Living through the Vietnam War and beyond
The U.S. Navy had an elite attack helicopter squadron in the Vietnam War, but not many people knew or even believed it existed, including those in the military at the time.
It was the most decorated squadron in the Vietnam War, yet it remained unrecognized until the award-winning documentary, Scramble the Seawolves, was released by Arballo Entertainment in September 2018 and later shown on PBS. The Helicopter Attack Light Squadron 3 Seawolves, aka “HA(L)-3 Seawolves,” was officially established April 1, 1967, in Vietnam and was disestablished in Vietnam on January 26, 1972.
But longtime Putnam County resident Lee Hicks is well acquainted with the Squadron. With a little over three years’ service in it, he was the longest-serving Seawolf. Lee said he was in HA(L)-3 for 1,156 days. When Lee’s son, Travis, mentioned it at a HA(L)-3 reunion, one of the squadron’s historians checked it out and told Lee that the next longest Seawolf was a little over 950 days. “It’s a one-year tour, but I kept extending my tour,” Lee explained of his tenure.
HA(L)-3 was divided into nine detachments based along the Mekong Delta in the southern quarter of Vietnam. Hicks was in Detachment 1, which he says was “as far south as you can get without getting off the tip of Vietnam. … I was there from 1968 until 1972, except for six months I was sent to Jacksonville for radiograph school. So, I radiographed the helicopter rotor blades at night and was in charge of maintenance and upkeep of the aircraft during the day.” Detachment 1 operated from Sea Float, a mobile base of connected barge pontoons.
The Need and Establishment
The Mekong Delta consists of the brown, muddy waters of the Mekong River and its tributaries, which twist and turn for 2,500 miles, emptying in the South China Sea, according to the documentary. The channel waterways, streams, and wetlands, combined with the monsoon rains, are the perfect environment for growing rice. It was quickly discovered that the Mekong was also the perfect environment for the North Vietnamese Army to smuggle troops, arms and supplies with impunity.
Realizing that one-third of all the Viet Cong’s supplies were moving through the Mekong Delta, Operation Game Warden/Task Force 116 was established by the U.S. and South Vietnamese navies. Task Force 116 consisted of a fleet of armed river patrol boats, armored troop carriers, mine sweeping boats, landing craft and landing shipping docks.
So, the Viet Cong began traveling at night under the cloak of darkness or blending in with the heavy commercial traffic in the daylight hours. The enemy also planted mines and became adept at hiding in the plant growth from which they would ambush the river patrol boats. “Rear Admiral Elmo Zumwalt discovered he was losing (boat) drivers faster than he could train them,” a narrator on the documentary explains. “So, the first thing he came up with was close air support and the second thing was Agent Orange to defoliate the banks. … Rear Admiral Zumwalt’s plan called for multiple helicopter detachments to be located throughout the Delta, where they would be able to quickly supply decisive fire power. This was going to be a new kind of warfare and it needed a new kind of squadron. The Admiral asked for volunteers and the HA(L)-3 Navy Seawolves was established (as part of Task Force 116 and a division of the Korean War’s HC-1 squadron). …There weren’t any roads, everybody traveled on water. And the guys (on patrol boats) were getting in trouble and you can’t run a Jeep or a tank in there, so the close air support was absolutely mandatory.”
The Seawolves were granted complete autonomy, which instilled an attitude to get the job done no matter the cost and created a special bond among them. Because it was a newly created squadron, no uniform existed for it, so the members flew with standard Army-issued equipment and uniforms. They compare themselves to McHale’s Navy (a 1960s sitcom) and many of their pictures on the Seawolves website show them wearing Army-green t-shirts and tropical shorts, or even just skivvies, when not on a mission. “We got a new commanding officer and he wanted us to wear the uniform of the day; you know, whites or khakis, which don’t work at all in a war zone,” Hicks said. “But a SEAL knocked him over the side (of the Sea Float), and he broke his leg and had to be flown back to the states, so we didn’t have to worry about it anymore.”
The minimal dress code apparently enabled the on-call crew members to get dressed for action on a moment’s notice. Two armed UH-1B helicopters with eight men flew together on every mission, with the crews alternating 24-hour alert shifts. The helicopters were known as “hueys” or “helos.” The almost 300 boats of TF-116 were constantly being ambushed, and the call for help was “Scramble the Seawolves.” When scrambled, the crew members could go from a deep sleep to full flight in under three minutes and be flying over the ambushed boat two minutes later, according to personal testimonies on the documentary.
Their helicopter gunships were hand-me-downs from the Army that had been retired and required a lot of patchwork repairs to keep them going. Taking off from the tiny helipads with the underpowered, overloaded helicopters was a “hairy experience,” according to the testimonies. “When leaving the deck with the temperature so hot, I felt like I knew what hell must feel like,” Hicks said. “We would lose our air cushion when transitioning from the flight deck to the water. So as soon as we cleared the ship, we sunk like a rock. More times than I like to talk about, the skids would dip close to the water, and more than a few times, a box of ammo would be thrown over the side to lighten our load and keep us dry.”
The Door Gunners
The maintenance men also served as the gunners. As Patrol Squadron and SAR (search and rescue) Air Crew, Hicks served as both maintenance manager and a door gunner. The helicopters were heavily armed with 2.75-inch rockets and flexible mounted launcher, hand-held M-60 light machine guns, 50-caliber machine guns, and miniguns. Also, the gunners bore an assortment of different caliber side arms, grenade launchers and grenades.
Firing unprotected from an open door on the side of the helicopter, a gunner’s life expectancy was not too long, per the documentary. There were no guns on the back of the helicopter, so the Viet Cong waited until it had flown past before they started shooting. This required the door gunners to move outside the helicopter, where they fired back while standing on a skid. A gunner’s belt kept them attached to the helicopter if they fell or were shot.
“It was an adrenaline rush,” Lee said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We had to be the best because our area was the hottest spot in the Delta. It was one of the most satisfying achievements I have mastered. You have that adrenaline rush and then you have to experience another one.”
Lee said it was not uncommon for the guns to become jammed or the operating rods to break, so they had to repair them midair while being shot at. The thousands of rounds of ammunition would cause the barrel of the gun to glow red hot so that the ammunition was visible as it passed through. Such a gun was in danger of what the gunners called a “cook off,” an explosion of the ammunition. Lee recalled it happening to him. Noticing his barrel glowing hot, he broke the ammunition loose so there were only a couple of rounds left in the ammunition feed tray, and he kept the barrel in the wind to help it cool off. “We were receiving heavy ground fire so I threw caution to the wind and opened my feed tray and, wouldn’t you know it, the thing cooked off. I felt a warm flow of liquid down my arm and my flight suit was soon soaked in blood. I immediately cleared the jam and got my weapon working. When we arrived back at Sea Float, I went to see the corpsman about my arm. I pulled my flight suit down and my whole arm down to my wrist was soaked in blood. The corpsman asked how it happened, and I explained I had a cook off during a firefight. ‘Then no Purple Heart,’ he said, and he cleaned it up. It looked as if someone sprinkled pepper all over my arm. He wiped salve all over it. For years after that, I was picking gunpowder out of my arm.”
Lee’s other traumatic memories of war include being blown out of a helicopter by a hand grenade. “It blew my right door gunner, Jim Piccolo’s arm off,” he said. “I had on a gunner’s belt, so when I went out, I moved my right foot and it landed on a rocket pocket and my left foot on a skid. I finally managed to pull myself back on deck. The helo was going down, and the pilot was slumped over, and I grabbed him and shook him back to consciousness and I told him ‘Fly this thing,’ and he recovered and got us back.” Piccolo survived the ordeal, and he and Lee stayed in touch until Piccolo died in December 2021.
In another instance, they were scrambled for a boat that was under attack. After the Seawolves put in a strike on the side of the river where the attack came from, they began rescuing the wounded from the boat. “There were a lot of wounded and dead, but there wasn’t any room left for me on the helo,” Lee said. “So, I volunteered to stay back. I stayed there by myself with an M-60 and 100 rounds of ammo. I didn’t know if we had gotten rid of all the VC’s, so I was nervous and wanted to smoke a cigarette. But I was scared somebody would smell it and find me, so I couldn’t. I had to stay until they got to the Sea Float to unload and came back to get me. I don’t know how long it was, but it seemed like hours.”
Lee recalled other near-death experiences such as a rocket entering the hangar where he was working and blowing him out of a chair and onto another deck. “I wound up in a bunker,” he described. “I don’t know how I got there, but somehow I made it.”
The tragedy that affected him the most was when a pilot spontaneously changed their planned landing spot when dropping off some SEALs for a mission. When the SEALs exited both sides of the helicopter, the weight was thrown off balance and the tail rotor of the helicopter hit a palm tree. One of the SEALs was decapitated by the rotor, and Lee was the person who had to pick his body up and put him on the helicopter to be flown back. “That was a bad day. That’s something you never forget. He was a friend,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. “The toughest thing for me of being over there most days was staying there and friends had to leave because their tour was over and I’d miss them. And then when friends got killed, then I had to deal with that, too.”
Back home and PTSD
Returning home, all military service members, including the Seawolves, brought home vivid memories of the bloodshed, but they had to keep these horrors to themselves because of the antiwar protests.
But the PTSD had begun long before that. “The first time I saw an M-16 firing and killing people, I couldn’t sleep for three days,” Hicks said. “It went against everything I was raised on as a Christian because I was taught not to kill people. While I was there, I had to turn off my feelings to survive. I had to think positive thoughts.”
After 20 years in the Navy, Lee retired and worked for Northrop Grumman, Vought Aircraft Company, and Boeing Commercial Airplanes before retiring again.
“There were many days driving to work in Milledgeville that I’d remember what had happened and what I’d seen in Vietnam, and I wanted to just drive into Lake Sinclair and drown myself thinking about it all,” he said. “But I didn’t want Travis to grow up without a daddy, so I didn’t.”
A few years before his military retirement, Lee married and he and his wife, Tracy, had their son, Travis. “I got out (of the Navy) because Travis was 5 years old and plus I had three stepdaughters, Tammy, Toni, and Terri, and I wanted to be there for all of them,” he noted.
They moved to Middle Georgia, where Lee had grown up in Putnam County spending summers with his grandfather who was a preacher for 10 years at Wesley Chapel, Philadelphia, St. Paul, Concord, and Union Chapel United Methodist churches. His uncle and aunt had a dairy farm in eastern Putnam County and Lee now lives on part of that property that he purchased from them.
Lee and Tracy became well-known daylily enthusiasts, growing, cross-pollinating hybrids, and selling the flowers. Living adjacent to Reynolds and near Lake Oconee, Lee also became an avid golfer. “When I was 62, I got three holes in one in the same year – one at Reynolds, one at the Greene County Country Club, and one at Uncle Remus,” he beamed.
A new chapter
Now in his early 80s and a widower, Lee’s health forced him to quit growing daylilies and playing golf. He still leads the singing each Sunday at Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church, a position he formerly held for three decades at Philadelphia UMC. He enjoys going out to eat with friends, staying in touch with his children and grandchildren, and traveling to Seawolves reunions. “We keep up with each other and have our own web and social media page,” he said.
The afore-mentioned documentary was filmed during one such reunion. Lee wasn’t interviewed in the documentary, but he said he is pictured in it. The reunions have helped the Seawolves cope with the PTSD, and it is obvious they all remain one brotherhood more than 50 years later, just as they were when Scrambling together against communism. And driving into the lake hasn’t come to mind in years for Lee. Even though his life is changing as he ages, he is still enjoying it and looking on the bright side.
“I would never trade any of my time in the Navy for anything,” he said. “I can’t do anything anymore, but I feel very lucky and very blessed because there are so many who were younger who’ve died before me. I actually wish I was younger so I could stay longer and see my grandchildren grow up and get married. But I will enjoy whatever I can do until I can’t. The one thing I will always be able to do is love family and friends.”
Click the link to watch the 1 ½ hour documentary, Scramble the Seawolves, on PBS:
To learn more about the Seawolves and read their many personal war stories, visit www.seawolves.org.
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Story by Lynn Hobbs, published in the March-April 2022 issue of Lakelife magazine.