Those who have watched the 1998 World War II epic Saving Private Ryan may recall its story about a young private whose brothers were killed in battle and that a group of soldiers were set out to find this last surviving family member and bring him home. The film brought up a fact about the Sullivan brothers, five siblings who all tragically lost their lives when their ship, the USS Juneau, was sunk in November 1942. As a result, the US military adopted the Sole Survivor Policy which allows service members whose siblings have been lost in battle to request an honorable discharge thus preventing an entire family from being wiped out.
The four Hillis brothers who served in Vietnam were not in the country at the same time, nor did they all enlist in the same branch. Instead, their tours seemingly came one after the other, starting with Carl Jr. However, the only two brothers who were in the country at the same time were Clyde and Mervyn in mid-1969.
I sat with my uncle Mervyn on a cool October afternoon at his home, the same home he grew up in that was built by his father Carl Hillis Sr., and listened to what he had to say of his service in Vietnam as a warrior, a patriot, and a brother. He said a prayer before I hit the record button.
Mervyn Hillis was born November 18, 1948, in Fort Defiance, Arizona. “I would trade it with no other place,” he proudly says of his hometown, a small tightly-knit community located on the Navajo reservation. He was raised by loving parents strongly devoted to the Christian faith. He and his brother Carl Jr. shared responsibility of looking over their younger siblings such as making sure chores were done and cooking when needed. Naturally, all Hillis siblings formed a tight bond with each other. In school he strived to become the best in football and track.
Mervyn looked up to his father with a great deal of respect, saying, “Having a big, strong dad influenced me. I’m going to follow him. I’m going to be as strong as him one day.” Mervyn desired to be in the Marines like his father who was a Marine in World War II, but his father requested to have one son in the Navy. Mindful of his father, Mervyn fulfilled this request on July 28, 1968 when he enlisted in the Navy. He trained in San Diego, California, and Fort Rucker, Alabama. His unit trained with both the Army and Marines, learning the tricks of the trade in aviation and combat which came naturally to him. “I was raised on the reservation and my father taught me to survive out in the wild,” he says.
Mervyn did two tours in Vietnam. His first tour began on April 16, 1969, where he worked as an aviation mechanic aboard the USS Oriskany aircraft carrier. The ship’s name comes from the Battle of Oriskany that took place during America’s Revolutionary War on August 6, 1777. Mervyn’s first tour ended in September 1969 when he took emergency leave to be with his father who was sick. “I was with my dad every day,” Mervyn softly spoke, and then tells me of his father’s final day. Mervyn checked his father from the hospital to bring him home for supper. “Before I brought my dad home, we drove around Fort Defiance. He just wanted to see the sights. He loved nature,” he says. After two hours, the two headed back home where lamb stew was waiting. They ate, talked, and relaxed. Later that day, his father had an attack and sadly passed away shortly after. “My heart was just broken and I just—it seemed like I lost a gold mine.” But his father taught him and his children to be strong, to not fear death, “no matter what comes in life.”
Mervyn’s brother Clyde, who enlisted in the Marines, was in Vietnam from March to June of 1969. Clyde’s tour was cut short because he was wounded. Mervyn visited his brother at a Naval hospital before returning to Fort Defiance to be with their father. He described seeing his brother amidst other wounded Marines. “Boy, I felt like crying. I really fought not to cry. I asked Clyde for his pillow. I put my head underneath the pillow on his bed, and tears came out. I didn’t want anyone to see me. My brother could tell that I cried because of the devastation of the Marines and my brother.” In spite of this, Mervyn was glad to see his brother.
On December 6, 1969, before beginning his second tour, Mervyn married his high school sweetheart Janice Hatathli. In the beginning they had one son named Michael, and soon their other children Patrick and Karen came along. Janice was described as a nice woman, very soft-spoken and gentle. They remained faithfully married for a little over 27 years up until her passing in April of 1987. “I give the good Lord thankfulness to this very day for Janice and her blessing me with three healthy, strong, smart children. I wouldn’t want any woman to take her place. I pray and ask Lord to tell Janice I said hello and I love her,” Mervyn says.
His second tour began October 17, 1970 and ended on October 17, 1971. Instead of continuing to work at sea, Mervyn decided to be at the front. “I want to see the enemy. I want to see his face. That’s the way I felt and that’s the way my teachings were by my father,” he says. Mervyn then operated as a door gunner for the Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron 3, or HA(L)-3, nicknamed the “Seawolves.”
When looking back on his service, he tells me, “I’ve been in many battles. There’s no count to it. When I get to Heaven I’ll know how many battles I went to.” Mervyn Hillis was awarded over 30 medals. One citation awarded to him detailed his courageous actions that took place on May 23, 1971, when his crew the Seawolves helped aid an outpost coming under heavy enemy fire.
Coming tomorrow: Painful Reminders: Brothers in Vietnam and Life Pt. 3
Jesse Hillis, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, wrote this four-part series about his father and uncles who simultaneously served in various branches of the military and fought in Vietnam. Indian Country Today is pleased to publish his work through an internship in cooperation with the University of New Mexico.