Rabbits scrambled across the road leading up to Fred Stark’s quaint house near Lake Lawrence Wednesday, Sept. 25.
At the end of the road, a gold and silver emblem of the United States Navy anchor was displayed on a gate and shimmered in the sunlight.
Stark, an 81-year-old retired petty officer of the Helicopter Attack Squadron Seawolves, has lived in Yelm for more than 40 years, but the memories he made while serving in the Navy as a helicopter gunner in the Vietnam War are always close to his mind.
Joined by wives and with beers in hand, nine veterans from the Navy Seawolves held a small impromptu reunion at Stark’s house to give him his first showing of “Scramble the Seawolves,” a documentary showcasing the work of the most decorated squadron in U.S. Naval Aviation history.
“I thought it was great. It pretty well depicts what we did,” Stark said.
Stark, who served on more than 600 combat missions over a span of one year with the Seawolves during the Vietnam War, is not able to travel out to the regular reunions his former squadron hosts around the country every two years. So when a small group of them were able to travel to Yelm, from as far away as Maryland, Stark said it meant the world to him.
“You see all them when you’re young. Instead, they’re old farts,” Stark said of the nine-man convoy. “But it’s a real family … It feels good that they were able to think of me and come all this distance.”
The Seawolves were a rag-tag helicopter squadron commissioned for five years on the Mekong Delta, one of Vietnam’s most prized transportation routes during the war.
Many of the Seawolves present at Stark’s house described the squadron as a unique answer for a unique question: How could the Navy help support stability and the Army along the delta while continuing the fight against Vietcong forces hidden among civilians?
In April 1967, the all-volunteer Seawolves were established in Vietnam. About 80 aviators were transferred into the program at first, and in the five years it existed, roughly 2,500 Seawolves operated on the delta, with only about 44 killed in action, according to former pilot Al George.
The Seawolves were the only air squadron that could quickly respond to emergencies along the delta at any time of the day or night.
“We were flying by the seat of our pants,” he said.
George, who hails from Maryland, said he has seen “Scramble the Seawolves” about six times. He went to the premiere of the film last year on the deck of the USS Midway and has even seen it a couple times with his grandkids.
“The brotherhood, it’ll make you cry. It was always about the brotherhood. We ate, lived and slept together,” he said.
Many of the helicopters the Seawolves flew were decrepit UH-1 hand-me-downs from the United States Army. The Navy would often bargain with the Army for parts on the remote hangars along the Mekong.
In order to fix bullet holes that came as a result of enemy fire, the Seawolves would often epoxy beer cans and add a fresh coat of paint to their old battle birds.
“They’re really like flying a tomato can,” said 77-year-old Charlie Collins, a retired pilot.
The group of 10 Seawolves present at Stark’s house altogether have accumulated more than 300 air medals, including the prestigious Purple Heart medal.
“We took fire almost every day and every flight,” said 70-year-old Tom Olby, a former member of the Seawolves.
One of their most challenging missions, according to the documentary, was the evacuation of 130 orphans and a dozen nuns from danger during the last leg of the Seawolves’ commission in Vietnam.
Congressional honors for the Seawolves wouldn’t be provided until 2010.
Since its premiere about a year ago, Scramble the Seawolves has aired on more than 100 different stations and has appeared at a few film festivals.