Danger lurked around every corner, every minute of every day. 

It was another miserably hot and humid summer night along the Mekong River when the squadron scrambled to provide emergency air support to a South Vietnamese army outpost that was under attack by an overwhelming Viet Cong force. Petty Officer Gary Ely, a seasoned UH-1 Huey helicopter door gunner with Seawolves of Navy Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron 3 (HAL-3), made sure his door-mounted mini gun was ready for action as his aircraft raced into battle. Engaging in a close-air strike with both door guns and rockets, Gary’s crew attempted to repel the advancing enemy attack. After flying half the night, and refueling and rearming four times, they finally beat back the assault, saving the lives of those manning the outpost while risking their own. 

Just another typical night for the Seawolves in Vietnam.

Gary had always been fascinated by aviation. While attending Des Moise Technical High School in Iowa, he began training to be an aircraft mechanic. Upon graduation in 1967, he gave college a shot, but soon found it wasn’t for him. No longer a student, his options were few – drafted into the U.S. Army or join another branch of the military.

“My folks thought being a sailor might be a better choice,” said Gary, whose father served in the Navy just after World War II. “Even though it was a four-year enlistment versus two years if drafted into the Army, my dad advised me that I would at least have clean sheets to sleep on instead of in a fox hole somewhere.”

Little did Gary know at the time, but the continuous and intense combat action he would see during his first two years in the Navy involved just about everything an Army soldier experienced, except for the foxhole.

Because of his aircraft mechanic training in high school, Gary graduated Navy boot camp designated as an aircraft structural mechanic. Initially assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea (CV-43), he was surprised to receive a new set of orders a day prior to the ship’s departure on deployment to the Western Pacific. He would soon be heading directly to Vietnam as a member of HAL-3. By January 1970, after aircrew and gunner training in San Diego, Gary was off to Bình Thủy in the Mekong Delta.

Until his assignment to HAL-3, Gary hadn’t thought much about helicopters.

“It was at this time, I became aware of the aircrew opportunities ,” said Gary, a USS Midway Museum volunteer since 2008. “All personnel headed to HAL-3, maintenance guys as well as aircrew, were subjected to a training syllabus. Aircrew gunners got six months. I volunteered to be a gunner.”

His first few months “in country” were occupied flying logistics missions throughout the Mekong Delta. Once assigned to HAL-3’s Detachment 9, he found himself in the heart of the fighting, stationed up river on a massive floating naval barge known as a YRBM.

“We were anchored in the middle of the Mekong River about 3,000 yards below the Cambodian border,” said Gary, who has more than 5,000 volunteer hours with Midway’s aircraft restoration and docent teams. “For the next 14 months I flew as a door gunner with Det 9.”

Flying in support of naval special warfare operation and the mobile riverine forces, Gary was routinely involved in perilous combat missions that centered about search and destroy patrols, close-air support, SEAL team insertions, search and rescue, medical evacuations, and reconnaissance.

The naval barge that was his home base in the Mekong River was never wholly regarded as a safe haven as enemy attacks could happen at any time.

“One late night our scramble horn sounded, but the call was for general quarters,” recalled Gary. “As we all jumped to put on our boots we heard explosions. A Viet Cong assault team positioned along the river’s edge launched four rocket propelled grenades at our YRBM. One of our gunships had taken a direct hit. Fortunately, after all was said and done, we only had one person wounded in the attack.”

Gary Ely began volunteering for Midway’s aircraft restoration department in 2008.

Although discharged from the Navy in 1973, Gary’s bond with his comrades is as strong today as it was when he was in Vietnam. Even after 50 years, the brotherhood that exist with those he served remains unbreakable.

“I think it is the same pride and respect all of us Vietnam veterans have for each other, except it is much more personal,” said Gary, who worked as a civilian aerospace engineering technician for the Navy for more than 30 years. “Having served in such an unpopular war and experiencing the lack of support from the folks at home, kind of inspires us to stick together. Having lost shipmates during our squadron’s existence also fuels our comradery.”

Gary is a long-time member of the Seawolves Association, an organization dedicated to his unit that flew in Vietnam from 1967 to 1972. The association started in 1986 after several former Seawolves got together during a Veterans Day parade in Chicago. The group still holds reunions every two years.

“Our goal is to perpetuate the name of the elite HAL-3 squadron, and continue to strengthen those friendships begun in Vietnam,” said Gary, who is currently the association’s treasurer. “The unique history of our squadron will most likely become a future bench mark for active duty squadrons of today.”

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