Just A Little Walk In The Woods
with the Delta Raiders
Company D, 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile)
Delta Raiders Ambushed Near Firebase Bastogne
reprinted with permission from VIETNAM Magazine
© Copyright 1999, VIETNAM Magazine
For what seemed an eternity, Jim Zwit had been searching for the surviving family members of a friend killed only minutes after carrying the badly wounded Zwit to safety from the bullet-swept killing zone of a North Vietnamese Army ambush during the Vietnam War. For seventeen years the search had been fruitless, one frustration after another, when in November 1988, a phone call from a complete stranger would finally bring to fruition his unrelenting quest.
The shock waves generated by that single conversation would also set the stage for a startling succession of incredible coincidences that have been reverberating through Americaís Vietnam veteran community ever since.
Our story begins on the afternoon of April 15, 1971.
Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry, a hard-fought appendage of the famed 101st Airborne Division, is searching a ridge-line northeast of Firebase Bastogne, some 30 kilometers west of Hue, Vietnamís ancient imperial capitol.
The ridge has been battered by dozens of heavy air strikes following the disastrous results of a previous combat assault conducted by Alpha Company of the same battalion. Two days earlier, an Alpha insertion had drawn murderous ground-fire at touchdown; fire so intense the insertion was aborted and the body of one American casualty left behind on the landing zone. During subsequent reconnaissance overflights of the site, the NVA animate the body (waving its arm) in efforts to draw the circling helicopters into a fatal rescue effort but the ruse is obvious and the attempt only serves to enrage the American pilots and crews conducting those missions. As US commanders ponder the disturbing recon reports, an impetuous recovery operation is hastily designed and initiated.
Delta Company has been given the unenviable task of recovering the missing trooper's body and the men are exhausted from the physical and mental strain accompanying the two days they have been in movement toward the gruesome and potentially very dangerous objective.
The war is winding down for America and Delta is typical of the rifle companies that populate the US Army at this stage of our involvement. Its enlisted ranks are almost vacant of regular Army volunteers; instead, virtually every rifleman is a Draftee. That painful reality is magnified by the fact the unit is operating at a scant fifty percent of its normal strength, a significant result of the ever increasing cut-backs in personnel under President Nixon's withdrawal strategy. Perhaps only 75 men form the three platoons now struggling up the heavily cratered and tangled ridge-line toward their rendezvous with the tiger. In theory, at any rate, the company roster should carry some 150 names.
Near 5:00 that evening, everyone senses the objective and the enemy are close at hand. The air is filled with the smell of death and the electricity generated by the tension of an impending collision. Delta pauses to ponder the situation as the light begins to fail the day. The Company Commander weighs the unit's options with his three platoon leaders at a hastily organized pow-wow. There are basically only two options open to them: dig in for the night or continue up the ridge despite the very strong likelihood the enemy awaits in ambush. The American's persistent habit of recovering their dead at any cost is a tactical weakness the enemy is more than willing to exploit.
Directly in their path lies a patiently waiting, multi-company element of the North Vietnamese Army. Given two days to prepare the ambush site, the enemy has taken good advantage of that luxury. The killing zone has been liberally peppered with expertly camouflaged spider holes and fully reinforced bunkers in a well-calculated gamble to punish and embarrass the Americans; this will not be a hit-and-run affair. The NVA have decided to more than bloody a few noses, and in a rare departure from their customary hit-and-run tactics, are instead determined to hold in place and face the American's overwhelming firepower. Their plan is simple; they intend to annihilate an entire American rifle company.
The nervous prey hesitates and rethinks the wisdom of approaching the objective in the growing darkness. If the enemy is waiting, the advance may invite catastrophe. Americaís technological advantage fades dramatically with the setting of the sun and every aspect of the situation begs caution: the NVA knows the terrain and may be fixed in prepared positions; the approaching Americans are strangers to the site and exhausted from the difficult march up the ridge. But most importantly, it's getting dark rapidly, and as Deltaís troopers well-know, the night belongs to Charlie.
Experienced veterans in the column argue itís best to delay the maneuver until morning, but for reasons that remain known only to the Captain, he has them saddle-up and push-on. The apprehensive and uneasy "Delta Raiders" step-out cautiously in the swiftly descending dusk. Second Platoon is at point.
At perhaps 6:45, the Companyís movement halts and begins dropping its rucks as a prelude to the task of setting-up their night defensive position (NDP). Zwit's third platoon is at drag. At point, the second platoonís elementís dwindling energy reserves have been further depleted by the tedious machete work employed during the move. First platoon is at the center of the column. As the men settle in to catch their breath, a small element lead by 1Lt. Paul McKenzie leaves its packs with the second platoon and initiates a recon forward of the line of movement. They disappear into the deepening shadows and tangled vegetation shattered into an almost impenetrable mass by the earlier air and artillery strikes.
As the recon element reaches a point perhaps 100 meters forward of the second platoonís perimeter and apparently well within the enemyís prepared kill zone, the NVA springs its deadly trap. It is 6:52pm when the first desperate sounds of contact crackle over the battalion's radios. Jim Zwit is carrying his squad's M-60 machine-gun when the world around him literally explodes in a deafening and overwhelming clap of continuous thunder and lightning.
The recon element is decimated by the initial volley and the ferocious incoming fire continues unabated for several minutes. Enemy positions are mixed in and around the American's line of march and the Raiders react by firing blindly through their own ranks at virtually every point on the compass.
The resulting chaos prompts screams for a cease fire from Delta's platoon leaders and NCO's. Suddenly the battlefield falls silent. The eerie lull is punctuated only by the groaning and screaming of the wounded and the unnerving, ghostlike voices of the NVA ambushers as they maneuver to profit from the advantage of their stunning surprise.
Reacting to the screams for help and completely of his own initiative, Zwit grabs as many belts of M-60 ammo as he can and then bolts alone through the company position at a dead run, passing entirely through both the first and second platoonís positions in the process. Just beyond the lead elementís forward edge, he comes to a large log blocking the trail and pauses to survey the killing ground ahead of that protective obstacle. The wounded men beyond are screaming for help and Jim is startled to recognize the voice of Paul McKenzie, a man he deeply respects and admires. There is no turning back.
In complete disregard for his own safety, Jim seizes the opportunity offered by the lull and rushes forward to aid the savaged recon element. As he does, the forward elements of the second platoon unleash a storm of covering fire to protect the maneuvering Zwit. 50 meters further down the trail he stumbles upon two bodies and falls to his knees at the feet the first. The man is groaning loudly from the shock of his many wounds and begging for help. It is Paul McKenzie.
Zwit glances at the other body; it lies perfectly still and he knows instinctively the man is beyond help. Squeezing the trigger of his M-60 without pause, Jim sweeps the area around him with a withering stream of incessant fire. When the gun finally exhausts its last cartridge, Jim is greatly puzzled that the enemy greets his full exposure in the kill zone with no apparent opposition. He hears enemy voices to his rear and suddenly realizes he is likely well within the enemyís perimeter and in deep trouble. He also senses the NVAís desire to kill him is only being tempered by the fact their fire might hit their own men.
In one motion, he discards the now useless M-60, lifts the second platoon's beloved leader to his right shoulder and turns back toward the relative safety of his comrades. At that instant, a brilliant flash ends the battle's unnatural interlude. Its attending blast hurls Zwit, together with his fragile cargo, some five meters from the point of impact.
Flattened in a tangled heap with McKenzie still on his back, Jim's eyes open to witness the Lieutenantís last breath, their faces only inches apart. McKenzie's body has apparently taken the full force of a satchel charge thrown at the pitifully vulnerable target presented by the staggering Zwit and his precious load.
In shock, badly wounded and stunned by the explosion, Jim lays in the dark trying to gather together his wits and a plan. He lies perhaps twenty-five meters from the fallen log from which he launched his rescue effort. Bullets buzz the air above his face but Jim is fairly certain the fire is not being directed at him; perhaps the enemy think he is no longer a threat?
The Americans beyond the fallen log recognize Jimís predicament and lay down a base of protective fire. Two among them will make desperate attempts to retrieve their fallen comrade.
Sgt. Kron is the first, crawling forward to Zwitís side armed only with bandages. As Kron is applying a pressure dressing to a jagged hole in Jimís side, an AK round slaps heavily into Kronís stomach. "Oh, Iím hit,í he gasps, pauses and then adds " I gotta go. Iíll send someone back." Leaving only that promise, the badly injured Sgt. drags himself back to Deltaís perimeter.
At that point, Jim decides it prudent to risk calling for help but notices that the flow of blood from a big hole in his right side surges with every yell. It is immediately apparent he will bleed to death if stays put, so gathering all his remaining strength, he tries scooting his body slowly forward, inch by inch, praying the enemy is too preoccupied to notice his progress. The fallen log is his only hope.
Moments later the second attempt is made by Phil Brummitt. Putting aside the animosity that had grown between them in the preceding months, Phil follows Kronís path to Zwit and grabbing him by the collar starts dragging Jim down the trail. As he does, they both hear something crash through the brush at the trailís edge to their right. That ominous sound is followed a second later by a dazzling flash; shrapnel tears into Jimís right leg and foot and slaps Phil to the ground.
Brummitt groans, "Oh God, Iím hit!"
At that moment both men realize their life will be measured in seconds if they do not find cover. As if by cue and despite massive wounds, both spring to their feet simultaneously and stagger the last twenty meters to the face of the fallen log as fast as their Adrenaline and shattered muscles can propel them. As they reach it in a hail of renewed gunfire, eight strong arms reach out from the darkness and unceremoniously yank the two over its crest to the welcome shadow of its safety.
Within moments of collapsing behind the merciful protection of that barrier, Jimís shattered but still living body is being lifted from the heart of the contact toward the center of the Americanís perimeter. Randy Kuziak and Bob Hein are among the four men carrying their comrade to the relative safety of a rock formation situated there.
After gently placing his dying friend behind a large boulder, Hein also helps in the initial attempts to stem the flow of blood from Jim's manifold wounds. Moments later Bob is forced to leave Jim in the hands of the medics and rejoin the desperate melee surrounding them.
During a subsequent lull in the fighting, Hein makes a second trip back to boost the morale of his critically injured friend. First he helps Jim satisfy a searing thirst with precious sips from a canteen, then slaps a fresh magazine into an unattended M-16 lying nearby, cradles it in Jim's arms and with a wink and grin tells Jim to take a few of the enemy with him if the company is overrun. Bob smiles a last reassuring good-bye, then disappears back into the heat of the blast-furnace. It is their last meeting of this life.
Later that evening and under intense enemy fire, only three of the most critically wounded are hoisted from the killing ground via Jungle-Penetrator and redlined to the 85th Evac Hospital in Phu Bai, before the intensity of enemy fire forces a halt to the extraordinary heroism of further Dustoff flights. Jim Zwit is the last of the three.
The isolated and surrounded company will fight for survival throughout the remainder of that terrible, interminable night. When its bedraggled remnants are finally extracted the following morning, Delta is carrying six of its eight dead and eleven of the fourteen wounded it has suffered. Among the dead is Sergeant Robert Charles Hein, a native of Sacramento, California.
Just weeks before Delta's tragic test was to unfold, a premonition of his impending fate had apparently spooked Bob into seeking Zwit's counsel. In an uncharacteristically serious and somber meeting, both had sworn an oath that should one of them die in battle, the other would comfort surviving family members with a detailed accounting of the event. Soon after completing the painful, two-year hospital stay dictated by his wounds, Jim set in motion an impassioned and tireless quest for Heinís family. He was eager to keep the promise but started his journey at great disadvantage for he had lost the Hein family address among many other personal belongings that failed to follow him home from Vietnam.
His initial calls to Hein listings in Sacramento's phone directory uncovered not a whisper of encouragement. From time to time over the next seventeen years, Jim repeated that effort but to no avail. Discouraged, but not defeated, he felt a resurgence of hope in the fall of 1988, after reading an article in MILITARY Magazine that highlighted a Sacramento TV personality named Stan Atkinson, then heavily involved in the campaign to build California's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Jim wrote Stan in care of Sacramentoís NBC affiliate, and Atkinson in turn passed the letter along to the Memorial Commission.
Mike Kelley, an associate member of the Commission, had developed a reputation for successful detective work in reuniting Vietnam War comrades and it was Stan's intent that Kelley be given the responsibility of researching Jim's request. After exhausting every immediate avenue of locating the Heins, including the property tax records common to his profession as a property appraiser, Kelley decided to plumb the depths of Zwit's memory in hopes of giving the search a new direction. Mike picked up the phone late one sunny, November, afternoon and dialed Jimís Chicago number. This was to be their first ever contact.
At the outset of the conversation neither Zwit nor Kelley had an inkling of the impending implications of their casual conversation. Zwit related that his memory was blank to any details about Hein's background and that all written information about Hein had disappeared with Jim's personal belongings soon after his wounding. That avenue explored unsuccessfully, the conversation soon turned its focus to the personal recollections of both participants.
Kelley mentioned that his own, 1969-70, Vietnam tour had been with Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry, a sister element of the same 101st Airborne Division Brigade to which Jimís Delta, 2d Battalion, 501st Infantry had belonged. As it became apparent their Vietnam vacations had much in common, the exchange became progressively more animated with laughter and reminiscence as the minutes passed.
Both their units had been headquartered at Camp Hockmuth, near Phu Bai, and both had walked many of the same firebases and jungle covered trails southwest of Hue. They were soon much at ease with one another and enthralled by the parallels in their combat experience.
Zwit went on to describe in detail the horrific action of April 15, 1971, noting that his medevac rescue had terminated at the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Phu Bai. Given almost no chance at surviving the day, it was, said Zwit, the supreme effort of one surgeon at the 85th that saved his life. "That's interesting," offered Kelley, "I was medevaced to the 85th when I got hit in September, '70, and a Doc there saved my butt too."
"Well I'll be damned," responded the surprised Zwit. "You're not going to believe this, Kelley, but an hour and a half from now I'm going to have dinner with the same Surgeon who worked on me the night I got hit."
"You've got to be kidding!" came Mike's hushed response, as he reeled in the shock of the revelation and the anticipation rushing through his mind as Jim continued to explain that he and the good doctor had developed a strong friendship; that this doctor had even continued his care for Jim long after both had left the service. "I remember my surgeonís name. Maybe yours knows how I can get in touch with mine, Jim? What's this guyís name?"
"Charlie Carroll," responded Zwit, his voice painted with obvious affection. It was a name familiar to Mike.
"Oh my God," gasped the astonished Kelley, "thatís the same Doc who saved me at when I got hit!" In the stunned silence that followed, Mike recalls feeling faint, the room spinning in vertigo. Struck speechless by Jimís innocent announcement, it felt as though heíd stumbled into another dimension on some distant planet. The unfolding events simply defied comprehension.
Of the 250 million people in America he could have called that fateful night, Kelley somehow managed to dial the only one having dinner with the surgeon who had saved both their lives in Vietnam some 18 years earlier. And while Mike and Jim sat there some thousand miles apart, joined together by providence and the shared memories of that long ago war, little did they realize the Hein search had yet another, equally startling surprise in store for them.
Two hours later, Kelley and Dr. Carroll were reminiscing about a very tumultous day in September, 1970. It had been eighteen long, hard years since their last conversation; eighteen years since the winds of good fortune had first thrown them together.
Though Mike remembered Charlie vividly, Carroll could only vaguely recall Kelley through Mikeís description of the surgical procedures employed that day. Under the intense pressures of a combat-trauma surgical war, surgeons are much too preoccupied with the inner workings of their patients for the luxury of putting a name to the blur of faces passing through their care and Charlie was anxious the gap in memory might disappoint his former patient. He could not know the gift of joy his familiar voice had brought to Michael; nor that Mike could not have been more happy or content with other than that gift alone.
* * *
In the weeks following his joyous union with Carroll and Zwit, Kelley spent much of his spare time frustrated by a feverish but unsuccessful search to unearth a path to the Hein family for Jim. Having exhausted every obvious resource, Mike advised Stan Atkinson that from all indications, only an appeal by Stan on the air at KCRA might offer hope. Without hesitation, Stan offered to work the request into an upcoming broadcast.
On the Sunday following their conversation but before Stan was able to prepare a public appeal, the phone rang in Kelley's studio. The caller was former Marine, Doug Durham, a friend who chaired the Memorial Commission's Dedication Committee. Doug wanted to continue discussions related to details of the rapidly approaching dedication ceremony. At issue was the content of one of several letters home written by Californiaís fallen sons, and selected for reading read as part of that important event.
An excerpt from this particular letter, written just before the author's death, contained reference to a new found appreciation by its author for college students back home protesting Americaís involvement in Vietnam.. Several members of the commission felt the passage was inflammatory and wanted it deleted, while Mike and Doug were planning its vigorous defense to ensure the wide spectrum of opinion common to the veterans of their war be given fair balance. Kelley's copy was absent the author's name and he was unaware that Doug had submitted the original text for consideration.
As the conversation approached its conclusion, Doug's thoughts turned to some personal notes. "You know my brother-in-law is flying down from Alaska for this thing, don't you?"
Mike ackowledged he'd heard that, and asked why the brother-in-law felt compelled to make such an arduous and lengthy journey. "Well," continued Durham, "it's very important to him. A friend of his named Bob Hein was killed in his platoon and he's coming back to escort Hein's Mother to the dedication. In fact, this letter we're talking about is from Hein to his..."
"What did you say his friend's name was?" Mike interrupted, not believing his ears.
"Bob Hein," repeated Doug. "That mean something to you?"
Jim Zwit's poignant, seventeen-year odyssey had finally come to an end.
Told of the stupendous significance of his revelation, Doug immediately alerted his brother-in-law, Pat Condron, and Pat in turn, blew Zwit's mind with a late-night call. Jim was soon hastily scribbling down the phone number and address of Bob Hein's Mother, Mrs. Catherine Hein-Markley, then 78 years of age and still living in Sacramento. Catherine had remarried not long after Bob's death and her new married name had road-blocked the search all those frustrating years.
During their long, heartrending conversation, Condron related the poignant facts of his own relationship with Hein. They had also been close friends and not long before the big battle, both volunteered for Helicopter Door-gunner School as a remedy for the boredom of every-day, infantry life. Just two days prior to Bob's death, their transfer orders came down but Bob had a second thoughts and elected instead to remain with the platoon. Condron stuck with his decision and moved on to the school. With that choice, Pat was to inherit more than his share of guilt and remorse for not having been with the company during its trial by fire.
Early the next morning, Zwit finally kept his sworn promise in a tear-filled and wondrous call to Bob's mother. As Jim and Catherine shared their many memories of her son, Catherine mentioned that Bob had been awarded a medal for valor because shortly before his death he'd exposed himself to heavy fire in order to help carry a wounded comrade to safety.
"Mrs., Hein," Jim Zwit told her quietly, "I'm the guy he carried back."
The dedication ceremony for California's Vietnam Veterans Memorial took place on December 10, 1988. Attending were Jim Zwit, Catherine Hein-Markley, Mike Kelley, Pat Condron and Doug Durham. It seems fair to say theirs proved to be one of the warmest reunions of that memorable, sun-splashed day.
Sacramento, CA 95817
below are links to more
Hill 100 | Delta Raiders Overrun Outpost | Infantry, Arty Chew Up NVA Unit
Going Home | Heavy Fighting Near Bastogne | Hill 805, A First Sergeant Remembers
The Introduction | Across The River & Into... | Raiders "Lighten The Load"
You should know Joe Hooper | Most decorated soldier dies | The List
Airborne Trooper Saves Girl | Flashback | Night Sweats | 'Grunt' More Than A Name
Delta Raiders Ambushed Near Firebase Bastogne | To My Dad on Veterans Day