editor’s note: In 2010, the Pleasanton Express ran an article on Billy David Hill of Poteet, who went Missing in Action on Jan. 21, 1968. His classmates from the Poteet High School Class of 1965 dedicated a book in his memory, “Keeping the Promise: The Story of MIA Jerry EllIott, A Family Disappearance and a Sister’s 40- Year Search for the Truth,” by Donna Elliott. The book is Donna’s story about her search for her brother Jerry, who also went MIA that same day. Hill’s remains were identified in September of this year. Elliott is still listed as MiA.
Donna E. Elliott
In the early morning hours of January 21, 1968, the MACV Headquarters in Khe Sanh, Vietnam notified the Quang Tri Province CIA senior advisor, Robert Brewer, through the Hickory Hill radio relay located on Hill 950 that the compound was surrounded by the North Vietnamese Army. They needed reinforcements and supplies urgently. The men in the compound thought they might hold out for another day if they had additional ammo.
About an hour’s flight to the south, SSGT Billy David Hill was supposed to be off-duty.
There was plenty a handsome brown-haired, blue-eyed young man of 22 could find to do in the coastal city of Da Nang, even in the winter, on a Sunday, during a war. However, as a good platoon sergeant taking care of his men, he had agreed to cover for a soldier on the duty roster so he could make a PX run to restock supplies. This wasn’t unusual for “Tex,” as his Army buddies called the 22-year-old with the silver front tooth and quick smile. He had a history of doing random acts of kindness for others all the way back to school days in Poteet.
Meanwhile, up in I Corps at the Quang Tri Combat Operations Center, LTC Joseph Seymoe reported to Brewer on the life and death situation in Khe Sanh and requested troops in support of a combat relief mission. When word reached the 282nd Assault Helicopter Company Black Cats that American troops needed help, they answered the call.
Hill boarded Black Cat #027, a lightly armed troop-carrying UH-1D helicopter called a slick. He settled his lanky frame into the doorgunner slot on the right side, tightened his flak vest with the big ugly face drawn on the back, ran a quick check of his M-60 machine-gun, counted ammo boxes, pulled on his crewman’s helmet, keyed the mike and waited for lift-off.
At La Vang airfield, the Black Cats picked up supplies and approximately 70 troopers from the Quang Tri 258th Regional Forces. Anxious to deliver relief to the stranded soldiers, Seymoe quickly briefed the Black Cat pilots, keeping details to a minimum.
Much of the information about the tactical situation from a pilot’s perspective came from WO1 Gerald McKinsey, Jr., who had been flying in the area all morning. He volunteered to pilot the lead chopper and changed seats with MAJ Ronald Rex, which resulted in McKinsey and CPT Tommy Stiner flying Black Cat #027 with SP5 David Howington as crewchief, Hill as doorgunner, and LTC Seymoe onboard to observe the operation.
At approximately 5 p.m., seven Black Cat slicks approached the landing zone (LZ) at the Old French Fort in Khe Sanh south of Route 9 in a staggered trail left formation. Two Alley Cat gunships provided cover on the right side on the convoy, with the third gunship on the left. The slicks would hover a few feet off the ground in order to offload troops and supplies as swiftly as possible.
As the first slicks touched down, camouflaged spider holes burst open on the hillside as the 11th Company of the 304th Regiment sprang the ambush. The highly trained NVA regulars swarmed the LZ like a horde of attacking fighter ants.
Black Cat #027 hovered a foot off the ground for a few seconds. As the chopper began to depart the hot LZ, there was a loud explosion as a B-40 antitank rocket struck Hill’s position. After a moment of stunned silence, the radio burst into incomprehensible shouts and screams.
“Lead, you’re on fire! Lead, do you read?”
No response. Smoke boiled out of the engine as the rotor blades turned in slow motion. Black Cat #027 exploded into a huge ball of fire, pitched about 20 feet forward on its nose and tumbled down the side of a steep ravine.
On the ground, SP5 Danny Williams and PFC Jerry Elliott vaulted from their gunner seats on two different aircraft and ran towards the crash. Williams came across Howington, stunned from being blown out of his ship, steered the dazed crewchief to his chopper, and returned to the crash to assist other survivors.
He crawled inside the smoky, burning aircraft to search for Hill, but couldn’t find him. Seymoe’s body was pinned under the debris. McKinsey was mortally wounded. Elliott had disappeared. When NVA soldiers stormed down the hillside, Stiner and Williams ran for their lives.
The ambush lasted less than ten minutes. Of the 28 Black Cat crewmembers who volunteered for the mission only 22 made it to safety that night, with a dozen of those men wounded.
Stiner and Williams escaped the NVA and evaded through the jungle at night, reaching the Khe Sanh Combat Base the next morning. McKinsey and Seymoe’s remains were recovered in April 1968. Elliott is still listed as MIA. Promoted while missing, SFC Billy David Hill has now been accounted for.
According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), SFC Hill’s remains were unilaterally turned over by government officials from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1989, which had reportedly been confiscated from a “bone collector” who had found the remains in the vicinity of Khe Sanh. The DPAA Lab identified the remains on September 4, 2015.
Hill will be escorted on his birthday, December 17, by the Texas Patriot Guard Riders from Scott’s Funeral Home in Gatesville at noon, to the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen, where a memorial service with full military honors will be held at 1 p.m.
Welcome home and rest in peace hero.