked Hill’s 69th birthday.