THOMASVILLE, N.C. (AP) _ An ear infection almost kept Capt. Kenneth W. Hill out of the Marines, his father recalled as he and relatives of a fellow helicopter crewman lost during fighting with Iran awaited word on their fate.

But Hill persisted, persuading recruiters in 1981 to help him avoid an honorable discharge for medical reasons. The following year, he was appointed to Marine officers' training school and realized his dream of being a pilot.

''He's just a good Marine,'' Robert Hill said Tuesday of his 33-year-old son. ''I know because he told me so. He was proud. He's over there because that's his job. He said they were well-manned, well-trained, and he was confident they could handle what they were doing.''

Iran says it shot down the Marine Cobra attack gunship, part of a squadron flown by Hill and Capt. Stephen C. Leslie, 30, of New Bern, during heavy fighting Monday.

But the Pentagon said Hill and Leslie had been sent out on a ''standard patrol sweep,'' and that there was no evidence to suggest the missing gunship had ever come under fire.

Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci refused to speculate about the aircraft's fate as U.S. Navy ships and planes continued to search for the helicopter over the central gulf.

Meanwhile, four wounded sailors from the U.S. frigate Samuel B. Roberts remained in serious but stable condition and were expected to be transferred to hospitals in the United States today, the Navy said.

The ship was damaged in a Persian Gulf mine blast last week that was cited by U.S. officials as justification for Monday's attack on two Iranian oil platforms.

After Marine officials telephoned the Hills about 9:30 p.m. Monday, the family has had little sleep.

''I laid down sometime last night,'' Robert Hill said Tuesday, ''but I've known every hour of the day. My wife never went to bed. I know she didn't sleep because I heard her in here wiping down the walls last night.''

Leslie's younger sister, Kris Leslie, said her family received word around midnight Monday that her brother was listed as missing. She said the family had received no details since.

''We're very numb right now,'' Ms. Leslie said.

Leslie and his wife, Lisa, live in Jacksonville, N.C., where Leslie and Hill are stationed at New River Air Station. He has been in the Persian Gulf area since the end of January, Ms. Leslie said.

On Tuesday, Robert Hill and his wife, Mary, clung to hope as they waited with family and friends for word of their son.

The Pentagon ''said he was on the American side,'' Hill recalled. ''They said they don't think there's a possibility of the Iranians picking him up. They don't believe they were shot down. The water is warm and it's shallow - as compared to the ocean, I guess.''

Darrell Leonard, 30, a boyhood friend, said Hill was desperate to get the Marines to reconsider his inner ear problem and allow him to become a helicopter pilot.

''He was a fanatic when it came to flying,'' Leonard said. ''We would talk for hours. He liked the idea of flying low and flying fast.''

Robert Hill said he has no regrets about the Marine Corps' decision to keep his son, the oldest of three boys.

''This is what he wanted to do,'' Robert Hill said. ''This is his life.''