The Sentinel-Record/Richard Rasmussen SHARING HIS STORY: Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Hugh Mills, a Hot Springs native, speaks about his experiences during three tours of Vietnam next to a photo of himself during the war before showing a trailer of a new documentary in the works about his return trip to Vietnam during a recent presentation to the members of the John Percifull Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The Sentinel-Record/Richard Rasmussen SHARING HIS STORY: Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Hugh Mills, a Hot Springs native, speaks about his experiences during three tours of Vietnam next to a photo of himself during the war before showing a trailer of a new documentary in the works about his return trip to Vietnam during a recent presentation to the members of the John Percifull Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Vietnam vet from HS to be featured in doc

By Steven Mross
This article was published November 11, 2017 at 4:00 a.m.

A Hot Springs native and highly decorated U.S. Army veteran who served three tours in Vietnam is the subject of a planned documentary about his return visit to Vietnam in 2015, where he spent more than two weeks with 17 of the enemy soldiers he fought against.

Retired Lt. Col. Hugh Mills, who now serves as under sheriff of the Jackson County Sheriff's Department in Kansas City, Mo., said the documentary is "being maneuvered through Hollywood right now" and hasn't been completed, but he was able to show a trailer for the film to members of the John Percifull Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution at a recent meeting in Hot Springs.

"This had never been done. No one had ever met and talked directly to members of a specific unit with which they fought in a specific battle," he said. "These 17 guys had never met an American soldier. They had seen them from a distance during the war, but had never met one."

A 1966 graduate of Hot Springs High School, Mills enlisted in the Army in February 1967, completed officer candidate school and rotary wing flight school before he began serving as a first lieutenant and aero scout platoon leader in the First Infantry Division in Vietnam in March 1969. He is the author of "Low Level Hell, a Scout Pilot in the Big Red One," chronicling his experiences during his first tour of duty.

"At the age of 20, I was in command of a platoon of combat pilots and 10 aircraft. To me, at that age, I didn't know any better and thought it was a heck of a lot of fun," he said, noting he flew scout aircraft for all of 1969 until December.

He said the helicopters they flew were "very small, geared for two people," and their mission was to fly "extremely low, like 4 to 6 feet off the ground," to track enemy soldiers. "We tracked them by their footprints, by discarded cigarette butts, their body odor. That's how close we were to these guys." As a result, his group had "arguably the highest mortality rate. About 80 percent of the guys I flew with during that time were killed in combat."

After the success of his book in 1992, Mills said he set about working on a sequel to cover his second and third tours in Vietnam, when he flew Cobra gunships, continuing his service until September 1972 when hostilities ceased.

He said he wanted to focus on one particularly dramatic 30-day period between Dec. 31, 1971, and Jan. 30, 1972, when he was a 23-year-old troop commander of aerial weapons for the 5th Cavalry, 101st Airborne Division, stationed at Quang Tri Army Airfield directly below the Demilitarized Zone between north and south Vietnam.

On Dec. 31, 1971, one of their UH-1 troop carrying aircraft was shot down while en route to Khe Sanh to do recon and crashed with eight men on board. He said everyone scrambled and launched with all 10 Cobra gunships to set up a defensive pattern over the crashed aircraft. They sent in a scout ship to rescue the crew, but it was shot down, too.

They eventually managed to rescue the survivors, but two crew members were shot and killed by a North Vietnamese soldier who attacked their position. On Jan. 20, another of their aircraft was shot down at 5,000 feet in the same area and while they rescued most of the crew, they lost two men who were never recovered.

On Jan. 30, Mills was sent out to engage an enemy anti-aircraft position in that same area that was targeting jets. "It didn't occur to me that if they were shooting down jets I might be an easier target," he said. In the middle of the engagement he was hit, lost his rotors and crashed on the side of a mountain.

He said he had been shot, had a broken leg and a fractured collarbone and his fellow crew member, John Bryant, was "terribly injured" and was trapped so he couldn't move him. "We could hear the north Vietnamese moving around us and knew they were using us as bait to get a rescue craft to come in. We could hear them talking."

After being on the ground for about one day, they were rescued. In preparing to work on the sequel to his earlier book, Mills said he became interested in trying to identify the North Vietnamese unit and particularly the one young soldier responsible for shooting him and the others down.

He contacted Merle L. Pribbenow, a retired CIA operations officer and Vietnamese linguist who served in Vietnam from 1970 to 1975, to see if he could help. "Within three days, he called me back and said it was the 10th Company, 8th Battalion, 241st North Vietnamese anti-aircraft regiment and the guy who shot me down was Pham Ngoc Anh."

Teaming up with a movie producer friend, Mark Eberle, they took a film crew and Mills, joined by his wife, Sharyn, and journeyed to Hanoi in 2015 to meet with the unit at a cafe. "They all lived in a small village near the Chinese border. I spent 17 days with them," he said, noting they took a 12-hour bus trip back to the site where Mills had crashed.

"We walked the ground where all these events had occurred," he said. He was even able to salvage a piece of his helicopter and sneak it into his luggage to bring back. He said the first question the soldiers asked him upon meeting him was his age and upon learning he was two years older than most of them, "they called me uncle. They revere age. I became Uncle Hugh and they immediately began calling Sharyn madame and anytime we walked anywhere they would come up on a scooter and offer her a ride."

He said they were "treated famously" with "never an ounce of discord." He noted the men would come up and want to hold his hand and all wanted to share a drink. "Mind you, there were 17 of them and one of me so I would get 17 shots and one each for them," he said, laughing.

"Soldiers on both sides are identical. They were doing what they were doing for their country and I was doing what I did for my country," he said. He learned Pham Ngoc Anh had died a few years earlier, but he was able to meet with his wife and son and partake in a Vietnamese ceremony at his graveside, lighting incense and saying a prayer.

"This was a good soldier. A hard kid. Armed with an AK-47 and three grenades he shot down two aircraft and killed two soldiers by himself. That's a tremendous testament to him. No matter what army you're in."

Mills said he has been in talks with "some of (director) James Cameron's people" and is hopeful to get the documentary completed soon, noting they have hundreds of hours of footage they shot during the trip.

Local on 11/11/2017
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